Reviewing A Sappho 31 Poem English Literature Essay
Sappho’s poem 31 has proven to be one of the most complex poems to interpret, based on the fact that there is no firm consensus present in the voluminous literature on it. In the poem, Sappho watches a man’s reaction to her beloved and admires his self-control which is so different from her own. The second stanza’ description of her symptoms of infatuation which reveal passionate love are well understood by scholars. However, what makes the general interpretation so difficult is the unknown identity of ‘that man’, and the role he plays in the poem. A major source of disagreement among scholars is focused on Sappho’s alleged jealousy of ‘that man’. E.g. Sappho’s emotions in the second stanza are stirred by jealousy at the sight of her (girl)friend intimately conversing with a man. Possibly the strongest advocate of this theory is Sir Denys L. Page who in his 1955 commentary observes the poem as an ‘outburst of emotions’ connected to human nature’s response (jealousy) to the situation described. On the other hand, William D Furley analyzes in his 2000 commentary the described emotions to Sappho’s love for the girl as being part of ‘normal’ circumstances. E.g. the man who is enjoying her affection is simply extremely blessed (‘like the gods’), thus, no jealousy theme is incorporated.
This essay will make a comparison between these two different interpretations regarding the description of Sappho’s love being focused on ‘jealous love’, or ‘normal love’ and to what extent the role of ‘that man’ differs in the interpretations.
First of all, Page’s interpretation is immediately focused on the interpretative obstacle of understanding the relation of the man to the girl and Sappho. Page recognizes that the man is the principle subject of the first stanza, and he interprets this by saying “if Sappho wishes to describe nothing more than the symptoms of her passion for the girl, what motive could she have for connecting that description thus closely to an occasion when the girl is engaged in merry conversation with a man (Page p. 28)”. Consequently, Page’s reasoning continues that the occasion must have had some significance which, according to him, makes it impossible to exclude jealousy from Sappho’s response (Page p. 28). In other words, Sappho sounds as if she loves the girl, and the poem gives the impression that the girl is not particularly interested in Sappho at that time, the man however, rejoices in the girl’s laughter and converse. With this argumentation, Page concludes that Sappho has to be jealous of the man, because according to human nature, people have to respond like this in this kind of described situation (Page p. 28). Overall, not acknowledging this situation would “deprive the introduction of the man and his relation to the girl, of all significance (Page p. 28)”. In my opinion, Page seems to draw a quick conclusion on information that is not clearly present in the poem’s text. Sappho never expresses jealousy directly, she merely sets the scene. This also makes Page’s argument of ‘human nature’s reaction’ not very solid with it only being there to make his interpretation fit the text. This same kind of reasoning applies for his next argument in which he deals with Sappho’s emotions ((But I- My heart explodes line 5, My voice is gone, line 6 etc) and how they are ‘symptoms of the passion of love’ which Page directly relates to jealousy. He elaborates on this by comparing Homeric Epic emotions (fear, anger, sorrow, pain) with Sappho’s more personal ones, explaining this by stating that Homeric emotions are often “assimilated in Epic dialect and style, while Sappho’s vernacular resists those influences, thus her language is her own (Page p. 29)”. Thus, this use of more personal language strengthens Sappho’s description of her emotions, relating back to the ‘passion of love’ Sappho has for the girl, and resulting in jealousy of ‘that man’.
Page’s reasoning can be considered as being too focused on the ‘jealousy hypothesis’, consequently it seems as if he cannot see the bigger picture of the poem anymore. In other words, Page has to take more distance from his own preconceptions in order to analyze the poem in a more objective way.
To summarize Page’s arguments, Sappho’s use of personal language, her use of the man as a principle subject in the first stanza and the role of human nature in the described situation are the three arguments that Page put forward in his ‘jealousy hypothesis’. However, one has to take into account that his translation of the poem supports his interpretation. For example, Page leaves out the ‘godlike’ ability of ‘that man’, because he has translated it to ‘fortunate’ ability, evidently, he also pays less attention to the mysterious identity of ‘that man’. In contrast, William D Furley uses a translation which acknowledges the ‘godlike’ ability in order to underline Sappho’s predicament being excluded from jealousy.
Just as Page’s, Furley’s interpretation immediately pays attention to the presence of the mysterious man. According to Furley, the man’s ability to maintain his self-control is said to be part of his ‘godlike’ status which is related to the definition of ‘godlike’ in epic: the label of being a brave warrior who could fight like an Appolo or Ares (Furley p.13) . He further labels this as being a “rhetorical device serving to heighten the listeners awareness of the girl’s beauty and make him sympathize with Sappho’s succumbing to it (Furley, p. 13)”. In other words, using the epic expression, ‘only a god would not fall helplessly in love with the girl (Furley p. 13)’. Furley then makes the strong argument that the introduction of the man is merely a tool (‘priamel or foil’) to emphasize on Sappho’s own condition (Furley p. 14). Thus, the man is indeed real in the described situation, but takes on a purely formal role. He concludes that there are no agonizing love-triangles nor is jealousy present by stating that Sappho’s emotions become much more sincere by the introduction of this man or ‘mock hero’ who can resist the girl’s beauty (Furley p. 14). In other words, had Sappho only mentioned her physical symptoms of passion then the impact of her situation would have been less ‘sad’ for the audience (Furley p. 14). Overall, the presence of “that man helps Sappho’s dramatization of the effect of a loved girl’s beauty to serve both Sappho’s sensitivity and intensity of her passion (Furley p. 15)”. To summarize Furley’s argumentation, he rejects the jealousy hypothesis by emphasizing on the compositional element of ‘that man’ and how his presence strengthens Sappho’s emotions under ‘normal love’ conditions. Taking this more theoretical stance to the interpretation seems more convincing, as it takes a step back from one’s emotional preconceptions of Sappho’s situation. This makes his argumentation seem less subjective, yet it also allows for new appraisal.
Consequently, I tend to favor Furley’s argumentation, because he tries to explain the role of ‘that man’ on a more detailed compositional level for it being a rhetorical device. Page acknowledges that the man only appears in the first stanza, but at the same time he is reluctant to focus his argumentation on something else besides jealousy, thus limiting his viewpoint. In addition, basing the interpretation of the poem on ‘human nature’ seems a bit superficial, however, it might relate back to the 1950’s social codes or preconceptions of relationships.
Moreover, Page did not fully take into account that Sappho’s emotions are never directly expressed toward ‘that man’, but merely toward herself which makes Furley’s argumentation more plausible. Although, his interpretation might not tell the audience everything about the poem, in my opinion it reveals nicely what the poem is not about. Jealousy of a rival is never specifically stated in the poem which makes it also difficult to understand how Page later on in his article could refute Wilamowitz’s interpretation of a wedding scene, because not one single word suggests a marriage, while both hypotheses (marriage and jealousy) encounter the same difficulty: there is no clear evidence of it in the poem. As a result, Furley’s ‘normal love’ situation also appears to be more plausible.
Unfortunately, both Page’s and Furley’s interpretations pay no real attention to the generality of the poem. Whereas, Sappho specifically mentions the name of Anactoria in fragment 16, line 12 there are no proper names or references of time and place indicated in this poem. Thus, it could have been interesting to encounter a comparison between the content of this poem and Sappho’s other poems.
To conclude, both Furley and Page made a great contribution to the secondary literature on Sappho 31, but Page’s interpretation seems to be too outdated to be relevant anymore. Furley’s interpretation appears to be a solid one with its theoretical framework. As a result, I have taken Furley’s interpretation into account in the creation of my own interpretation of the poem: reading the poem as a statement of a lover who wants to emphasize the beauty of her beloved.
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