Sappho's Poetry and Interpretation


By Nancy Puder & Darcy Hicks


Poem #2:

Once upon a time, I loved you, Atthis,
yes, long ago.....
even when I thought of you as a small
and graceless child...

Translated by: Josephine Balmer


Image taken from Jane Palm-Gold's World AIDS Day Exhibition "Loving and Living"

This picture is relevant because the poem describes the difficulties of love, being a lesbian must be difficult and it is shown that Sappho was a lesbian. This picture portrays two lesbians in love.


Once upon a time… like a fairy tale. Is it real, is it not real? Love, is it real? Can love exist in a world of make believe? Does love exist amongst the human world? Do we need to express love in a fairy tale type way to really believe that it exists? So that maybe one day we will not be hurt by falling in love? Or so that falling in love will always have a happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after, like in every fairy tale?
Yes, long ago… a reaffirmation of time. Why? Maybe to convince oneself that love no longer exists for Atthis or perhaps to state age? The fact that long ago was when Sappho and Atthis were children, expressing the childhood love affair. The love at first sight the first love, one that grows forever.
A small and graceless child… how can one fall in love with someone small and graceless? How can one use such words to describe the one that they love? One without grace…are they able to be noticed in a world of make believe? The one who stumbles and fumbles through the made up land of love, the virgin, the beginner, is this the one who captures the eye of the great Sappho for a lifetime?

Poem #4

Honest, I want to die, she said to me.
Ahe was in tears when she went away,
Said to me not once but many times:
Sappho, why must we suffer so?
It's not by choice; I don't want to leave you here.
And I , this is what I said to answer her:
Farewell. Go in peace. But remember me.
Don't ever forget how well I took care of you.
If you do, let me recall to you
All the good days we had together,
The wreaths you wore, of roses and violets
As we lay side by side, the necklaces
Woven for flowers to drape your soft shoulders,
The perfume, precious, fit for royalty
How much you used, to anoint yourself!
The soft bed (where) you would satisfy...desire...

Translated by: Bernard Knox

Daumier's "The Death of Sappho," taken from the mythology gallery at the Kantonsschule Zürcher Unterland

We chose this picture because the interpretation talks about changing phases in a person's life and this picture can be thought of as a woman taking a leap into a new part of her life. There are many changes and challenges that she will have to face along the way.


Sappho's poetry seems to express the emotions of changing phases in a person's life. As a person experiences growing up they go through many changes. Some of these transitions may come easier than others. As people, we experience the hardships of adolescence, the awkward phases of high shcool, the rude awakening of college, and then the real world.Then, things start to finally settle down and marriage usually comes next which is supposed to be a joyous time. In Sappho's poem, this does not appear to be the case. Poem number four can be seen to express the sadness that women feel as they make the transition into marriage. We feel from these poems that marriage was more of a hardship than we think of it today in our society. The poem states, "Sappho, why must we suffer so?" Leaving a life of friendship into a life long partnership is considered suffering? This is quite unusual from what we normally think of a marriage to be. I think the poem suggests that women's relationships together were stronger and more satisfying than any relationship could ever be between a man and a woman. It seems as if the joining of a man and a woman into marriage is just something that is "supposed" to happen. Women don't neccessarily want to go off and get married but for whatever reason, may it be reproduction, or any other reason, women have to be married eventually. The part in the poem where it reads, "It's not by choice, I don't want to leave you here, " gave me that impression. If they were forced into marriage for reasons out of their control, would they choose to marry if they weren't forced to? Maybe they would just choose to be perfectly happy with friendships. They don't neccessarily have to be married to someone to be happy and taken care of. The poem shows that women are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves without the aid of a male. Is it trying to say that women are helpless and are not capable of caring for themselves without the help of a male? The poem reads, "Don't ever forget how well I took care of you." These women were perfectly capable of surving without the male's help. I can only imagine that these women fear the thought of marriage because they are treated as slaves by their husbands. My opinion is that marriage was a horrible thing because the poem talks about how the woman wanted to die portraying that marriage was not a pleasant experience as we imagine that it should be. Also, I wondered why it seemed that marriage was something that had to happen and I thought that it had to be beacause men, as it has always seemed to be, dominate over women. Maybe women were given no choice in the matter and the men just got to decide who they would marry. Like in other countries where there are fixed marriages, the women in these poems could have been picked by men to be married and they could do nothing about it but agree to it and go along with it, unhappy for the rest of their lives. Their say did not count no matter what. For if this is the case, it would make sense why these women are so fearful of leaving eachother. Marriage is not the beautiful fairy tale our society makes it out to be. Marriage to them is something they would rather die than engage in.

Poem #12

Percussion, salt and honey,
A quivering in the thighs;
He shakes me all over again,
Eros who cannot be thrown,
Who stalks on all fours
Like a beast.

Translated by: Guy Davenport

Image taken from the Beazley Archive (Oxford)

This picture was chosen because it is the picture of the man mentioned in the poem, Eros. He is obviously the man who is giving the orgasm and cannot be thrown from rythm. Eros is also thought of to be like cupid in the Ancient Greek world.


The description of an orgasm? The orgasm as seen through the insides and eyes of a woman. The onset is the percussion, the sound of two cymbals crashing together—a collision of reality and the world of ecstasy. When these two worlds meet there is nothing but a feeling of floating on the reverb of the cymbals. The mini orgasms after the big one. The reverb or waves that you ride back to the reality. A reality that is bittersweet. Salt and honey. Bittersweet reality in many ways. One, the orgasm is gone and you are back to a world where salt is constantly poured on to wounds and never used as cautiously or tenderly as honey is used. Honey—such a delicate, sweet taste. Think of all the hard work that goes into making honey as compared to granules of salt. Granules—uncomfortable, sting, violation.
A quivering in the thighs—one of two things. One, multiple orgasms. The orgasm that continues through the reverb of the cymbals crashing—that you can feel in your thighs, because it made you quiver. Or two, fatigue. The fatigue that one feels from laying in the same position for so long—the muscles vibrate from fatigue. Showing that the orgasm has taken everything out of you—the fatigue brought on by the return to reality.
Then we move on through to a more bitter than sweet world where one realizes that the orgasm is over and sex is no longer enjoyable, where one wants sex to cease. But the man has yet to reach orgasm. He continues to pillage over the woman, banging her, tearing her, like a beast, with all of his might. The man who cannot be thrown from his rhythm, has he reached his world of ecstasy yet? Is this why one cannot throw him?
I sense fear, or maybe even an urge for less animalistic sex in reality, but more riding of the wave in a gentle reverb fashion in the world of ecstasy. One might, also find intrest in Poem #7 for further insight into the jealousy and erotic nature of Sappho's poetry. Also, a strong reference to orgasms in this poem.

Interesting Links!!!

Sappho's Poetry

This link would be good to go to because it gives information about poetry during Sappho's era that can be compared to her poetry. Also, you can find out more about the Island of Lesbos (Where she lived!)

Eros: The Greek God of Love

This link provides information about Eros, the love god, and many explanations as why he is considered the love god!

The Isle of Lesbos

This is an excellent link to explore interests of lesbian poetry or how lesbians have been traced throughout history. There are poems and images too!

Links to Others' pages

The Language of love and hate in Antigone

(You would like this page because it talks about how women were supposed to follow the rules of men. Maybe that is why Sappho was a lesbian.)

Marriage in Ancient Greek Culture

(Another classmate's interpretation of Sappho's poetry after C101. It takes a different twist on girlhood and womanhood.)

The Diseased households in the Odyssey

(This link is about marriage and would be a good one to take a look at and compare to our interpretation of poem #4.)