Sappho’s Fragment 31


Fragment 31
by Sappho
translated by Willis Barnstone

To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
go close to death,

yet, being poor, must suffer

The ancient literary critic Longinus is the only reason we have this fragment, one of Sappho’s longest surviving works. (Though she was a fairly prolific and well collected writer in ancient times.) Longinus quoted this fragment to show the ecstasy of its lyric, attaining a sublime pitch through reproducing the almost diagnostic details that accompanied her experienced emotion.  The following is from Longinus’ work, “On The Sublime”.

“Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.” (Longinus, On the Sublime).

In a book review by Edith Hall in the NY Review of Books, she says, “public access to Sappho’s poem was widened by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s French translation of Longinus (1674). Running through more than twenty editions by 1740, and published in English translation in 1711, Boileau’s Longinus put sublimity at the center of literary debate and laid the foundation-stone of the invention of aesthetics as a discrete philosophical field by Burke and Kant.”

One could then make a case that the lyric ecstasy of Sappho, presented historically by Longinus and Boileau, managed to exert a strong influence on the emotional shape of the Enlightenment and Romantic literary and philosophical periods, as well as the Victorian era and it has not died out yet I am sure. This influence is summed by the word, sublime, but takes strange shapes, from grand and terrifying landscapes, to Yeats’ tragic joy.

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