Sappho and the New Victorians


The New Yorker, which I gave up much as a heroin addict gives up his horse, has a great piece on Sappho (since we’re all in a retrospective mood), despite the neo-Victorianism, which declares you can’t NOT have sex of all flavors and stripes and be considered normal, and the faux-sexual sophistication that starts the piece – note, in particular, the usual and tritely libelous assumptions about the Church and her understanding of sexuality.

I found this in particular of note:

Indeed, the vision of Sappho as a solitary figure pouring out her heart in the women’s quarters of a nobleman’s mansion is a sentimental anachronism—a projection, like so much of our thinking about her, of our own habits and institutions onto the past. In “Sappho and Alcaeus,” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Victorian painter much given to lush re-creations of scenes from Greek antiquity, the Poetess and four diaphanously clad, flower-wreathed acolytes relax in a charming little performance space, enraptured as the male bard sings and plays, as if he were a Beat poet in a Telegraph Hill café. But Lardinois and others have argued that many, if not most, of Sappho’s poems were written to be performed by choruses on public occasions. In some lyrics, the speaker uses the first-person plural “we”; in others, she uses the plural “you” to address a group—presumably the chorus, who danced as she sang. (Even when Sappho uses the first-person singular, it doesn’t mean she was singing solo: in Greek tragedy the chorus, which numbered fifteen singers, regularly uses “I.”)

Our Sappho remains, of course, “swallowed in the wake” of her own reputation, but I think the author shows a remarkable insight about the Greek understanding of the individual as a concept which really has little currency until the coming of Christ – and that wicked Church he founded which sought to stifle the poor gal once and for all… The observation also, incidentally, may help to explain why Aristotle didn’t think to say much about lyric poetry in his Poetics.


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