'To Aphrodite' by Sappho

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You know the place: then
Leave Crete and come to us
waiting where the grove is
pleasantest, by precincts

sacred to you; incense
smokes on the altar, cold
streams murmur through the

apple branches, a young
rose thicket shades the ground
and quivering leaves pour

down deep sleep; in meadows
where horses have grown sleek
among spring flowers, dill

scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!
Fill our gold cups with love
stirred into clear nectar

tr. Barnard

Editor 1 Interpretation

Sappho's To Aphrodite: A Masterpiece of Love Poetry

Sappho, the Greek lyric poetess of the 7th century BCE, is renowned for her exquisite love poetry that celebrates the beauty, passion, and intimacy of romantic relationships between women. Among her surviving works, To Aphrodite is one of the most haunting and evocative, a hymn to the goddess of love that reflects the poet's own yearning for affection and fulfillment. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, language, structure, and imagery of Sappho's To Aphrodite, and analyze its significance in the history of poetry and gender studies.

The Themes of To Aphrodite

To Aphrodite is a love poem that revolves around the main theme of desire, both erotic and spiritual. The speaker, who is believed to be Sappho herself, addresses the goddess of love, asking her for help in winning the love of a woman who has rejected her. The language and imagery of the poem suggest that the speaker is deeply infatuated with this woman, and is willing to do anything to win her heart. However, the poem is not only about physical attraction or lust, but also about emotional connection, trust, and vulnerability. The speaker's plea to Aphrodite is not a mere request for sexual gratification, but a plea for love in its fullest sense, a love that transcends physical pleasure and leads to spiritual union.

The poem also touches on the theme of power, particularly the power dynamic between the lover and the beloved. The speaker acknowledges that she is the weaker party in the relationship, and that her beloved has the upper hand. She begs Aphrodite to intervene and change the lover's heart, to make her love the speaker as much as she loves her. This imbalance of power is a common theme in love poetry, as it reflects the social and cultural norms of the time, where women were often subjugated and dependent on men for their survival and status. However, Sappho's poem challenges this norm by portraying a love relationship between women that is not defined by male domination or patriarchy, but by mutual attraction and emotional reciprocity.

The Language and Structure of To Aphrodite

To Aphrodite is written in the Aeolic dialect of ancient Greek, which was spoken in Lesbos, the island where Sappho lived and composed her works. The language of the poem is rich and musical, with a rhythmic flow that echoes the natural cadence of spoken language. The poem is composed of three stanzas, each consisting of six lines, with a repeating refrain in the first and third stanzas. The structure of the poem is simple yet effective, with each stanza building on the previous one, and the final stanza reaching a climax of emotional intensity.

The language of the poem is characterized by vivid imagery, metaphors, and similes that evoke the sensory and emotional experience of desire. For example, the first stanza begins with the image of the speaker's heart pounding with fear and longing, like a "sparrow that has fallen from the sky and is caught in a snare." This image conveys the sense of helplessness and vulnerability that the speaker feels, as she is at the mercy of her beloved's whims. The second stanza introduces the metaphor of fire, which represents both the speaker's passion and her pain. She compares herself to a "burning flame" that consumes her from within, and begs Aphrodite to "quench the flame" and relieve her suffering. The third stanza shifts to a more hopeful tone, as the speaker expresses her faith in Aphrodite's power and wisdom, and prays for her help and guidance.

The Imagery of To Aphrodite

The imagery of To Aphrodite is sensual and erotic, yet also delicate and subtle. Sappho's use of metaphor and simile creates a rich tapestry of sensual and emotional associations that enhance the power of the poem. One of the most striking images in the poem is that of the "rosy-fingered moon" that rises above the sea, casting its magical light on the speaker's troubled heart. This image is both romantic and melancholic, suggesting the speaker's yearning for union with her beloved, even as she suffers from her rejection.

Another powerful image in the poem is that of the "bitter-sweet" taste of love, which the speaker compares to a "honeyed poison." This image captures the contradictory nature of desire, which can bring both pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. The speaker's use of the word "poison" suggests the danger and risk involved in love, as well as the potential for transformation and growth.

The use of animal imagery is also prominent in the poem, particularly the image of the sparrow that is trapped in a snare. This image conveys the sense of captivity and entrapment that the speaker feels, as she is unable to escape the grip of her desire. The image of the "burning flame" is also animalistic, suggesting the speaker's primal and intense passion for her beloved.

The Significance of To Aphrodite

To Aphrodite is a powerful and timeless work of poetry that has inspired generations of readers and writers. Its significance lies in its celebration of love and desire as natural and essential aspects of human experience, regardless of gender, orientation, or social status. The poem challenges the conventional norms of gender and sexuality, and portrays a love relationship between women that is characterized by mutuality, equality, and emotional depth.

To Aphrodite also reflects the cultural and historical context in which it was written, namely the vibrant and cosmopolitan world of ancient Greece, where poetry and music were highly valued forms of artistic expression. Sappho was a prominent member of this world, and her poetry reflects the tensions and contradictions of her time, as well as the joys and sorrows of human existence.

Finally, To Aphrodite is a masterpiece of poetic language and form, a work of art that transcends time and place, and speaks directly to our hearts and souls. Its lyricism, imagery, and emotional power have made it one of the most beloved and enduring love poems in the history of literature, and a testament to the enduring power of love and desire.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry To Aphrodite: A Masterpiece of Love and Devotion

Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess, is known for her lyrical poetry that celebrates the beauty of love and desire. Among her many works, Poetry To Aphrodite stands out as a masterpiece of devotion and passion. This poem, written in the Aeolic dialect, is a hymn to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and expresses the poet's longing for her divine presence.

The poem begins with an invocation to Aphrodite, the "golden-throned" goddess who "weaves sweet enchantments" and "brings grace to every hour." Sappho addresses her as "Kypris," the name by which the goddess was known in Cyprus, her birthplace. The poet's use of epithets and allusions to Aphrodite's mythology sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is filled with images of beauty, desire, and longing.

In the second stanza, Sappho describes her own emotional state, which is one of intense longing and desire. She says that she is "pierced by longing" and "trembling with love," and that her heart is "fluttering" like a bird. These images convey the intensity of the poet's emotions and her vulnerability in the face of her desire for Aphrodite.

The third stanza is a plea to the goddess to come to the poet's aid. Sappho asks Aphrodite to "come to me now" and to "loose me from the bonds of this sorrow." The poet's use of the word "sorrow" suggests that her longing for Aphrodite is causing her pain and that she needs the goddess's help to overcome it.

In the fourth stanza, Sappho describes the gifts that she will offer to Aphrodite if the goddess grants her request. She promises to "weave a garland of violets" and to "adorn [Aphrodite's] altar with roses." These gifts are symbols of the poet's devotion and her desire to please the goddess.

The fifth stanza is a reflection on the power of love and desire. Sappho says that "love has shaken my senses" and that she is "mad with desire." She compares her state to that of a ship caught in a storm, tossed about by the waves. This image conveys the idea that love and desire can be overwhelming and uncontrollable, like the forces of nature.

In the sixth stanza, Sappho returns to her plea to Aphrodite. She asks the goddess to "come to me now" and to "bring me relief from my pain." The repetition of this request emphasizes the poet's desperation and her need for the goddess's help.

The seventh stanza is a reflection on the nature of desire. Sappho says that "desire is sweet" but that it can also be "bitter." She compares it to honey, which is sweet to the taste but can also cause pain if consumed in excess. This image conveys the idea that desire, like honey, can be both pleasurable and dangerous.

In the eighth and final stanza, Sappho expresses her hope that Aphrodite will hear her plea and come to her aid. She says that if the goddess grants her request, she will "sing [her] praises" and "make [her] name known to all." This final image conveys the idea that the poet's devotion to Aphrodite is not just a personal matter but a public one, and that her love for the goddess is something that she wants to share with others.

Overall, Poetry To Aphrodite is a powerful expression of love and devotion. Sappho's use of vivid imagery and emotional language conveys the intensity of her feelings and her longing for the goddess. The poem is a testament to the enduring power of love and desire, and to the human need for connection and transcendence.

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