Sappho speaks

Mary Beard

  • The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome by Jane McIntosh Snyder
    Bristol Classical Press, 199 pp, £25.00, May 1989, ISBN 1 85399 062 0
  • The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece by J.J. Winkler
    Routledge, 240 pp, £30.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 415 90122 7
  • Greek Virginity by Giulia Sissa, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Harvard, 240 pp, $29.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 674 36320 5

‘It is against the nature of things that a woman who has given herself up to unnatural and inordinate practices ... should be able to write in perfect obedience to the laws of vocal harmony, imaginative portrayal, and arrangement of the details of thought.’ For David Robinson, writing in the Twenties and reprinted in the Sixties, the ‘perfection’ of Sappho’s verse was clear enough proof of her unblemished character. He was perhaps unusual in his unshakable confidence that (at least in the case of female writers) fine poetry could be found only in association with fine morals: but in other respects he was merely part of that great scholarly tradition that has attempted to rescue Sappho from the implications of her own writing – from the implication, in particular, that she enjoyed the physical love of other women. So, for example, even some recent critics have sought to portray her as a primarily religious figure, the leader of a cult of young girls devoted to the goddess Aphrodite. Others, with a yet more extreme capacity for fantasy, have seen her as some kind of female professor or headmistress, instructing her young charges in poetry, in music, even perhaps in the techniques of sensual pleasure that they would need in their future life as wives.

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