Sunday, 14 June 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re lost for words
If Sappho has come to be seen as one of the great poets of female desire, then she is also the embodiment of silence; for all but a few tantalising fragments remain of the writer described by Plato as ‘the tenth Muse’. There is only one complete poem (the ‘Ode to Aphrodite’), as much of her work was lost in the ninth century, with just the occasional scrap of papyrus subsequently unearthed to supplement the surviving texts quoted by other ancient authors. The most famous is Fragment 31, a poem that gives word to the wordlessness of love, and shape to a state of speechless incoherence.
Sappho’s inability to speak in the presence of her beloved has been translated in a number of different ways from the original Greek text – “I have no longer power to speak”; “no speaking is left in me”; “my tongue keeps silence” – and there are numerous interpretations of who, and how, Sappho loved. Inevitably, her gender and sexuality has absorbed critics, despite the attempts of Victorian classicists to explain away her relationships with other women as that of the sensible headmistress of a girls’ school (although Queen Victoria’s sketch of Sappho poised to leap from a cliff top is an intriguing expression of passion and loss, particularly as the face in the drawing looks rather like Her Majesty). But perhaps it is Sappho’s mysteriousness – the manner in which she has become emblematic of the unknown -- that continues to speak to us, because, like love, she defies understanding.
The final line of Fragment 31 is not the last line – it breaks off, and is lost, just as the speaker in the poem disintegrates, as if she is losing her self. This is both tormenting and enticing for the reader; emotions that are integral to the subject of the poem, and to the human capacity to yearn for what we cannot have, to possess that which eludes us.
In an era when we are bombarded with speech – it buzzes around us, filling our ears and eyes – and constant instructions that it is ‘good to talk’, Sappho’s poetry survives as evidence, however fragmentary, that silence is powerful, even if it feels unbearable, nor should it be feared in a quest to find the right words.