"Awed by her splendor
Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver."
Maternal Images Through Poetry
As is the case with the works of many writers, Sappho's poetry
reflects her personality and the innovative way in which she expresses her
feelings towards the young women she taught. When involved in a religious
community dedicated to Aphrodite, Sappho taught her female students how
to write poetry along with other fundamental aspects of life - much like
a mother would to her children. Along with her emotional expression,
Sappho uses her poetry as a teaching tool, giving advice to her students
about how they should act and what to expect from life. Sappho's
intention was to teach through verse, facilitated by her use of colloquial
language and the harp, which were two media that were unused before
Sappho incorporated them into her work (Barnard, p. 102). There are four
themes in Sappho's poems, aside from those she composed for weddings and
ritual prayers she wrote to the goddess Aphrodite. These themes include:
advice, her personal feelings towards society and life, her romantic
feelings towards some of her students, and her expression of the
relationship between Sappho and her students which can be interpreted
as a kind of mother/child relationship.
In her poetry there is evidence that upper-class women were intellectually
independent of men and even though they were expected to marry as soon as
possible and have children, they were also expected to have a well-rounded
education. The qualities that made a woman desirable to marry were her
knowledge of music, dancing, seduction and charm; these things were what
gave women "personality" or at least the ability to express themselves
(Cantarella, p. 72). Since Sappho's poetry was written for a female
audience about problems they confronted, her works show that women were
not only passive and observant of a male-dominated society, but they
also had their own views and judgments of the events that occurred in life
(Barnstone, p. 175). Unfortunately, due to the decline in the importance
of education during the medieval period, "the papyrus scrolls were eventually torn into strips,
crosswise of the roll, lengthwise of the poem, and pasted together to form cartonage coffins....
Other strips were wadded and stuffed into the mouth of mummified crocodiles." (Bernard,p. 104-105)
These are the only remnants of Sappho's poetry that were found. Not having a complete
collection of Sappho's work leaves room to interpret her poetry in many different ways, but also makes
it difficult to get the true meaning she is trying to convey.
While teaching these young women, Sappho became emotionally attached to
them and treated them as if they were her children. Because of this
close-knit relationship, Sappho's attachment to her students was very
strong. In some of her poetic fragments, Sappho gives advice to her
students as well as explains to them the dilemmas she is experiencing.
In "A Woman's Plea," when Sappho says, "I pray for long life and health/
My children, I would escape/ from wrinkles and cling to youth," she
expresses the desire to stay young and healthy (Barnstone, p. 99).
This poem is aimed at her children, who are presumably her students
since Sappho only had one daughter, and she explains to them that she wishes
she could be young forever. In doing this, she is explaining to them that
wanting to stay young and beautiful forever is not an isolated feeling,
which gave her students a sense of comfort at moments they felt confused
and depressed. She offers further advice to other woman in "A Ring,"
stating, "Silly woman. Yes, it is a ring/ but really, don't be so proud"
(Barnstone, p. 63). In this short fragment, Sappho tells the woman in
the poem not to be so proud of material things, implying that there are
other virtues which she should be concerned with. Sappho also portrays
her desire to keep her friends safe and to comfort them when, in "When You
Come," she writes, "You will lie down and/ I shall lay out soft/ pillows
for your body" (Barnstone, p. 77). She wants to pamper her friends and
make them feel as protected as a mother would one of her children when she
is in need.
Consequently, her students viewed her as a mother figure as well. Sappho
quoted her friend Atthis saying, " 'she will walk/ among us like a mother
with/ all her daughters around her' " (Barnard, 43). Atthis viewed Sappho
as a mother within their community and she wished for Sappho to be with
them and help them when she is needed. Sappho's bitterness in the poem is
apparent because she believes that Atthis has forgotten about her after
she moved away to be with her husband. Atthis also seems very capricious
in this poem, telling Sappho, " 'If you will not get/ up and let us look
at you/ I shall never love you again!' " Her childlike manner in this
statement reveals a bit of Atthis' personality, implying that Sappho has
pampered her to the extent that she expects Sappho to do what she wants
at the moment.
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