This is Alma-Tadema's representation of Sappho teaching her students how to write poetry and play the lyre.

Sappho’s Victorian Image

This is a portrayal of Aprhodite, one of the main subjects of Sappho's poetry, and Mars.
There are many different interpretations of Sappho’s life, which were primarily derived from the interpretation of her lyrical fragments. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, only two Sapphic fragments were popular; but by the end of the Victorian period, more of them had been discovered and were widely translated and imitated by other poets. Prior to the nineteenth century, Sappho had been considered heterosexual because the male interpreters of the lyrics substituted female pronouns for male ones to erase the lesbian connotations within the poetry. John Donne’s poem “Sappho to Philaenis,” written in the 1590s, interprets Sappho as a lesbian, challenging Ovid’s earlier poem “Sappho to Phaon.” This portrayed her as a heterosexual. This poem was excluded from Donne’s collected works, and it was not until Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper published Long Ago in 1889, under the male pseudonym of Michael Field, that Sappho was once again read as a lesbian. Their book set forth new ideas about Greek education and explored the lesbian connotations in their versions of Sappho’s lyrics. This homosexual context was not favored by male nineteenth-century authors, due primarily to their homophobic Victorian values. After Swinburne published his sadomasochistic version of Sappho’s lyrics in 1852, a stigma became attached to Sappho’s lesbian identity and her poetry stopped being read. It was not until the twentieth century that Sappho’s poetry became popular again, giving rise to a revitalized lesbian literary genre. This is a picture of an Ancient Greek statue depicting a person holding a lyre. This could be interpreted as being a depiction of Sappho, but it's not clear.

The Victorian ideology of the feminine sphere emphasized that women stayed at home, taking care of the children and keeping the house clean and hospitable for the husband. Women were not expected to write poetry or even concern themselves with the outside world. Female artists were considered “deviant, that is, women who have a satisfactory emotional life (home, family and husband) do not need additional creative outlets.” (Reading Sappho, p. 26) Women identified with this deviant status were usually old maids or lesbians. The pathology connected to these two types of women was primarily either emotional disturbance or psychological aberrations. These women were considered inept, deprived of a male counterpart to help them fulfill their Victorian roles as women. These women were considered “masculine looking” and were “unwilling to put up with men but are intimate with women as though they themselves were men.” (“Troping Utopia,” p. 189) This statue of Sappho illustrates her beauty and poise, which is depicted in her poetry and the way she wrote about love.

Since creative women were considered “abnormal,” many male poets incorporated Sappho’s work into their own and tried to “purify” the text to match heterosexual standards. Ovid’s “Sappho to Phaon,” which was translated by Alexander Pope in 1707, depicts Sappho as a former lesbian who falls in love with Phaon and is then rejected. She kills herself in this poem because Phaon will not return to her. This poem is a prime example of how heterosexual males changed Sappho’s lesbian lyrics to exemplify the way women act when in love. Ovid “fix[ed] her not only in her tragic situation, but also in a normatively heterosexual construction.” (“Troping Utopia,” p. 182) In contrast, Donne wrote “Sappho to Philaenis,” which is a rendition of Ovid’s poem, which depicts Sappho as ignoring Phaon and falling in love with the female Philaenis. This love is more special than the one between women and men because Sappho and Philaenis are “one another’s ideal compliment, two selves made through the reciprocal identity of their knowing, desiring, and pleasuring.” (p. 183) Instead of falling into desperation, like she does in Ovid’s poem, Sappho is completely happy being with Philaenis, not killing herself but becoming content. Another portrait of Sappho.

Because of this homosexual reference in Donne’s poem, it was consequently removed from his collection of poems. The homophobic males of the Early Modern period did not like the idea that women could be happy without a male counterpart and that they could receive sexual satisfaction without male penetration. Sappho’s reputation was further tarnished when Guy Morillon stated, “this Sappho is a whore whose lasciviousness nothing could allay, as Ovid demonstrates…. This Sappho made love with girls, taking the superior position with them and rubbing them in a fashion different from what men do.” (Troping Utopia, p. 187) From this statement it is evident that men were confused and scared that lesbians would no longer need men, and therefore, were considered repulsive. Other poets, such as Lelio Gregorio Giraldi, praised Sappho’s work and erotic intensity, but it was Donne who emphasized the lesbian connotation within the text. “Sappho to Philaenis” makes the emotional connection between two women evident in an era in which lesbianism was considered to be only a sexual relationship. Since Donne’s interpretation of the lesbian relationship required friendship, and men and women could not be friends, this challenged the institution of marriage by implying that the lesbian relationship was stronger. For this reason Donne’s poem was taken out of circulation, and it was not until the nineteenth century that Sappho’s poetry was once again examined and reworked. Two female figures share a cloak, in a scene with erotic associations.  The satyrs show interest in them (the erect phallus of the wineskin-carrying satyr on the left has been painted out); the bird symbolizes courtship.  This picture can be found in Sappho's Immortal Daughters.

In 1889, Henry Wharton wished to make Sappho an exemplary female figure for Victorian women by translating more of her poetic fragments into English and emphasizing the love-struck attitude in fragment 31 as the way every woman should feel for a man. In order to achieve this goal, Wharton changed the female pronouns to make it appear that Sappho was addressing a man, as opposed to the woman she was actually addressing and in love with in the original Greek text. By transforming this poem, male poets made “Sappho’s name synonymous with the sentimentalism of women’s verse.” (Victorian Sappho, p. 47) By 1881, Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema painted a scene showing Sappho with other female students, which made her seem more like a real person rather than just a persona in her poetry, as she had been viewed earlier. Since she was depicted by Wharton as a school teacher and by Alma-Tadema as a beautiful woman, Victorian women began to idolize her. Wharton succeeded in purifying Sappho’s reputation and totally erased the homosexual connotation there would have been in her poetry, had it been translated verbatim. Two female figures in a courting pose.  The chin touching guesture and the garland have erotic connotations.  This picture can be found in Sappho's Immortal Daughters.

Fortunately, Wharton’s efforts to make Sappho a pure, exemplary figure came into question by the end of the nineteenth century. The island of Lesbos “became a byword for corruption where mere decadence to sensuality ensued” simply because the women of Lesbos wrote poetry about love and emotional expression. (Victorian Sappho, p. 62) The work of the women of Lesbos was being judged by Victorian standards for women’s roles in society and Sappho’s persona was further examined. When Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper published Long Ago, they translated Sapphic poetry in a way that could be read differently from how it had been written before – mainly in a homosexual context. They used a male pseudonym in order to gain credibility for their renditions of Sappho’s poetry at a time when female authors were not valued. They believed that “Greek learning consist[ed] of [an] unspoken set of assumptions about sexuality as well as class and gender,” which lead them to reinterpret the Sapphic fragments with the actual female pronouns in place. (p. 77) It was already known that Greek male teachers had sexual relationships with their male students as part of their curriculum, as well as part of the upper-class education system in the nineteenth century, but Bradley and Cooper were the first poets to extend that generalization to the female realm of ancient Greek education. In Long Ago, Bradley and Cooper do not take the name of Sappho, but instead use the name “Michael Field” to praise Sappho for being the first to write about a love that was not spoken about – erotic love between women. With the publication of this volume, Sappho was no longer the model for Victorian women; moreover, she became the “model of poetry and love of women together.” (p. 89) Long Ago re-evaluated the Victorian ideology of marriage as a relationship between husband and wife, the wife only being defined in relation to him, and gave women a new identity where they could be individuals and did not need a man to make their lives complete. As we know today, women can very well be satisfied by another woman, emotionally and physically, without being abnormal,l and Bradley and Cooper’s imitation of Sappho’s work emphasized this fact. On two vases in distinct Eastern Greek (Clazomenian) style, girls with garlands dance as female musicians play the pipes.  This picture can be found in Sappho's Immortal Daughters.

In fact, the word "lesbian" is derived from the island on which Sappho lived. Since people began to view Sappho as exclusively homosexual in the nineteenth century, the terms "sapphic", "sapphism", "sapphist" and "lesbian" were incorporated into the English language to categorize female homosexual feelings. Earlier, in the fifth century B.C., a Greek comedy used the verb lesbiazien to express that someone was acting like they did in the Island of Lesbos. (Reading Sappho, p. 129) The term "lesbian" is now used to describe homosexual feelings between women mainly because, as it is implied in Sappho’s poetry, this was fairly common in the general population of Lesbos. In naming this feeling after the place in which Sappho resided, it established her as the prominent figure for lesbians. By putting a name to female homosexuality and freeing Sappho’s lyrics from Victorian ideology, Bradley and Cooper really captured Sappho’s voice within their own renditions of her poetry. Otherwise, Sappho’s fragments would have been misinterpreted by the homophobic male population. To present a poet who expresses the kinds of feelings that certain women actually felt towards each other was important in giving lesbians a place in society, however low that might have been at the time. A man making advances to a youth, who holds a garland. This picture can be found in Sappho's Immortal Daughters.

Another poet who placed Sappho’s poetry in a lesbian context was Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose hallmark was sensuous style in his poetry. He made Sappho’s poetry sexually explicit. Consequently, he was remembered as the man who set Sappho’s lesbian identity in history, not Bradley and Cooper. “The problem of her homosexuality,” states Judith P. Hallet, “has taken away from the real meanings of her poems… sensual awareness and social self-esteem.” (Reading Sappho, p. 129) Swinburne’s poem Anactoria captures that sensual awareness. Unfortunately, Swinburne’s imitation of Sappho’s poetry was perverse and violent, as opposed to Bradley and Cooper’s intimate and emotional interpretation. Since the poem was written from Swinburne’s point of view, as a man, it gave a masculine air to Sappho in his imitation of her poetry, further distorting the sensual relationship between two women and the true meaning of her poetic fragments. In Anactoria, sexual action is evident between two women. Swinburne wrote, “Sleep though in the bosom of thy tender girlfriend,” which alludes to the sensual embrace between the persona and the person being spoken of in the poem. (Poems and Ballads, p. 61) There are also many violent images portrayed in the poem, which makes the love that the persona is experiencing overly passionate and destructive. For example, “I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated/ With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead…/ I would find grievous way to have thee slain/Intense device, and super flux of pain.” (p.62) These lines in Anactoria, among others of its like, stirred great controversy amongst literary critics. The persona’s overly violent nature sets a morbid tone to the rest of the poem, which then diminishes the feelings of love and adoration that two women may have for one another.

This is the papyrus on which Sappho's poetry was found written.

Another aspect of Anactoria that stirred considerable controversy was the explicit sexual actions that were being performed by the persona in the poem. When the persona says, “Ah that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressed/ To the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!” the sexuality in Sappho’s poetry can no longer be ignored. (p. 64) Even though Swinburne emphasized the Eros in Sappho’s poetry, he gave it a sadomasochistic twist which was not beneficial to his, or Sappho’s, reputation. Her poetry was then seen as sadomasochistic pornography, this view being validated by lines such as, “Cruel? But love makes all that love him well/ As wise as heaven and crueler than hell.” (p.65) Since Swinburne was popularized as the poet who introduced Sappho as a lesbian (Bradley and Cooper’s book having been discarded because their female identity was not a secret), her poetry was dismissed and then forgotten.
Before the twentieth century, with the rise of feminist literature, Sappho’s poetry was exhumed, changed, re-interpreted, misinterpreted and then forgotten. With the help of feminist authors, Sappho’s poetry has since been re-examined and more accurate translations have been published. Sappho’s lesbian identity, which was not considered abnormal in the sixth century, was attacked in the Victorian period. Even with the negative attitude towards her sexual and emotional preference for women, Sappho became a literary icon to lesbian writers, as well as lesbians in general, by expressing her feelings and showing her bravery.

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