Sappho: Some thoughts on performance context
Here’s a Sappho fragment (22), with Anne Carson’s translation:
⸏ἀμφιπόταταιτὰν κάλαν· ἀ γὰρ κατάγωγις αὔτ̣α [ἐπτόαισ’ ἴδοισαν, ἔγω δὲ χαίρω,]]work]face]if not, winter]no pain]I bid you singof Gongyla, Abanthys, taking upyour lyre as (now again) longingfloats around you,you beauty. For her dress when you saw itstirred you. And I rejoice.In fact she herself once blamed me,Kyprogeneiabecause I prayedthis word:I want
σαρδ.[..] (1)σε †θεασικελαν ἀρι-νῦν δὲ Λύδαισιν ἐμπρέπεται γυναί-κεσσιν ὤς ποτ’ ἀελίωσχει θάλασσαν ἐπ’ ἀλμύραν (10)⸏ἴσως καὶ πολυανθέμοις ἀρούραις·λαισι δὲ βρόδα κἄπαλ’ ἄν-⸏θρυσκα καὶ μελίλωτος ἀνθεμώδης·πόλλα δὲ ζαφοίταισ’ ἀγάνας ἐπι- (15)μνάσθεισ’ Ἄτθιδος ἰμέρωι]Sardisoften turning her thoughts here]you like a goddessand in your song most of all she rejoiced.But now she is conspicuous among Lydian womenas sometimes at sunsetthe rosyfingered moonsurpasses all the stars. And her lightstretches over salt seaequally and flowerdeep fields.And the beautiful dew is poured outand roses bloom and frailchervil and flowering sweetclover.but she goes back and forth rememberinggentle Atthis and in longingshe bites her tender mind
Margaret Williamson has provided a compelling discussion of the “subject positions” in these songs: the peculiarity, compared to the love poems of other (male) poets of the triadic structure at play here. There is not only a speaker and an addressee, but a third, more distant figure; desire and song float freely between them, in contrast to the stereotyped desiring-I vs. desired-you structure of manly love poems by men. I heartily recommend her analysis, which can be found in Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (248-64), even if she does proceed to commit the cardinal sin of claiming the speaker’s reaction in Sappho 31 has something to do with the man, thus rather spoiling what is (as it stands) one of the most eloquent testimonies to the the overwhelming effects of desire.
But that is neither here nor there: what interests me is what such poems might tell us about performance context.
Specifically: what is Abanthys singing in fragment 22? Williamson takes this song as evidence of a certain correspondence between Abanthys and the narrator: “The singer sings of a song that aroused desire, thereby performing through her poem an act designated within it as erotic, and thus constructing herself as a potential object of desire” (255) But what if the identification is stronger? What if Abanthys is actually singing this very song? We are used to imagining the poet, speaker, and performer as all the same, but the lyric “I” — particularly the “I” of choral lyric — is often considerably more complex than that, and there are a number of modes of song that self-consciously create a separation between composer and performer: the first chapter of Gregory Nagy’s Poetry as Performance concerns just such a tradition. In medieval Provençal lyric, there is a sharp division between the troubadour who is authorized to compose lyrics, and the jongleur who is only authorized to perform them, and this division is often articulated in the poems themselves, with injunctions that the jongleur not “move” or vary the poem. (An injunction whose contextual meaning Nagy sets out to explore.) This results in a peculiar situation where the jongleur, in his eventual performance, recites instructions for himself. Returning to Ancient Greece, we often (but where?) find just such split “I” in choral lyric: perhaps we should not be surprised to find it in monody as well.
But if this is the situation that prevails in fragment 22, if Abanthys is jongleur to Sappho’s troubadour, what does this tell us about the performance context? It is traditional to imagine that the context of Sappho’s poems was some kind of “circle,” either a loose association of friends or even some kind of formal school. Because the texts were destined for oral performance, it is reasoned, they imply presence: and much ink has been spilled trying to work out a context in which aristocratic women might perform such songs for one another.
The most distorted and traditional picture is that Sappho was some kind of “female pederast.” (But see what Holt Parker has to say about that.) The audience before whom she performed was exclusively pre-marital virgins, with whom she had some kind of erotic attachment, and for whom she was some kind of informal or formal teacher. As the girls grow to marriageable age, they leave home, often traveling far afield, inasmuch as elite marriage was a means of establishing relations between city-states, or even, as we see in fragment 96, with non-Greeks. With the departure of a beloved pupil, Sappho wrote songs like fragments 22 and 96 mourning their absence — giving voice to her own sorrow, or to the sorrow of another of her pupils.
But what if Sappho didn’t need to be present herself to perform the poem? What if she could work through intermediaries? The poem becomes a kind of pre-literate epistle:* it is destined not for immediate performance among a tight-nit group of pupils, but for performance far away and through an intermediary. Sappho’s “circle,” the (still largely female) audience for her poems, might turn out to encompass a broad geographical range, and include married as well as unmarried women. The distance that these poems lament becomes constitutive of the relationships involved instead of bringing them to an end. Poems like fragment 96 transmit actual news, rather than constructing comforting fantasies.
Because it is not the case that aristocratic women never had opportunity to travel — Sappho herself, according to later tradition, was fairly well-traveled — just that they had little to no control over when and where. A poet like Sappho becomes a particularly cherished commodity: she is a kind of proto-scribe, putting information and expressions of affection into a format where they can be easily remembered and transmitted by whoever happened to be headed in the right direction.
The trouble with Parker’s claim that Sappho is simply a poet, performing in the same contexts as her male colleagues, it that there is no evidence that (respectable) women ever had access, for example to symposia (the major performance context for monody), and we have no idea what the female equivalent would look like or how it would function.
Men perhaps had more freedom of movement, but there was never a necessity that they move: exile such as that suffered by Alcaeus was the exception rather than the rule. One could, therefore, rely on a fairly consistent circle of friends, a hetaireia, with which to define oneself. Communal identification is a fairly straightforward matter, and can be reinforced with a simple set of I/you, us/them oppositions, which are characteristic of erotic poetry like Anacreon’s. Williamson (251-3) is good on this.
In Sappho’s poetry, however, we see an attempt to maintain a community despite the everyday reality of the violent separations that were the result of aristocratic marriage. Eroticism, instead of expressing the dominance of the in-group (adult males) over the out-group (boys and women), is a way of expressing the intensity of the bonds that can tie a group together even over long distances: the woman described fragment 96 may be flourishing among the Lydians, but she’s still “one of us,” because “she goes back and forth remembering / gentle Atthis and in longing / she bites her tender mind.” The pain of separation signifies the bonds that nonetheless remain, and Sappho’s poetry returns again and again to that pain.