No Pain, No Gain: On Reading Sappho and Beyond

Gustav Klimt, Music, 1895 (image public domain)

By Malia Maxwell –

To read the poet Sappho (Archaic Greek, 7th-6th c. BCE) is to embrace painful incompletion. Little of her work remains, and what we do have left carries with it the stain of absence. While no amount of longing for a “completed” text can fill in her fragmented work, a reader of Sappho ought not to accept the absences’overwhelming though they may be. Instead, the unique beauty of reading Sappho is the way a reader embraces the emptiness and mystery of her works. 

This relationship is most explicit in the fragments consisting of two lines’or even one. Yet, upon turning to Sappho’s “complete poem,” Fragment 1, the power of absence shines through:  

Prayer to Aphroditi

On your dappled throne eternal Aphroditi / cunning daughter of Zeus / I beg you, do not crush my heart / with pain, O lady, / but come here if ever before /
you heard my voice from far away / and yielding left your father’s house / of gold and came / yoking birds to your chariot. Beautiful / quick sparrows whirring on beating wings /
took you from heaven down to mid sky / over the black earth / and soon arrived. O blessed one / on your deathless face a smile / you asked me what I am suffering /  and why I call you / what I most want to happen / in my crazy heart. “Whom shall I persuade / again to take you into her love? / Who, O Sappho, wrongs you? / If she runs away, soon she will pursue. / If she scorns gifts, now she will bribe. / If she doesn’t love, soon she will love / even unwillingly.” / Come to me now and loosen me / from blunt agony. Labor / and fill my heart with fire. Stand by me / and be my ally.  [1]

Sappho is a master of vivid imagery'”eidetically” so, to borrow from Samuel Taylor Coleridge for multisensory richness [2] ‘and this poem is no exception. Take, for example, how the reader not only sees, but also feels and hears the sparrows carry Aphroditi to the earth; Sappho shifts between the delicate and rapid “whirring” to the forceful “beating” in describing their motion, the way a bird might switch between coasting and flapping. Sappho also lends gravity to the speaker’s voice in leisurely describing seven lines of Aphrodite’s journey that the speaker’s beginning inspires. Even if the reader cannot hear Sappho cry out, they still feel her do so by understanding through their sensory imagination the journey she sends into effect.

Similarly, Sappho organizes Aphrodite’s promises so as to give tactile weight to the abstract nature of pining for love. Aphroditi promises, “If she runs away, soon she will pursue. / If she scorns gifts, now she will bribe. / If she doesn’t love, soon she will love”. Aphroditi’s list of promises begins physically with the body and movement. She then progresses to making a promise about gifts’a physical object that exists outside the body’before promising to give Sappho another’s love. By the time Aphroditi makes her last promise, love does not seem so abstract to the reader; for, Sappho has guided them with sensory imagery through the physical and into the intangible nature of love.

But despite how thoroughly Sappho grounds her reader in the sensations of the poem, Fragment 1 still requires engagement from its reader, beyond asking them to physically feel the lines. For Fragment 1 describes a prayer: it exists in a moment of transition, taking place after Sappho has fallen in love, and before such love is to be realized. As well as Sappho can bring the reader into the moment of the poem, the reader cannot entirely comprehend this moment because they have not experienced the speaker’s history.

Herein lies the central absence of Fragment 1 that Sappho gives her reader to wrestle with, leaving Aphroditi as a guide to navigate it. In the antepenultimate stanza, Aphroditi asks, “Whom shall I persuade / again to take you into her love? Who, / O Sappho, wrongs you?” Instead of providing background information about this love-interest for her reader, Sappho allows them to imagine the women she loves as Aphroditi wonders too. A reader gets to decide for themselves what sort of person would drive Sappho to such desperation. In doing so, the readers align themselves with Sappho: they now share a common image of the lover that scorns her. Furthermore, they can appreciate the richness of such a possible world, and such a possible woman because Sappho has already introduced them to a physical and sensory-focused world with her eidetic style. By exploring the mystery Sappho leaves in this poem, the reader transcends any discomfort such absence might bring and finds their own beautiful and personal connection to the poem.

Sappho’s incomplete fragments offers similar insight into interacting with absence, but on a more abstract scale. Fragment 76 offers such an example: 

Endure/ Bring about / I want / to hang on / she said

As it is, Fragment 76 stands as a minimal poem: it is made of two short stanzas that explore a common theme. Yet, the very beginning of Fragment 76 simultaneously echoes with incompletion. The reader asks who is to “Bring about” and what that might entail but has nothing besides a few short lines to answer them. The rest of the poem is lost to time.

It is this question-provoking absence that makes Sappho’s work so rich with possibility. If the fragment as it is’such a small, simple thing’is beautiful, what would it look like fleshed out? What sort of sensory experience might Sappho have in store for her reader as with Fragment 1? What beautiful observations and ideas might she want to share? What new insight into endurance? It becomes the duty of the reader to flesh out the poem with whatever imagined stanzas or context they choose’whatever sentiment they feel come forward. The reader must lean into the pain of the poem’s unfinished state and use it as motivation. For, who is to say what is missing in this poem? If scholars could say, it would not be called Fragment 76.

But would you read a person the way you read Sappho? Would you give the same consideration to someone’s social media posts as to Sappho’s poetry? It is easy to say no. One might even argue that this “Sapphic mindset” of exploring absence is accidental’that it is a tragic effect of the wear and tear of time, and as such negligible outside of a literary context. Yet one may turn back to Fragment 1 as proof that this is not true. Absence exists even in a “completed” poem.

Despite the antiquity of her work, Sappho’s poetry feels familiar in a world where modern forms of fragments on social media social media allow us form impressions without every speaking to someone. These impressions may be based off of as little as 280 characters or an Instagram bio. Is not Fragment 38, “You burn us,” something that could be mistaken for an esoteric caption? While the poetry of one’s social media content is up for debate, we are nevertheless in a world that values bounties of brief content to be quickly consumed.

Our society normalizes forming an understanding of someone from the face value of their digital personality. Sappho, however, shows us that the beauty of work lies not only in the text itself but also in the mystery and possibility of what is not explicitly in it. Imagining a person’s life from a Facebook post is not the same as imagining an unrequited love and is certainly not something to be recommended. Nevertheless, as we continue to forge and maintain online relationships, let us appreciate Sappho’s work and remember that so much of a “complete” picture lies in what is not said, even if we cannot see it.


[1] Translations taken from Sappho. The Pocket Sappho. Translated by Willis Barnstone, Boulder, Shambhala Publications, 2019. Shambhala Pocket Library.

[2] P. N. Hunt, “Sensory Images in the Song of Songs 1:2-2:16” in M. Augustin and K.-D. Schunck, eds. Dort ziehen Schiffe Dahin…Frankfurt: Peter Lang Verlag, 1996, 69-78; also discussing Sappho and Coleridge in Patrick Hunt, Poetry in the Song of Songs. New York: Peter Lang Verlag, 2008, 83-86, from Coleridge’s use of “eidetikos” in his Biographia Literaria.