Letters – Issue 86

Sappho and the unspeakable

If I’m a little surprised that Alan Loney joined up with the “moth to flame” industry about Sappho – which is probably little different from the industry round Homer, Virgil, Dante, Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson, with some obvious differences because of the sparseness of Sappho’s manuscripts – I was grateful that much of what he wrote I’d have written myself.

Grateful that he didn’t, as a young male poet did recently and as Erica Jong did some years ago, claim a heterosexual Sappho. Given the evidence of the few almost complete poems in the Mary Barnard translation and also from Sappho and Alceus by Denys Page (1955), Sappho bequeathed the name of her island for posterity to women who love women, so upsetting the inhabitants of Lesbos, the island, that they tried last year to divest themselves of the stigma.

Stigma, because of course homosexuality is still outlawed in some countries and when I was growing up, lesbianism was unspeakable – I didn’t hear the word till I was nearly 20. And if lesbians today have almost equal rights – we can’t yet marry (each other) – for many heterosexual writers we are still the stereotyped villainess, scapegoat or humorous character standing in for lower-class Shakespearean comics. I like the story of a youthful Robert Graves approaching his professor in the street: “Sir, was Sappho really a good poet?”, and the professor surreptitiously looking round and over his shoulder before muttering confidentially: “Yes, Graves, very good.”

Which is why – despite various, mostly Christian, book-burnings – fragments and felicitous examples of her poems have endured in quotations from other writers and in grammars. But the taint of scandalous sexuality, let alone outright sexism, continues and is why a poet such as Elizabeth Bishop, for example, has never had quite the prominence she deserves. And possibly why Ovid made his pejorative remark about Sappho’s looks and why the legend of her suicide because of rejection by a young man must be comforting to patriarchalists. It will be a happy day when Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) is permanently attached to English curricula and the mechanics of tactics like “exceptionalising” are exposed.

Re Ursula Bethell: there is a remark in a letter of hers to, I think, Monte Holcroft in which she says that people would find it hard to believe that such a love (as Ursula’s for Effie) could exist without a physical basis. There has always been discussion among lesbian, feminist and queer theorists about whether those who don’t “do it”, ie physically, should in fact be called lesbian or gay, especially when they would not have so labelled themselves. Bethell wrote: “You left me, darling, desolate”, which Sappho might have written; Bethell thus exemplifies the lesbian sensibility some lesbian/feminist theorists think it’s probably safe to assume exists when women give their primary emotional, intellectual and social commitment to women, with or without sexual commitment.

Heather McPherson 
Morningside, Auckland

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