Sappho’s Private Agony – Philippe de Felice
In ancient Greece, the poet Sappho was known as the Tenth Muse, her poetry acknowledged to be one of the summits of Greek poetry. The Library at Alexandria had nine volumes of her work but her poetry is almost entirely lost, except for two poems and fragments quoted by other writers. Her poetry was famous for its passion and description of the intensity of love, particularly as between women.
In this essay, Philippe de Felice traces the evolution of interpretations of Sappho’s life and works, casting doubt on the traditional view of her work as homoerotic poetry. He argues that such a reading of Sappho was based on the very restricted number of known poems up to the end of the 19th century, in particular the poem quoted by Longinus in “On the Sublime”, which was developed into an archetype of homoerotic passion for which there is no historical justification. In the past century, our knowledge of Sappho’s work has been vastly expanded by the discoveries of the Oxyrhynchus papyrii and, more recently, the Old Age and Brothers poems. Based on a close analysis of these sources, Philippe de Felice concludes that Sappho’s description of what we today view as lesbian passion was instead a literary convention and that this distorted interpretation of Sappho’s vision and emotional world prevents us from understanding her genius in all its thrillingly originality.