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.

To download the full essay (PDF format) please read and agree to our terms and conditions:

Philippe de Felice Bio

Philippe de Felice is of Swiss origins and was born in Zurich in 1954. He received a cosmopolitan education in Swiss, French and English schools, and then studied at Florence University and Oriel College Oxford (where he graduated with First Class Honours in History and French in 1976). He later qualified as a Barrister and followed a career in international law, working on aid projects for the United Nations, on EU affairs for the Commission and the UK government, and most recently in private practice.

He has travelled widely in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

He now lives in London with his wife and three children. Entertaining Mona Lisa is his first collection of stories. He is currently working on a novel and a series of studies on how humans have chosen to express themselves throughout the ages, from prehistoric caves to the internet era.

Comments on Sappho’s Private Agony

Please use the form at the bottom of this page to enter your comments about this essay (requires registration and log in, your email address will not be published). Please note this discussion forum is moderated and we reserve the right to publish or disapprove comments and replies.

Leave a Reply