Modern Sapphics

The discoveries of new poems by Sappho in 2004 and 2014, particularly the near-completion of the Tithonus poem, excited both scholarly and worldwide audiences. Sappho’s poetry appears to be as greatly admired today as it was in antiquity – from the seventh century BC onwards, she was known as the ‘Tenth Muse’ and the ‘The Poetess’, and was a popular character in Athenian comedic plays and vase decoration. From the nineteenth century, Sappho adopted her current cultural role as an icon for women’s rights, becoming a model for the ‘New Woman’: independent, educated, with social and sexual autonomy. By the 1960s, her feminist caricature was firmly entrenched in popular culture. However, this ran parallel to a patriarchal reading of her: one obsessed with her supposed hypersexuality or nymphomania, and one arguing against evidence for her lesbian tendencies while simultaneously rejecting her because of it. She’s often a lynchpin for laments on the female condition, as in The Picture of Sappho by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton, the earliest modern feminist reading of Sappho, which ends on an affirmation that regardless of her genius, her gender is still the main consideration:

‘One grief and one alone

Could bow thy bright head down--

Thou wert a WOMAN, and wert left despairing!’

Modern scholars are fascinated with digging up any information regarding her life – in 2016, astronomers even used the constellations described in her ‘Midnight Poem’ to date the work to the year of her death. Artistic exploration shares this intrigue in the mystery of her life. Rereading Sappho through the guise of modern twentieth and twenty-first-century art fascinates me; the loading of modern concepts of femininity, womanhood, love, and sexuality onto an archaic source lends itself to a decontextualized discourse on the human condition. Judy Chicago’s 1974-79 Dinner Party setting for Sappho is ripe with vulvic allusions, with the abstracted labial petals glazed in greens, blues, and dark indigo purples, suggesting the Aegean Sea surrounding the Island of Lesbos (Fig. 1). A pearlescent Doric temple is embroidered into the back of the tablecloth, with waves of blue, green and red flowing down to where Sappho’s name is embroidered in bright colour. The ancient motifs and gold reflect the romanticism of Sappho’s works that transfixed poets such as Byron and Baudelaire.