Sappho 31

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Sappho 31 is an archaic Greek lyric poem by the ancient Greek female poet Sappho of the island of Lesbos.[a] The poem is also known as phainetai moi (φαίνεταί μοι) after the opening words of its first line. It is one of Sappho's most famous poems, describing her love for a young woman.


Fragment 31 was one of the few substantial fragments of Sappho to survive from ancient times, preserved in the first-century AD work On the Sublime.[1] Four stanzas are well-preserved, followed by part of one more line; this, as well as Catullus' adaptation of the poem, suggests that there was originally one more stanza of the poem.[1] A reconstruction of the poem by classicist Armand D'Angour suggests that the original poem may have had up to 8 stanzas.[2]


Fragment 31 is composed in Sapphic stanzas, a metrical form named after Sappho and consisting of stanzas of three long followed by one short line.[b] Four strophes of the poem survive, along with a few words of a fifth.[1] The poem is written in the Aeolic dialect, which was the dialect spoken in Sappho's time on her home island of Lesbos.

The poem centres around three characters: a man and a woman, both otherwise unidentified, and the speaker.[3] The first stanza of the poem describes Sappho watching "that man" sitting by a woman, apparently Sappho's beloved. The next three stanzas describe the symptoms the narrator experiences "whenever I glance at you for a second".[4] The final surviving line, 17, has been thought to be the beginning of a stanza describing Sappho reconciling herself to the situation in which she found herself.[5] Armand D'Angour argues that the phrase "αλλα παν τολματον" means "all must be dared", rather than "endured" as it is sometimes translated.[6] In this reading, the change of tone in the poem is towards a more hopeful, rather than resigned, position.[7]

The context of the poem has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Wilamowitz suggested that the poem was a wedding song, and that the man mentioned in the initial stanza of the poem was the bridegroom.[8] Since the second half of the twentieth century, scholars have tended to follow Denys Page in dismissing this argument.[9] William Race, for instance, says that the poem contains nothing to indicate that it is about a wedding,[10] while Christina Clark argues that, though the interaction between the two characters observed by the speaker indicates that they are of similar social status, their interaction is likely to be compatible with a number of possible relationships, not just that between a bride and groom. For instance, she suggests that they might just as well be brother and sister.[11]

One interpretation suggests that the man's precise relationship with the woman is not important. Instead, the man's role is to act as a "contrast figure",[12] designed to highlight Sappho's love for the girl by juxtaposing the strength of Sappho's emotional reaction with his impassivity.[13] For instance, John Winkler argues that "'That man' in poem 31 is like the military armament in poem 16, an introductory set-up to be dismissed".[14]

As far back as the eighteenth century, it has been proposed that the poem is about Sappho's jealousy of the man who sits with her beloved.[10] Though this is still a popular interpretation of the poem, many critics deny that the fragment is about jealousy at all.[15] Anne Carson argues that Sappho has no wish to take the man's place, nor is she concerned that he will usurp hers: thus, she is not jealous of him, but amazed at his ability to retain his composure so close to the object of her desire.[16] Another common interpretation of the poem is that it is primarily concerned with expressing the speaker's love for the girl.[17]

The opening words of the poem ("To me it seems that man..."[18]) are almost identical to a fragment of Sappho quoted by Apollonius Dyscolus:[19] "To himself he seems".[20] This might have been an alternative opening to Sappho 31.[21]

Reception and influence[edit]

Fragment 31 is one of Sappho's most famous works,[22] and it is one of her most frequently adapted and translated poems.[23] In the ancient world, the Roman poet Catullus adapted it into his 51st poem, putting his muse Lesbia into the role of Sappho's beloved. Other ancient authors who adapted the poem include Theocritus, in his second Idyll, and Apollonius of Rhodes, in his description of the first meeting between Jason and Medea in the Argonautica.[24] More recently, Tennyson's "Eleanore" and "Fatima" were both inspired by the poem,[25] and Shelley's "To Constantia" was influenced by it.[26]

Sappho's description of the physical response to desire in this poem is especially celebrated.[27] The poem is quoted in Longinus's treatise On the Sublime for the intensity of its emotion,[28] and the physical symptoms of desire portrayed in the poem continue to be used to convey the feeling in modern culture.[29]


  1. ^ There are various numbering systems for Sappho's fragments; this article uses Voigt's numeration (which in most cases, including that of Sappho 31, matches Lobel and Page's numeration) throughout unless otherwise specified. Sappho 31 in Voigt is fragment 2 in both Bergk's and Diehl's editions.
  2. ^ The first three lines are eleven-syllable Sapphic hendecasyllables (of the form – u – x – u u – u – x ), while the fourth is five-syllable adonean (– u u – x).


  1. ^ a b c Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 108
  2. ^ D'Angour 2013
  3. ^ Sinos 1982, p. 25
  4. ^ Sappho 31.6–7
  5. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 109
  6. ^ D'Angour 2013, p. 65
  7. ^ D'Angour 2013, p. 68
  8. ^ Race 1983, pp. 92–93
  9. ^ Lardinois 1996, p. 168
  10. ^ a b Race 1983, p. 93
  11. ^ Clark 2001, p. 11
  12. ^ Race 1983, p. 94
  13. ^ Race 1983, pp. 97–98
  14. ^ Winkler 1990, p. 179
  15. ^ Carson 1986, pp. 13–14
  16. ^ Carson 1986, p. 14
  17. ^ Tsargarakis 1979, p. 97
  18. ^ Sappho 31.1
  19. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, pp. 146–147
  20. ^ Sappho 165
  21. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 147
  22. ^ Segal 1996, p. 58
  23. ^ Clay 2011, p. 8
  24. ^ Fowler 1987, pp. 435–7
  25. ^ Peterson 1994, p. 123
  26. ^ Buxton 2011, p. 355
  27. ^ Hutchinson 2001, p. 168
  28. ^ Hutchinson 2001, p. 168
  29. ^ Reynolds 2001, p. 21

Works cited[edit]

  • D'Angour, Armand (2013). "Love's Battlefield: Rethinking Sappho fr. 31". In Sanders, Ed; Thumiger, Chiara; Carey, Christopher; Lowe, Nick. Erôs in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Buxton, Xavier (2011). "Sappho and Shelley: Lyric in the Dative". The Cambridge Quarterly. 40 (4). 
  • Carson, Anne (1986). Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 
  • Clay, Diskin (2011). "Sappho, Selanna, and the Poetry of the Night". Giornale Italiano di Filologia. 2 (1–2). 
  • Clark, Christina (2001). "The Body of Desire: Nonverbal Communication in Sappho 31 V: dis manibus Barbara Hughes Fowler". Syllecta Classica. 12. 
  • Fowler, Robert L. (1987). "Sappho fr.31.9". Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies. 
  • Hutchinson, G. O. (2001). Greek Lyric Poetry: A Commentary on Selected Larger Pieces. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924017-5. 
  • Lardinois, André (1996). "Who Sang Sappho's Songs?". In Greene, Ellen. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • Peterson, Linda H. (1994). "Sappho and the Making of Tennysonian Lyric". ELH. 61 (1). 
  • Race, William H. (1983). ""That Man" in Sappho fr. 31 L-P". Classical Antiquity. 2 (1). 
  • Rayor, Diane; Lardinois, André (2014). Sappho: A New Edition of the Complete Works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Reynolds, Margaret (2001). The Sappho Companion. London: Vintage. 
  • Segal, Charles (1996). "Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry". In Greene, Ellen. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • Sinos, Dale S. (1982). "Sappho, fr. 31 LP: Structure and Context". Aevum. 56 (1). 
  • Tsargarakis, Odysseus (1979). "Some Neglected Aspects of Love in Sappho's Fr. 31 LP". Rheinisches Museum für Philologie. 122 (2). 
  • Winkler, John J. (1990). "The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece". New York: Routledge. 

External links[edit]