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 is one of Sappho's most famous works, and has been the subject of numerous translations and adaptations from ancient times to the present day. Celebrated for its portrayal of intense emotion, the poem has influenced modern conceptions of lyric poetry, and its depiction of desire continues to influence writers today.


Fragment 31 was one of the few substantial fragments of Sappho to survive from ancient times, preserved in the first-century AD treatise on aesthetics 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] often thought to have been Sappho resigning herself to the situation in which she finds herself.[2] A reconstruction of the poem by classicist Armand D'Angour suggests that the original poem may have had up to 8 stanzas.[3]

The opening words of the poem ("To me it seems that man..."[4]) are almost identical to a fragment of Sappho quoted by Apollonius Dyscolus:[5] "To himself he seems".[6] This might have been an alternative opening to Sappho 31.[7]


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.

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾽ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽, ὤς με φώναι-
σ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει,

ἀλλ᾽ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε†, λέπτον
δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ὄρημμ᾽, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι,

†έκαδε μ᾽ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται†, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾽ ὀλίγω ᾽πιδεύης
φαίνομ᾽ ἔμ᾽ αὔται·

ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον ἐπεὶ †καὶ πένητα†

"That man seems to me to be equal to the gods
who is sitting opposite you
and hears you nearby
speaking sweetly

and laughing delightfully, which indeed
makes my heart flutter in my breast;
for when I look at you even for a short time,
it is no longer possible for me to speak

but it is as if my tongue is broken
and immediately a subtle fire has run over my skin,
I cannot see anything with my eyes,
and my ears are buzzing

a cold sweat comes over me, trembling
seizes me all over, I am paler
than grass, and I seem nearly
to have died.

but everything must be dared/endured, since (?even a poor man) ..."

The poem centres around three characters: a man and a woman, both otherwise unidentified, and the speaker.[8]

The context of the poem has been the subject of much scholarly debate: Thomas McEvilley calls it the "central controversy" about the poem.[9] Wilamowitz suggested that the poem was a wedding song, and that the man mentioned in the initial stanza of the poem was the bridegroom.[10] A poem in the Greek Anthology which echoes the first stanza of the poem is explicitly about a wedding; this perhaps strengthens the argument that fragment 31 was written as a wedding song.[11] Since the second half of the twentieth century, scholars have tended to follow Denys Page in dismissing this argument.[12] William Race, for instance, says that the poem contains nothing to indicate that it is about a wedding,[13] 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.[14]

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",[15] designed to highlight Sappho's love for the girl by juxtaposing the strength of Sappho's emotional reaction with his impassivity.[16] 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".[17]

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.[13] Though this is still a popular interpretation of the poem, many critics deny that the fragment is about jealousy at all.[18] 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.[19] Another common interpretation of the poem is that it is primarily concerned with expressing the speaker's love for the girl.[20] Joan DeJean criticises the "jealousy" interpretation of the poem as intended to play down the homoeroticism of the poem.[21]

Armand D'Angour argues that the phrase "αλλα παν τολματον" means "all must be dared", rather than "endured" as it is sometimes translated.[22] First translations of the poem would derive from Catullus' re-visitation of the poem, Catullus 51, painting Sappho with a green taint of jealousy[23] A more conservative reading would on the other hand offer as a secondary option the change of tone in the poem towards a more hopeful, rather than resigned, position.[24]

A philological debate has also arisen concerning the very first words of the poem "phainetai moi" (φαίνεταί μοι); the most popular interpretation would read the first stanza of the poem as a true banner of lyricism, the use of the first word to introduce the subject of Sappho's alleged jealousy. An alternative reading is suggested by Gallavotti: according to his thesis, the text was corrupted over time as a result of the disappearance of the sound [w] (represented by the letter digamma Ϝ) and Sappho's original would have instead said "phainetai woi" (φαίνεταί Ϝοι)[25] This reading of the original text, which may be supported by a quote by Apollonius Dyscolus, would dramatically change the perspective of the first verse, its translation roughly being: "God-like he esteems himself to be". The speaker is then counter-posing her own experience in contrast with the man's and the next three stanzas describe the symptoms the narrator experiences "whenever I glance at you for a second".[26][23] 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.[27]

Reception and influence[edit]

Fragment 31 is one of Sappho's most famous works.[28] It is one of her most frequently adapted and translated poems,[29] and has been the subject of more scholarly commentary than any other of her works.[30] 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.[31] In the nineteenth century, the poem began to be seen as an exemplar of Romantic lyric,[32] influencing poets such as Tennyson, whose "Eleänore" and "Fatima" were both inspired by fragment 31.[33] Other Romantic poets influenced by the fragment include Shelley and Keats – for instance in "To Constantia, singing" and "Ode to a Nightingale", respectively.[34]

Sappho's description of the physical response to desire in this poem is especially celebrated.[35] The poem is quoted in Longinus's treatise On the Sublime for the intensity of its emotion,[36] Plato draws on it in Socrates' second speech on love in the Phaedrus,[37] and the physical symptoms of desire portrayed in the poem continue to be used to convey the feeling in modern culture.[38]


  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. ^ Lardinois 2011
  3. ^ D'Angour 2013
  4. ^ Sappho 31.1
  5. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, pp. 146–147
  6. ^ Sappho 165
  7. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 147
  8. ^ Sinos 1982, p. 25
  9. ^ McEvilley 1978, p. 1
  10. ^ Race 1983, pp. 92–93
  11. ^ McEvilley 1978, p. 6
  12. ^ Lardinois 1996, p. 168
  13. ^ a b Race 1983, p. 93
  14. ^ Clark 2001, p. 11
  15. ^ Race 1983, p. 94
  16. ^ Race 1983, pp. 97–98
  17. ^ Winkler 1990, p. 179
  18. ^ Carson 1986, pp. 13–14
  19. ^ Carson 1986, p. 14
  20. ^ Tsargarakis 1979, p. 97
  21. ^ DeJean 1989, pp. 323–4
  22. ^ D'Angour 2013, p. 65
  23. ^ a b Gianotti 1997, pp. 181-187
  24. ^ D'Angour 2013, p. 68
  25. ^ Bonelli 1977, pp. 453–494
  26. ^ Sappho 31.6–7
  27. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 109
  28. ^ Segal 1996, p. 58
  29. ^ Clay 2011, p. 8
  30. ^ DeJean 1989, p. 322
  31. ^ Fowler 1987, pp. 435–7
  32. ^ Williamson 2009, p. 355
  33. ^ Peterson 1994, p. 123
  34. ^ Williamson 2009, p. 360
  35. ^ Hutchinson 2001, p. 168
  36. ^ Hutchinson 2001, p. 168
  37. ^ duBois 1995, p. 86
  38. ^ Reynolds 2001, p. 21

Works cited[edit]

  • Bonelli, Guido (1977), "Saffo 2 Diehl = 31 Lobel-Page", L'antiquité classique (in Italian), 46 (2): 453–494, doi:10.3406/antiq.1977.1865, ISSN 0770-2817
  • 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.
  • D'Angour, Armand (2013). "Love's Battlefield: Rethinking Sappho fr. 31". In Sanders, Ed; Thumiger, Chiara; Carey, Christopher; Lowe, Nick (eds.). Erôs in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • DeJean, Joan (1989). Fictions of Sappho: 1546–1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • duBois, Page (1995). Sappho is Burning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Fowler, Robert L. (1987). "Sappho fr.31.9". Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies.
  • Gianotti, Gian Franco (1997), Il Canto dei Greci [The Song of the Greeks] (in Italian), Turin: Loescher Editore, pp. 181–187, ISBN 88-201-1409-7
  • 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 (ed.). Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Lardinois, André (2011). "The New Sappho Poem (P.Köln 21351 and 21376): Key to the Old Fragments". Classics@. 4.
  • McEvilley, Thomas (1978). "Sappho, Fragment Thirty One: The Face Behind the Mask". Phoenix. 32 (1).
  • 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 Translation 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 (ed.). 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).
  • Williamson, Margaret (2009). "Sappho and Pindar in the 19th and 20th centuries". In Budelmann, Felix (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Greek Lyric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Winkler, John J. (1990). "The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece". New York: Routledge.

External links[edit]