This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

In perhaps Sappho’s most quoted fragment, a preoccupation with her reputation to prosperity is immediately and ironically apparent. Most likely addressing a lover, Sappho writes: ‘someone will remember us / I say / even in another time,’ (trans. Carson). Yet the ways in which Sappho’s work has been interpreted and conceptualised throughout time has been anything but straightforward, simultaneously frustrated by her work’s fragmentation and by the complexities of identity politics.

Today Sappho’s name is synonymous for queer female desire, and her homeland is the etymology behind the English word ‘lesbian.’ With this in mind, one would be justified in the assumption that Sappho’s status as a queer figure is unanimously uncontested. In reality, Sappho’s sexuality has been subject to scrutiny within academia for centuries, and the effort to have her voice recognised as a queer one is ongoing.

An early example of this is the work of classical scholar Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, whose ‘vindication’ of Sappho’s character became one of the most influential theories about her in the nineteenth century. In Welcker’s view, Sappho’s love for women was thoroughly chaste; there was ‘nothing sensual’ and consequently nothing ‘punishable’ in her poems. In other words, it would be erroneous to interpret Sappho’s perspective on women as anything other than a depiction of platonic friendship. That Welcker felt the necessity for such a fervent defence of Sappho’s morality, as DeJean points out, implies that Sappho’s work was read with acknowledgement of its subversive potential even prior to 1816. However, the immediate popularity of Welcker’s theory also indicates a disciplinary anxiety to bring Sappho back within the realm of the respectably heterosexual.

Perhaps surprisingly, Welcker’s neutralisation of female sexuality is not as unforgiving to queer readings as some theories that have abounded in contemporary academic circles. Whilst his perspective concretely erases the queer possibilities of Sappho’s work, it at least recognises that her poems represent tenderness between women, even if he does not concede that this tenderness is romantic or erotic. By contrast some twentieth century arguments can seem especially unforgiving, some suggesting that the first female poet in Western literature was a ‘persona’ created by a man. Admittedly, this is not the most widely accepted of the theories that deny the possibility of a lesbian Sappho. Perhaps most pervasive is the argument that she writes her verses from a collective and choral perspective. Lardinois, for instance, interprets her poems to be about ‘the general attractiveness’ of ‘the girl’, rather than a personalexpression of desire to a specific girl. Through this lens queer desire becomes nothing more radical than a vague aesthetic appreciation.

Dissatisfying as these theories can be to those invested in queer history, there is simply no evidence to prove or disprove them. Questions about Sappho’s biography can never be answered with certainty, and therefore cannot be absolutely refuted. What we can point to, however, is the double-standard within historiography that has for so long put the work of marginalised voices under such unbalanced and intensive scrutiny. We can point to the critics who use fragments with ambiguous Greek to argue in favour of heterosexual interpretations, whilst conveniently choosing to overlook texts (like Fragment 94) where homoeroticism is more overt. Selectively constructing Sappho’s identity in this way suggests not only an underlying prejudice, but a concerted effort to erase the suggestion of queerness from her historical and cultural position.

To defend Sappho’s queer identity, let’s return to the only evidence we have of her that is not founded on conjecture – her work. As Haselswerdt compellingly argues, Sappho’s queer potential is not (and has never been) biographical, but in the fact that her work expresses ‘an embodied desire that is free from the gendered hierarchies that saturate both of our [ancient and modern] societies.’ In a classical canon dominated by men, Sappho’s fluid perspective of desire already works towards ‘queering’ the established conventions created by other surviving texts. In essence, her poems are structurally queer, using form as well as content as a radical tool for undermining rigid gender binaries. Even the ambiguity of Sappho’s language, although often used to dismiss lesbian interpretations, can form part of this structural defiance. To use Fragment 102 as an example, the subject of the speaker’s ‘longing’ is described with a word that could equally be translated as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. Sappho omits the use of a gendered article that would conventionally make this distinction, thereby confronting us with a subject that is simultaneously male and female, an impossibility in the binary. This amorphous configuration of gender, especially through the lens of desire, remains unequivocally queer regardless of long-lost and inscrutable authorial intention. 

Even prior to the relatively recent construction of ‘sexuality’ as an identity category in the nineteenth century, queer people looked to historical figures as a way of placing their desires within a legitimising context. Sappho has provided self-identified ‘sapphics’ with this legitimising context for centuries, representing a rare historical precedent for many without direction. For historians looking back for evidence of this oft-unspoken (and therefore undocumented) history, the endeavour has almost always entailed a negotiation for space; not just a searching for subtext between coded lines, but an inevitable fight against dismissal if those lines are indeed decoded. The case with Sappho is no different. The key to her reclamation is nevertheless at hand, albeit in fragments, and in the willingness to engage with their text without biographical preconceptions.

By Amber Barry