Sappho, “I asked myself, / What, Sappho, can…”

[I asked myself, / What, Sappho, can…] (from Poetry)
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I asked myself

What, Sappho, can
you give one who
has everything,
like Aphrodite?


Everything: being beautiful, being loved, being in command of love.

It is very strange we feel this way. We do recognize loving as longing, as being incomplete. Of course we want fulfillment, of course there will be pain. It seems we know love as fragmented even as we contemplate its wholeness. We side with the wholeness to a ridiculous degree. It’s understandable this way: the very longing that recognizes itself as longing goes gaga in the face of a satisfaction which will terminate it.

Still, this part of a poem emphasizes how strange all this is. On the one hand, Sappho wants to give to someone who has everything. She wants to honor a wholeness she longs for and maybe get something back. And that brings up yet another strangeness, which is why one would ever think someone who has in terms of love can make another loved.

Why does Aprhodite require any honor? And why would you ever think such honor would get you anything? Sappho looked into herself and found that she wanted to try to give. How does self-reflection lead to pleading?

At least this fragment of a poem has a certain wholeness to it. The question Sappho asks herself is absurd and necessary. That much, at least, is felt.

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