Sappho, “That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”

A failed date here, a denied opportunity there—rejection has compounded lately, becoming more than incidental. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Misery, especially lonely misery, demands company, and I believe I found fellowship with Sappho, who perhaps scratched the following after a walk meant to give her thoughts space to breathe:

 “That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

That afternoon

Girls ripe to marry
wove the flower-
heads into necklaces

That afternoon, as if the morning itself strolled by. There were other meanderings, other anxieties. But then she witnessed girls ripe to marry, who wove… flower-heads into necklaces. Girls who blossomed took blossoms and created still further beauty. The Greek kosmos, from which we get “cosmic” and “cosmetic,” seems to say ornaments work best when they show how everything fits into a natural order. An order which those of us who don’t fit—who are single and bitter—are forced to see, whether through Arcady or Instagram.

Eros is self-reinforcing in the extreme. Sappho’s hopes are the trap, the expectations written into the world. It feels while we read like a wedding should happen, as she feels a wedding should happen.

I

It is natural for us to ask, seek, and perhaps find. Rejection is natural for a social creature, a human being.

But how to process rejection? Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills. He found happiness, but was what he saw very different from Sappho? Not girls making necklaces out of flowers, but flowers themselves dancing in the breeze beside a lake:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (from Poetry)
William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

What I find off-putting about this poem may actually contain the poem’s strengths. I believe the imagery too simple—e.g. I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils. There’s the matter of the singsong rhythm and the couplets—beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze. A glorification of naiveté results, as if experience could be had without reflection or perspective. If we didn’t think too much, maybe we would see a wholeness in nature, a providential order linking the stars that shine and twinkle on the milky way with ten thousand [flowers]… tossing their heads in sprightly dance. Maybe that wholeness would be healing, as the last couplet attests: And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.

I am tempted not to give this poem a second glance, but then I realize the very tropes making it a childlike song mean that it can speak to children. In other words, if children feel lonely, alienated, or depressed, Wordsworth can recognize those feelings and speak to them directly. He helps give voice to those who don’t have the vocabulary or sophistication to say, for example, that they are trapped in a state of mind where they can only see the world but not control it or themselves in it. Instead, they can say they feel distant or floating—you know, like a cloud.

Moreover, I’m not entirely sure that the sight of flowers simply overwhelmed Wordsworth and he achieved happiness as well as a basis for future happiness. The poem seems to depict his memory of an incident, but it is an incident which he recalls on a regular basis—For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They [the flowers] flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude. That “inward eye” is not just recollection. It is also the imagination, the image-making faculty. Wordsworth draws our attention to this by explicitly calling himself a “poet” in the third stanza.

It stands to reason that this little scene of daffodils dancing by a lake in the breeze has been built over time. The moment of transformation itself he shows a peculiar reserve toward: A poet could not but be gay, / In such a jocund company. He was drawn to happiness, we could say, more than overwhelmed with it. I gazed—and gazed—but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought—the moment itself was glorious, but it was his gazing—a gazing he repeats often, with his “inward eye”—that generates “wealth” for him. He is explicit he did not know this when he first encountered the flowers. There was no miracle of the natural world which changed his attitude. He makes the effort to build to happiness from the material of his own life and dreams, returning to one seemingly simple joy as a touchstone.

II

One might say, not unrightly, that Wordsworth embraces a providence which Sappho’s fragment shows potentially painful. Wordsworth is emphatic about “solitude” above, as if his inward eye, left to itself, can access a power beyond this world. But last I checked, I don’t want to be lonely. I’d really like it if the “ghosting” would stop and I didn’t walk around thinking everyone else had love and bliss.

Do I have any choice in the matter? Recently, I finished Donald Hall’s Essays after Eighty, where Hall depicts unsparingly what it’s like to be disabled and aged. In an essay entitled “Out the Window,” he talks at length about what he sees outside his window from his armchair before switching to remembrances of his family, long gone. I’ll let him introduce himself:

Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody….

I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

Hall demonstrates an incredible optimism in this passage, but if you were wondering, he has lost many close to him, his physical frailty means he is incredibly dependent on other people, and yes, he can be stuck for extraordinarily long periods with nothing to do but look out the window.

The break with Sappho and Wordsworth is the break with beauty. The absence of beauty is the absence of providence, and for our purposes, this is a good thing. It is “preferable” to survive in the best shape one can possibly hold than to die young, although this is itself contingent. Hall obviously has the full use of his mental faculties, and his collection of essays does not forget to mention how many people are in his life at the time of his writing, helping him survive. It is “better” to sit at the window all day, as opposed to think about what has been lost. That doesn’t mean the losses are insignificant.

Hall’s happiness stands relative to his circumstances. He is at the mercy of any number of forces, but he’ll take what he can get. His happiness builds from necessity. I find it superior to Wordsworth’s, despite a similar process attending both their reflections. Meeting the daffodils is the same as looking out the window, no? Not quite—what if you have no choice but to look out the window, a prisoner of your own body?

I don’t know how I feel about a comparison to what I get from Sappho. Beauty piled upon beauty, as in the fragment, screams absurdity. The opposite of loneliness, though, isn’t a perfect world where lovers hold hands all the time and one feels accepted and valued at all moments. I’ve been alone enough to know that being loved has a value entirely its own. It’s so hard to communicate that we exaggerate it, as if it were a reflection of the cosmic order or something we could will for ourselves. To be sure, this doesn’t mean being unloved means one is somehow inferior. It does mean the hope of being loved, the ability to appreciate it, stands all the greater, and one’s embrace of solitude or necessity is not an absence of love but a demonstration of its potential.

References

Hall, Donald. “Out the Window.” In Essays after Eighty. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 4.

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