“May you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend:” Sappho

It’s truly amazing to me that any of Sappho’s words have managed to make their way to us from the sixth century BC. Heck, my paperbacks from 5 years ago have weak spines and yellowed pages and yet these papyrus rolls have survived. And what words:

“Evening, you gather back what dawn has put asunder.”

“I would not think to touch the sky with two arms.”

 “You burn me.”

 “You came and I was crazy for you, And you cooled my mind that burned with longing.”

These translations come from Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter which I highly recommend—it’s the least fussy translation I’ve come across—though all of the brackets she uses to acknowledge gaps in the existing original text can get a bit distracting. Reading If Not, Winter alongside Erica Jong’s novelization of Sappho’s life, Sappho’s Leap, was an excellent reminder to read the original. Actually, I’m a huge fan of historical fiction (give me I, Claudius over Suetonius any day) but Erica Jong is not Robert Graves or Mary Renault. At some point everyone has co-opted Sappho to their cause so it’s no surprise that an author much interested in women’s sexuality in the modern age would turn to Lesbos. Really, it isn’t. Have I mentioned you should read the poetry? 

Anyway, reading all of this Sappho got me thinking about love, longing, desire and the book’s we’ve read. Why does love usually end so badly? Or is it just that we only write about it when it ends badly? It seems no one wants to write about sweetness and light:

Most Tragic Love

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock

I Really Wish This Had Ended Differently

Kitty and Nance from Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This Wasn’t Going to End Well—and It Didn’t

Lilly “Aimee” and Felice “Jaguar” from Aimee and Jaguar by Erica Fischer

The narrator and Louise in Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Who Are You Kidding?

Evelyn and Ann from Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule

Most Likely to be Living in Park Slope with 2 kids and a dog (tragedy or pinnacle of domestic bliss, you decide)

Annie and Liz from Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

Unsurprisingly, I’m having trouble with this one:

Best Lesbian Love Story

And, in honor of Sappho in particular:

Best Unrequited Lesbian Love Story

Chime in here or let me know on the facebook page!


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3 Responses to “May you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend:” Sappho

  1. dijeratic says:

    Great article – am enjoying your site (being a bookish lesbian writer meself). The best unrequited lesbian love story I’ve read is probably Ali Smith’s ‘Like.’ Most people are only familiar with Hotel World or the Accidental, but Like is more than worthy to be among them. It’s a truly enigmatic book with gorgeous prose. Next to Smith, I’ll put Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask or even Hood – which is more of an examination of a long-term relationship that (for one of the party at least) often felt unrequited.

    • Consider Like moving up the list–thanks for the suggestion. And, I’ll have to try those Emma Donoghue’s as well. I really like her as a person but I’ve had a mixed experience with the two books of hers I have read. Given I love historical fiction, I was very surprised not to have liked Slammerkin more and while I did really like Room there’s nary a lesbian character so a bit disappointed. Guess it’s time to just read some more!

      • dijeratic says:

        I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with Donoghue’s earlier work – Stir Fry or Hood – they are smaller works, but her talent makes them feel a little epic. Touchy Subjects is a nice collection as well, though I found Landing to be a bit bumpy (pun intended).

        Ali Smith is really at her best with her short stories and any of her collections are worth having.

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