Ancient & Modern: The Modern Language of Love

κα]ὶ γ[ὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
<αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,>
<αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει>
<κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

In fact, if she flees you now, soon she’ll pursue,
and if she refuses gifts now, later she’ll give them,
and if she doesn’t love you now, soon she will love –
in spite of herself
Sappho  191P.21-24

When we in the West write about physical love, when we think about physical love, when we fantasize about physical love, we do so largely in a vocabulary whose origins lie in the rich amatory language developed by the Greek poetess Sappho (c. 630-570 BCE).  As Europe’s earliest surviving monodist, Sappho expanded the metaphorical applicability of traditional Homeric language and imagery, drawn as it was largely from the timeless rhythms of nature both animate and inanimate.

Her great and abiding gift to Western poetry is the eroticizing of a traditional lexicon and the establishment of verbal categories for us to conceptualize, in intellect, the heart’s manifestations of profound and often inchoate yearnings for passionate physical love.  The passage cited above from her famous ‘Aphrodite Ode’ is but one of many possible illustrations of this thesis.  The language is clearly based on the dream-like passage in Book 22 of Homer’s Iliad, where Hector tries in vain to escape from uncompromising pursuit by the murderous Achilles.  Hector is caught and killed.  Sappho inverts the Homeric circumstances in that the inescapable military pursuit that there eventuates in grim death has here become the promise by Aphrodite of the desired ardent pursuit and passionate capture not for death but for love.  Further, at the end of the poem Sappho pleads in typical hymnal fashion with Aphrodite (as Hector had with the disguised Athena) to be a ‘fellow warrior, an ally’ (σύμμαχος ἔσσο  summakhos esso) in this amatory battle with the recalcitrant girl she loves.

This originally military ‘chase’ typology is virtually institutionalized in later love poetry.  We find it perhaps most ubiquitously, remarkably, and darkly some six centuries later in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE).  Ovid of course proved to be a primary conduit of this language, its rhetoric, and its thematics into the early Romance vernaculars and, ultimately, the Renaissance and the modern world, in both ‘high’ literature and popular incarnations like film and Billboard’s Top Ten.

If you have ever felt yourself speechless in the sudden presence of your beloved, well, Sappho was tongue-tied too (199P.9);  if your beloved ever made you feel as though a thin tendril of fire were suddenly creeping along under your skin, well so did Sappho’s.  Did your limbs ever tremble when you beheld the object of your passion, and did a sweat break out all over your body, and did you turn paler than grass, and did you ever wish you could just up and die on the spot when you saw your beloved talking to someone else or laughing at what someone else was saying – well, so did Sappho some twenty-six hundred years ago.  And have you ever, like Sappho (195P.17-18), visualized in the private chambers of you mind the “sexy gait” (ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα) of an absent beloved, or the “flashing sparkle” (κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον) in the eyes of the face you love?  Did you ever, like Cole Porter, get no kick from champagne and find that flying in a plane bored you just ter-ri-fi-cal-ly too, but get a kick out of “you” – well, the rhetorical strategy (known formally as a priamel) here is pure Sappho (to fit my context, I translate rather loosely!):

I get no big kick from an army of cavalry,
nor one of infantry on the dark earth,
nor from a fleet of ships,
but from the one I love!

ο] μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπ[] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν
]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ
[]τω τις ἔραται·

It strikes me as deeply ironic that our most pervasive metaphors and expressive imagery for talking about heterosexual physical love are appropriated from the poetry of a homosexual female whose toponym, Lesbos, the island in the northeastern Aegean where she lived almost three millennia ago, has furnished us with our word ‘lesbian’.  Given the unseemly hysteria today on the part of certain scary groups — so much more moral  than your or I – with direct pipelines to God’s will on both male and female homosexuality, we do well, I believe, to think hard about ultimate origins for our vocabulary of heterosexual love.

The dialectal Greek and extreme lexical and metrical economy of Sappho’s poetry lends itself poorly to the more diffuse modulations of modern English.  Still, read translations of the impassioned verse of this passionate woman who still speaks to us across so many centuries with such compelling directness and immediacy – about something that in one way or another most of us, regardless of sexual orientation, spend so much of our lives thinking about and pursuing – or fleeing.  As the (male) poet Mimnermus, Sappho’s contemporary from the late seventh century BCE, said:

What is life, what is delight without golden Aphrodite?
I hope to die when these matters no longer interest me —
passion in secret, and the sweet gifts of the bed,
such as are the flowers of youth in all their allure
for men and women …

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή,
οἷ’ ἥβης ἄνθ<εα> γίνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν

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