In Swinburne's dramatic monologue "Anactoria," the poet chooses to explore the theme of violent, bitter love through the voice of the famous fifth-century B.C. love poet Sappho. In this poem, Swinburne provides his speaker with an extraordinarily passionate voice on the matter of the love for another woman that she originally wrote of in her poetry from around 600 B.C. At first, the female speaker simply begins by accounting for her lover's leaving her by presuming that this woman is too weak for the immensity of her love. "Are thine/ Too weak to bear these hands and lips of mine?" she asks her in rationality (lines 15-16). Yet, for the speaker Sappho, this explanation stands as far from enough to justify her own pain at the thought of her lover moving on from their relationship. Thus, she next commands her female lover by saying, "I charge thee keep thy lips from her or his,/ Sweetest, til theirs be sweeter than my kiss" (lines 19-20). Strikingly however, Swinburne also has the young Sappho exclaim that "I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated/ With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead" (lines 23-24). Even more striking is the fact that, so gripped by love and jealousy is Swinburne's speaker, she proclaims she would not only see her lover dead rather than alive in this way, but "would find grievous ways to have [her] slain" (line 27). Although it may not seem unusual or extraordinary that a lover would wish his or her lover dead when their relationship ends badly, but here Swinburne means to shock with this detailed description of a woman's desire to inflict pain and even torture on the former lover as a result of a relationship's end. He writes explicitly that she wishes she could inflict on her lover "Intense device, and superflux of pain;" and has her proclaim
[I would] Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake
Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache;
Strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill,
Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill. [lines 28-32]
From this Swinburne means for us to grasp the immense passion and intensity of this woman's love. He means both to shock us with it and to have the reader relate to and experience sympathy for it. Swinburne, however, establishes a sense of justice and retribution for the speaker of this poem. In the end, Sappho recognizes and says to her lover,
Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine,
Except these kisses of my lips on thine
Brand them with immortality. [lines 201-203]
In this way, it is only Sappho's love for her lover that will give her worth through the ages of time. On the other hand, Swinburne has Sappho imagine herself living on through it all as a result of her immense love and expression of it through poetry.
I Sappho shall be one with all these things,
With all high things for ever; and my face
Seen once, my songs once heard in a strange place,
Cleave to all men's lives. [lines 276-279]
Sappho proclaims not only this by the end of the poem, but that also "they shall say, earth's womb has borne in vain/ New things, and never this best thing again" (281-282). At this point then, the speaker succeeds in looking beyond the pain that she experiences out of love. She here recognizes her own great worth as lover and poet in the context of the very universe itself. in this way Sappho ultimately triumphs over both her lover and the pain of love that tortures her. In this way her passion and suffering live on through all the ages.
1. Swinburne has Sappho proclaim that
albeit I die indeed
And hide myself and sleep and no man heed,
Of me the high God hath not his will (lines 264-267),
2. What might Swinburne mean to suggest with the lines spoken by the goddess of love when she says to Sappho, "Even she that flies shall follow for thy sake" (line 81). Could the line simply serve as an example of Sappho's wishful imagination, or might it imply some figurative (if not literal) return of Sappho's lover to her arms?
3. As a reader, do you feel as if Swinburne means for you to pity or to have complete disgust for the way in which the speaker deals with the pains of love here? Why?
4. How would this poem's effect change if Sappho addressed a man rather than a woman here? Do you think Swinburne's Victorian society might have reacted with more or with less shock to such an alteration?