here was something about the waning Thanksgiving Day dinner conversation that reminded me of Sappho and Christina Rossetti. Our quaint table of picked-over turkey and dressing became a thiasos, an all-female fellowship. The ice melted slowly in the sweet iced-tea as I sat and listened to my mother and aunt recount the stories of their divorces. Their stories were not even remotely similar, but what I noticed was the quiet strength that both of these women drew from hardship, a hardship, nevertheless, brought on by men. The similarity I discovered from these two very different stories was hidden beneath a refining that each of my relatives underwent as a result of much pressure. So, as the Jell-O mold relaxed in the warmth of the room, so did I. My mind wandered in and out of their conversation — into my aunt's story and out of my mother's. I thought about Sappho and Christina Rossetti — females in Ancient Greece and Victorian England. If they could communicate with each other, would they have something to share? Would these two women, a couple thousand years apart, relate in such a way that an onlooker could recognize their kinship? Is there a kinship? Would Sappho's daughter or Rossetti's sister begin to mentally wonder as I did? Would this onlooker take a silent journey within, mysteriously connecting two very different stories? I believe so.
Just like my mother and my aunt, Sappho and Christina Rossetti share a common ground; a place that comes from deep inside where "she" is not allowed a voice or a place in a man's world. "She" must go against the male-dominated grain and create her own voice and place worthy of recognition. These are the kinds of questions and answers feminist theorists address. Without feminist theory, we could not even attempt to ask these questions because the inquiry itself would be invalid. Some would still consider these questions invalid, if not inane; but I don't think so, because questions push us into a realm only doodled in by the daring, the red-lined forbidden margins of history where Sappho and Christina Rossetti live silently.
There are some striking similarities between Sappho and Christina Rossetti. First, and most important, is the fact that they both lived in male-centered cultures, societies which prized the achievements of men over women. As a matter of fact, women were rarely awarded achievement status at all in either of these cultures. This fact is an important one because I believe it provides fertile soil for the worldviews from which these women wrote. Their tiny seeds of voices were pushed down until it was inevitable that something had to sprout; for Sappho and Rossetti, the harvest was abundant. A second similarity between the two is that the scholarship done on them recently has been rather myopic. Sappho's critics focus on the lesbianism in her poetry, and Rossetti's critics focus on the dichotomous imagery in her texts. By focusing too closely on one area, critics miss the bigger picture, a picture that shows the relationship of women to history, and history to now. By steadily listening to the faint voices of women throughout history, we can better understand our own voices now.
Sappho lived in Greece in the area of Lesbos around 600 BCE. She was the only woman of her time whose "literary productions placed her on the same level as the greatest male poets, in other words, with Homer" (Glenn 20). Ancient Greek women did not do much of anything, if we consider doing as an act recognized by men. The majority of the time, women were supposed to be available for sexual reproduction only. Rarely, if ever, did women write. There were, however, a small group of women who lived sequestered from men. These women did try to educate themselves within their small circle, or thiaso. Sappho was in one of these circles.
Sappho chose to occupy her time with writing, an honored profession among men. Cheryl Glenn says that Sappho wrote an amazing nine books of lyric poems in her lifetime. Two hundred of these poems are left fragmented and only one is left in its entirety (21). Women generally did not write in Greek society, and if they did they certainly did not receive credit or esteem for their writing. As a matter of fact, women were just higher than slaves in the hierarchy of society. Surprisingly, Glenn states that a male contemporary of Sappho, Alcaeus, commented on her beautiful style of writing: "O weaver of violets, holy, sweet-smiling Sappho" (22).
Another male contemporary of Sappho, Strabo, wrote "Mitylene is well provided with everything. It formerly produced celebrated men such as Pittacus, one of the Seven Wise Men; Alcaeus the poet, and others. Contemporary with these persons flourished Sappho, who was something wonderful; at no period within memory has any woman been known who in any, even the least degree, could be compared to her for poetry" (Prins 59). Sappho's poetry exuded a certain point of view that ancient Greece seldom, if ever, saw. It was the point of view of a woman. I do not think that Sappho wrote to sound her ancient feminist voice; actually, she may have even been oblivious to the fact that she had a voice. No, I think Sappho wrote where she was and while she was, and maybe for no other reason than to just write.
Dubois, Paige. Sappho is Burning. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.
Rossetti materials in the Victorian Web.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life. New York: Viking, 1995.
Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
Rennert, Laura J. "Christina Rossetti's Purgatorial Poetics." Womens Studies 28:3 (1999): 249-280.
Last modified 22 April 2000