Sappho, Dickinson and Centuries Old Desire
Art of all forms has been struggling to define love since the first man fell for the first woman. Poets, in particular, use love as an encompassing theme, a foundation on which to focus their art. And yet a poet cannot be given love—if it were easy to love and be loved in return, there would be no conflict, no agony to translate to paper and ink. Emily Dickinson and the Ancient Greek Poet, Sappho, demonstrate this torment of love in quite a few of their most famous poems. Often for them, love is a kind of negative force that pains them beyond description, and yet fuels their fire for life simultaneously. In this paper I am going to compare two poems: Dickinson’s “269” and Sappho’s “20”. These poems, written by women socially compelled to restrain from acting on their lusts, speak very differently about love; yet both women feel an unrequited passion that leaves the soul craving more than consummation. By their use of conceit, object correlative, and punctuation, both Sappho and Dickinson scramble to define and, thereby, dominate their overwhelming desire.
To go chronologically, we will start with Sappho. Poem “20” is written from the perspective of the poet quietly observing her beloved and the ‘other woman’ with whom he is flirting. Much of this poem can be called an object correlative, because Sappho never puts into words the emotion she is feeling, and yet when she speaks of the “laughter that stings (her) breasts” and the “chill sweat (that) slides down (her) body”, the reader is able to inference the wave of jealousy that comes over her. The way she describes her sensations paints us a picture that begins externally with the senses and eventually forms the poet’s internal thoughts and feelings:
If I dare the shock of a glance
I cannot speak,
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths. (7-12)
She is jealous as well as desirous, irritated, amorous, nervous and enraged. Without explicitly writing any of these words, Sappho makes us feel all of those things in the split second with her, a beautiful example of the power of correlatives. Her sensations are a reaction to an observation that affects an emotion so deeply rooted in her Self, she cannot name it. By simply recording her sensations, she leads the reader on an even more involved journey while she is experiencing it herself.
Sappho achieves these vivid images by her use of punctuation as well. No comma or period is haphazardly placed: all mean a change of thought, a dramatic pause, or a moment for reflection. See how she opens “20” with a stuttering, unsure air of tentative anxiety:
He seems to be a god, that man
Facing you, who leans to be close,
Smiles, and, alert and glad, listens
To your mellow voice (1-4)
She involves you in every moment, every touch, by unraveling the scene the very instant it happens. It takes longer to read these lines because they mimic the timeline of life. The reader is narrating what is happening before the poet’s eyes—the commas make it seem like that moment lasts forever. Dickinson, similarly, uses punctuation in a unique and effective way, though instead of commas, she uses undefinable dashes to sketch the speed of her thoughts in lines such as:
Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee! (9-12)
These dashes give the reader a sense of urgency in one interpretation, a feeling of the mind wandering in another, and some dashes even seem to be a symbol of interruption, where the poet is unable to articulate her true feelings.
Dickinson embodies her passion in a poem addressed to her lover; “269” consists of only three stanzas made up of very short lines—some only two words apiece. Dickinson’s ability to capture the very essence of love in so few words is done through many techniques, conceit being one of the main ones:
Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart! (5-8)
Here Dickinson uses an elongated metaphor to bring the reader on the ‘voyage’ of her emotion, which feels, to her, like a ship in port. She had already established the separation between her and her lover, and the helplessness she feels at this situation is a natural inference made in the first stanza. The parallel drawn between herself and a ship is meant to stir the image of a vessel that rides the waves (often representative of romance, love, and passion) and allows them to steer her. Ideally, the two beings (ship and sea) work harmoniously together, woven in a kind of symbiotic relationship that is liberating and unrestrained. However, when the ship is forced to dock, when it is tied or anchored down, neither the winds nor the waves are of any sway to it. Dickinson brings this image of an imprisoned ship gracefully into our minds without much description or explanation.
The startlingly sexual connotations of “269” are cleverly enveloped in this metaphor of a tumultuous sea stroking the sides of a stalwart ship. In only 43 words, Dickinson says so many things at once! She speaks directly to her lover leaving nothing undisclosed, so the reader feels almost like an intruder:
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury! (1-4)
In this poem, Dickinson reveals her passionate, vulnerable side: a trait that she shares, incidentally, with Sappho. Both women have a quality to their poetry that is innately feminine and intriguingly honest. Both are poets of desire, whether they are desirous of man, woman, child, sanity, freedom, or perfect poetry, their writing has great resonance with the readers who admire it because of the longing injected into every word.
These poets of desire not only define love as something intangible and undefinable, they use the common feeling to unite all people and reduce them to their simpler forms: beings of lust and loss, ever seeking to find balance between the two. The only thing that could possibly unite these two unlikely poets is that transcendental emotion that strings centuries together: love. These two poems beautifully embody the synergy of technique and emotion, a formula for success that only great poets come to master.
(By Kaylie Hayter)
(By Kaylie Hayter)