Sappho’s Memories

The use of exempla in ancient poetry, rhetoric, and historiography has often been thought to be anchored in the notion that historical processes take place in predictable patterns. Exemplary characters and stories can be repeatedly reused in different contexts because the circumstances to which they pertain do not alter significantly. Odysseus’ endurance on his voyage home or Andromache’s mourning for Hector will remain paradigmatic as long as people journey at sea and families are afflicted by war. Aristotle gives expression to this attitude when he says that ‘generally speaking, future events are similar to those of the past’ (ὅμοια γὰρ ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολὺ τὰ μέλλοντα τοῖς γεγονόσιν, Rhet. 1394a7–8). But the vagueness of Aristotle’s phrasing allows for the possibility that ‘future events’ may differ from what has happened previously, and a consciousness of this fact and its potential consequences is central to reflections on exemplarity in the fourth century and later. Cicero laments that men no longer seem able to follow the exempla bequeathed by the past because behaviour has changed (Pro Caelio 39–40), while Maximus of Tyre claims that Homer is exemplary in his discussions of erotic desire, but less so about military tactics or medicine, because men of later times knew better (Or. 18.8).

Sappho and Alcaeus vase
Alcaeus and Sappho, Attic red-figure kalathos, Brygos Painter, c. 470 BC. From Acragas. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, 2416; ARV2, 385, 228.

Yet even at the earliest stages of Greek literature, we find exempla being used in a way that suggests a sophisticated grasp of the differences that changing contexts make to how they can be understood. Particularly striking is Sappho fr. 16, which begins by positing a general truth about the nature of beauty, and proceeds to exemplify this with reference to Helen, who abandoned her home and husband because of her love for Paris:

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

πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι    
π]άντι τ[ο]ῦ̣τ’, ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περσκέ̣θ̣ο̣ι̣σ̣α
κ̣άλ̣λο̣ς̣ [ἀνθ]ρ̣ώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
τ̣ὸν̣ [     ].στον

κ̣αλλ[ίποι]σ̣’ ἔβα ’ς Τροΐαν πλέοι̣[σα

Some say an army of horsemen, some an army of infantry or ships is the fairest thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatever one desires. It is certainly easy to make this comprehensible to everyone. For she who exceeded all mankind in beauty, Helen, left her … husband and sailed to Troy …

Helen’s love causes her to forget her past: she departs for Troy ‘not remembering at all’ her ‘child and dear parents’ (κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων το[κ]ήων / π̣ά[μπαν] ἐμνάσθη). By contrast, the poem makes listeners recall how Helen is presented in the epic tradition (although it is unclear whether the Iliad and Odyssey in the form we possess them were known to Sappho and her early audiences). Such recollections will have constituted the background against which Sappho’s account emerges. By adding an emphasis on Helen’s interior life and perspective that is less strongly developed in epic, the poem invites us to revise the understanding of her that we have inherited from other accounts. In undertaking such revisions, we enact a process which, the poem implies, Sappho herself has already undergone by framing Helen’s story to fit her insight into the connection between desire and beauty. Even as it pictures Helen ‘forgetting’, the poem creates new memories.

Whereas desire makes Helen forget, it makes Sappho remember. The transition from the Helen story to Sappho’s own situation is fragmentary (12–14), but something about it (perhaps Helen herself, perhaps Aphrodite) ‘reminds’ Sappho of Anactoria, who ‘is not present’ (νῦν Ἀνακτορί[ας ὀ]ν̣έ̣μναι- / σ’ οὐ] παρεοίσας). These memories ground a fresh assertion of the claim for the supremacy of erotically-charged experience: ‘I would rather see her lovely walk and the glitter of her face than the Lydian chariots …’ (τᾶ]ς <κ>ε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα / κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω / ἢτὰ Λύδων ἄρματα …). With ‘the glitter of her face’, Sappho gives us a snapshot as evanescent as it is arresting. What is recalled is not the precise contours of a specific face, but a visual impression the motility of which carries over into recollection. Her ‘lovely walk’ similarly blends immediacy and fleetingness. The phrase flickers with Anactoria’s physical allure, but the particular qualities that made her beauty distinctively hers, as well as the wider context in which it occurs elude us (is she walking towards or away from Sappho? Is Sappho remembering a ‘walk’ that she sawoften, or just once?). As we try to imagine Anactoria and realise how little we have to go on, we replay Sappho’s longing for her past.

Alma-Tadema, Sappho Listening to Alcaeus
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Sappho Listening to Alcaeus. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore 37.159.

These emphases on recollection affect how we might conceive the exemplum’s function across time. The poem changes our sense of how Helen’s actions might help us understand the world; similarly, Helen’s flight to Troy would have resonated differently for Sappho when Anactoria was ‘present’, and after her departure. The poem also suggests how an exemplum can be understood from multiple perspectives, moving from an implicit comparison between Sappho and Helen, to an implicit comparison between Sappho remembering Anactoria and Menelaus remembering Helen. Yet for all the suggestiveness of the parallels, Helen’s life is not Sappho’s, and the exemplum can only take Sappho so far in coming to terms with her situation. Her understanding of love’s importance does not mean that she can easily overcome Anactoria’s absence, although it is unclear how or even if this issue was developed(it is unclear whether the fragmentary stanzas that follow ‘the Lydian chariots’ belong to this poem).

Far from positing a minimally-changing field of applicability, the poem shows how an exemplary figure can be understood variously in changing circumstances. Rather than using an exemplum in order to model behaviour, as later writers often do, Sappho explores the limits of its applicability to individual experience. Taken together, the obliqueness of both the exemplum and our access to Sappho’s memories complicate what is involved in the supposedly easy task of ‘making comprehensible’ (σύνετον πόησαι) the poem’s general claim that the fairest thing is the object of one’s desires. Individuals’ experience of desire as a criterion for beauty is both changeable and difficult for others to access. In foregrounding the tension between the exemplum’s explanatory power and the variegations of experience and memory to which it is applied, the poem stages desire’s paradoxically evanescent force.

Seeing Homer

Rubens’ The Death of Hector is a scene from the Iliad replete with un-Homeric details. The armour and red cloaks recall Roman soldiers. Putti are common in Renaissance paintings but not in ancient Greek representations of the Trojan war. For viewers familiar with the Iliad, the putti’s role as spectators is jarringly different from the poem’s presentation of the gods, and Hector’s family, watching the battle (recalled in the painting by the onlookers on the walls). And yet these ‘anachronisms’ are not mistakes, as it would be to say that Rubens lived and worked in fifth century BC Greece. Showing Achilles and Hector in the dress of a later age creates a tradition of heroism in which they act as exemplars, while the putti remind viewers that they necessarily see the painting through modern eyes.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Death of Hector, Musée Des Beaux Arts, Pau, c. 1630-35

This capacity of ‘anachronistic’ phenomena to be more than simply redundant or out of place prompts Jacques Rancière to push aside the pejorative ‘anachronism’ in favour of ‘anachrony’. He uses this term to refer to ‘a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left “its” time’. He locates the power of anachronies in their ‘capacity to define completely original points of orientation’, from which we might see the world, and our temporal experience of it, in unexpected and revealing ways. Such reorientations emerge in many creative engagements with Homer and other ancient writers, and they play a particularly important role in Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a poem that fragments the Iliad into similes and casualty lists. Hers is a poetics that acknowledges its difference from Homer – she aims to convey the poem’s ‘atmosphere, not its story’. Yet by reaching towards the Iliad’s ‘bright, unbearable reality’, she also transplants readers into a frightening, alien world, using the words of the Greek text ‘as openings to see what Homer was looking at’.

This balancing of dependence and departure is especially pronounced in her renderings of the Iliad’s narratives, which she terms ‘paraphrases’ and which often fold complex scenes out of a few sparse hints. Homer’s characterization of Abarbarea as ‘a nymph of the springs’ (νύμφη / νηῒς Ἀβαρβαρέη, Il. 6.21–2) becomes

There was a blue pool who loved her loneliness
Lay on her stones clear-eyed staring at trees
Her name was Abarbarea …

Oswald cleaves closely to ‘what Homer was looking at’ by accentuating the nymph’s strange dual identity as woman and water. We first meet Abarbarea as ‘a blue pool’, while a few lines later her lover ‘jumped … into her arms’. We can see in her ‘clear-eyed staring’ both a fully anthropomorphic gaze and the pool’s water reflecting the trees. Yet ‘loved her loneliness’ is an un-Homeric notion; isolation tends to be associated with despondency or suffering in the Iliad, as when Achilles stares out to sea after his quarrel with Agamemnon, and there is no word in Homer that corresponds precisely to ‘loneliness’. Similarly, no Homeric character manifests the contemplative absorption evoked by ‘staring at trees’. Like Rancière’s ‘anachronies’, these phrases open up a new ‘orientation’ by making us imagine Abarbarea’s experience of her world.

In other passages, Oswald uses vocabulary and ideas that are even more obviously ‘anachronic’, in the sense of not belonging to Homer’s world. Isos and Antiphos ‘came home as proud as astronauts’ before riding out to their deaths, while Hector

… used to nip home defended by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running.

In a rendering of a simile, ‘tribes of summer bees’ are ‘A billion factory women flying to their flower work’. The astronauts, the running motorbike, and the factory show the poet’s workings, tracing imaginative equivalences through which the Iliad becomes freshly meaningful. Hovering between the modern and the ancient, lines like these lay bare the untimeliness of our engagement with Homer. They create a ‘time’ untethered either to that of the Iliad or the experiences of the modern reader, while also intimating that we as readers can never quite be at home in it.

Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011), Fifty Days at Iliam: Shield of Achilles, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1978

Distance from Homer is also at issue in Cy Twombly’s series Fifty Days at Iliam. Representative of its attempt to reprogramme our sense of what it might be to ‘see’ the Iliad is ‘Achilles’ Shield’, in which the refusal of canonical representational conventions is the more provocative for being directed at the foundational ecphrasis of ancient literature. Whereas Homer represents the shield as an ordered series of pictures encompassing a range of social, political, and military activities, Twombly sets a title alongside swirling, apparently amorphous brushstrokes. Homer’s highly structured opposition between scenes of war and peace is replaced by contrasting colours. The painting invites us towards a ‘point of orientation’ in which something is represented to us, while also encouraging us to find between the marks on the canvas and the ‘shield’ of the title correspondences formally different from those that paintings such as Rubens’ establish with their subjects. The position of the ‘shield’ to one side of canvas creates an impression of movement, and we might see the blur of lines as enacting the impression the shield makes on its viewers within the story: at the beginning of Iliad 19, for instance, Achilles’ soldiers are seized by fear at the sight of the shield, and cannot bear to look at it.

Rubens, Oswald, and Twombly create new means of encountering the stories the Iliad tells, but they also evoke a ‘bright, unbearable reality’ that emerges from (their readings of) the poem, and yet is separate from it. Their ‘anachronic’ realizations of this domain remind us that the Iliad itself is not entirely ‘of its time’. The very clarity with which the Iliad projects its world ensures not only that that world can be encountered as an endlessly compelling imaginative resource, but that it can be apprehended as a ‘reality’ in relation to which the poem itself is epigonal.

  • Oswald, A. (2012) Memorial: an excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber).