Burning Sappho

Women  have always been the inspiration of men, and just as there are thousands of unknown great ones among men, there have been countless women whose names have never been blazoned across the stars, but who have inspired men on to glory. And as for their fickleness – as long as men write the literature of the world, they will rant about the unfaithfulness of the fair sex, forgetting their own infidelities. Men are as fickle as women. Women have been kept in servitude so long that if they lack in discernment and intellect it is scarcely their fault.

Letter of REH to Harold Preece, circa December 1928

As Robert E. Howard’s best-known correspondent, H.P. Lovecraft was a great admirer of classical Greco-Roman culture and fairly disparaging towards the barbarians on the Empire’s borders, so Howard felt a strong emotional bond with the barbarian outsiders and quite an antipathy towards the Romans. (Except, as he admitted, when they had been fighting eastern peoples like the Persians.)  He was fascinated by the Gaels of Ireland, the Celts in general, and by the wild colorful Middle Ages. (“Oh, a brave time, by Satan!”)  He had far less interest in the classical world. Still, he greatly admired some individuals who had lived in that milieu. He also knew more about it, and them, than most of us do today. Ask most of us – including this blogger – who Elpinice and Aspasia were, or for that matter Anaxagoras, and we’d be lucky if we could give an approximate answer.

For Sappho of Mytilene, REH had a torrent of impassioned praise.

She is famous as one of the greatest Greek poets – in fact; Plato called her “the tenth muse.” But astonishingly little is known of her life. She was born circa 615 BCE on the island of Lesbos, to an aristocratic family, and spent most of her adult years in the town of Mytilene. It is believed that she had several brothers. There is some evidence – not conclusive – that she married a rich man by the name of Cercylas and had a daughter named Cleis. More definitely, she led an academy for unmarried young women in Mytilene, a school devoted to the cult of Aphrodite and her son Eros (Venus and Cupid), winning fame and a high reputation as a teacher.

Lord Byron mentioned her in a telling phrase in “Don Juan.” “The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece/ Where burning Sappho loved and sung … ”  C.L. Moore referred to Byron’s lines in her story “Daemon,”, told by a simpleton with the strange gift of being able to see “the shapes that walk behind” most people, some dark, some bright, some colored, “pale colors like ashes or rainbows.”  He meets a man named Shaugnessy, educated and cultured but dying of illness, who is kind to him and “told me of burning Sappho, and I knew why the poet used that word for her, and I think the Shaugnessy knew too … I knew how dazzling the thing must have been that followed her through the white streets of Lesbos and leaned upon her shoulder while she sang.”

Nearly everything else about Sappho is rumor now – speculation at best. Ovid, centuries after Sappho’s time, averred that she had a love affair with a young sailor, Phaon, which ended badly, and that she threw herself from a cliff while fairly young. Other writers – perhaps more reliable than Ovid, but we can’t be certain – have claimed she died of old age somewhere about 550 BCE.

There is also surprisingly little known of her poetry, because little of it has survived. Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the New Yorker (March 16th, 2015), “The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study. It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.”

The same article (“Girl, Interrupted: Who Was Sappho?”) reminds the readers that the poetess and teacher (“lyric genius whose sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women bequeathed us the adjectives “Sapphic” and “lesbian”) has been controversial for the better part of three thousand years because of her sexuality, not her poetry or teaching. And precious little is known with certainty about that either. Few people – naturally – were or are short on opinions. Even in the ancient world, critics of literature called her style “sublime” while comic playwrights, probably without a quarter of her genius, derided her (allegedly) loose morals. The early Christian church’s theologians were far more severe, and even (I’ve read) burned her work. One described her as a “sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness.”

Citing Mendelsohn again, “A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration.”

Howard, in his letter to Preece quoted above, didn’t so much express as unleash his opinions on that aspect of Sappho’s fame.

Sappho: doubtless the greatest woman poet who ever lived; certainly one of the greatest of all time. The direct incentive of the lyric age of Greece, the age that for pure beauty, surpasses all others. How shall a pen like mine sing of the beauties of Sappho, of the golden streams which flowed from her pen, of her voice which was fairer than the song of a dark star, of the fragrance of her hair and shimmering loveliness of her body? Has it been proven that she was a Lesbian in the generally accepted sense of the word? Who ever accused her but the early Christian (sic) – ignorant monks and monastery swine who were set on breaking all the old golden idols; and Daudet, a libertine, a groveling ape who could see no good in anything; Mure, a drunkard and a blatant braggart whose word I hold of less weight than a feather drifting before a south wind. May the saints preserve Comparetti who was man enough to uphold pure womanhood, and scholar enough to prove what he said.

Howard is referring to Domenico Comparetti (1835-1927), a Roman who took his first degree in mathematics at La Sapienza but learned Greek on his own account and became one of Italy’s foremost classical scholars. He was appointed Professor of Greek at Pisa in 1859. Besides classical subjects, he wrote impressively on others, such as the Kalelvala, the national epic of Finland – but his monograph on Sappho was of most concern to Howard. I wish I could find the actual text, but I’ve not been able to.

REH lived from 1906 to 1936. Violently individualistic as he was, and much as he valued independent thinking and his own views, he had the racism of his day and the sexual attitudes of his day. He regarded any suggestion that Sappho was a Lesbian (in the modern sense) as an insult. His reference to Comparetti as “man enough to uphold pure womanhood” implies that the professor argued in his monograph that Sappho was not a homosexual woman, and that Howard both agreed and saw that as a defense of Sappho’s character.

Some of REH’s stories, such as “A Witch Shall Be Born” and “Red Nails,” hint at lesbian desire in the villainesses, perverse and tainted with sadism. Salome, the evil twin of temperate, honorable Taramis, is described as “a harlot of darkness.” She has no interest in “the deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery.” As she tells her sister, “This world contains all I desire – power, and pomp, and glittering pageantry, handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves.”  She callously allows the mercenary Constantius, her accomplice, to rape Taramis, and having taken her place as queen, “makes no attempt to conceal the debauchery of her court … constantly indulges in the most infamous revelries, in which the unfortunate ladies of the court are forced to join … ”

“Red Nails” has stronger elements of lesbianism in the person of another witch, Tascela. The she-pirate Valeria dislikes her, and the lost city in which Tascela is a power, from the first. “These people were decadent,” Valeria reflects. “Any sort of perversity might … be encountered among them.”  Wounded in a fight, she has her leg bandaged by one of the city’s women, but likes “neither the lingering, caressing touch of her slim fingers nor the expression in her eyes.” Tascela, too, looks upon Valeria with a “burning intensity” from the first, but not for the reason the pirate suspects. She wants to sacrifice Valeria in order to extend her own life and youth, and when Valeria begins to realize this, she finds it “a mystery darker than the degeneracy she had anticipated.”   (“Degeneracy” was a common euphemism of the time, especially in popular fiction, for homosexual or lesbian desire – words that effectively couldn’t be used.)  But Tascela, a witch belonging to an exotic, cruel and decadent tribe, might be expected, like Salome, to have tried everything. Three times.

REH is a lot more direct and erotic on these subjects in his poetry than in his pulp fiction. The specifically titled “Lesbia” has the woman recounting it unabashed in preferring other women to males – with whom she had wide experience before turning to her own sex.

From whence came this grim desire?
What was the wine in my blood?
What raced through my veins like fire
And beat at my brain like a flood?

Bare is the desert’s dust,
Deep is the emerald sea –
Barer my deathless lust,
Deeper the hunger of me.

Goddess I sit and brood –
They cringe to my hell-lit eyes,
The wretched women nude
I have gripped between my thighs.

The references to “my hell-lit eyes” and other phrases like “in strange unnatural clasp” and “darker and barer joys” have strong negative and perverse connotations. The third stanza might have come from the cruel mouth of Tascela herself. The poem does have more positive and joyous lines, as when the woman declares:

These are the wine of delight –
A girl’s ungirdled charms,
A woman’s laugh in the night
As she lies in my eager arms.

They do not dominate, though. And she seems to have a foreboding of her own death in the last stanza. She refers to herself again as a “goddess”, but if she is, by her own estimate she is an outcast goddess, not only rejected but rejecting.

Goddess I sit and laugh,
Nude as the scornful moon –
World and the worlds are chaff
Say, shall my day be soon?

A similar passage is found in the poem “Moon Shame.”

I saw a faint mist shift and fade away –
And there a woman with a woman lay,
In shameful passion and unnatural rape.
Strange were her eyes, icy deep and icy cold,
With passions human soul could never hold …

The “woman” in this case is not human, but a supernatural manifestation of the moon, invoked in a pagan ritual. Almost the same theme, but handled very differently, is found in Elizabeth A. Lynn’s story “The Woman Who Loved the Moon.” It’s tragic and beautiful; Lynn is a superb writer. She’s also sympathetic to same-sex lovers. But her heroine, Kai, after her sisters have both been killed in duels with a lunar spirit offended by a boy’s enthusiastic comment that his ladies outshine even the moon, exclaims in anguish, “It was cruel!  Are we to blame for what fools say?”  The answer she receives is, “The elementals are cruel.”  The story won a World Fantasy Award, by the way.

Lesbians in fantasy often have been portrayed as cold-hearted and cruel. The witch and the vampire in literature have often had elements of lesbianism in their portrayal, from le Fanu’s Carmilla to REH’s Tascela. Perhaps REH held the common prejudice of his time that real life lesbians were like that, or perhaps he simply used the stereotype. He certainly depicted heterosexual desire from a dark and perverse angle on occasion, as in his poem “Mylitta.” It’s interesting that the letter to Preece quoted above was written in the same year as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, its protagonist a lesbian who feels, with abundant reason, like a social outcast. The book caused a furor, even though it has no explicit sexual scenes and in fact is mild as milk by today’s standards. The incensed editor of the “Sunday Express” wrote, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.”

(Anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham had similar views, and even blasted Wonder Woman as a “lesbian counterpart of Batman … for boys a frightening image, for girls a morbid ideal.”  Well, she was an Amazon princess with her home on “Paradise Island” where men were forbidden to land. A group of young girls idolized her. And along with “By Hera!” and “Thunderbolts of Jove!,” WW’s exclamations often included, “Suffering Sappho!”)

Ancient Greece was a frankly bisexual culture, for men at least, though love between women may have been held in less esteem, and they were generally confined to the home and the authority of fathers and husbands, unless they were hetaerae. Sappho was privileged; she belonged to the aristocracy and tutored an academy. She would have enjoyed more freedom than most women of her time. She spent years in exile in Sicily, but that was because her family ran into political trouble, not because of her personal life.

Her poetry doesn’t leave much room for doubt about her desires. They express intense yearning, passion and sometimes anguish, addressed to other women, and it would take a sour spirit to find anything dark or malignant in them. As stated, sadly little of her work has come down to us, and that fragmentary, but a couple of samples should be enough to illustrate the point.

… with many a flower necklace
You encircled your tender throat,
Plaiting blossoms together to make a wreath,
And with flowery perfumes …
Precious, queenly …
You anointed yourself …
And on beds of soft luxury
You would satisfy all your longing
For that tender girl …

[…]

Artfully adorned Aphrodite, deathless
Child of Zeus and weaver of wiles I beg you
Please don’t hurt me, don’t overcome my spirit,
goddess, with longing …

[…]

What I now most wanted to happen in my
raving heart: “Whom this time should I persuade to
lead you back again to her love?  Who now, oh
Sappho, who wrongs you?

[…]

If she flees you now, she will soon pursue you;
If she won’t accept what you give, she’ll give it;
If she doesn’t love you, she’ll love you soon now,
even unwilling.

Come to me again, and release me from this
want past bearing. All that my heart desires to
happen – make it happen. And stand beside me,
goddess, my ally.

I’d say Sappho speaks for herself, even across centuries, better than any academic theorist could. Robert E. Howard thought so too, whether he was right or wrong about her sexuality. There seems no better way to close this post than by quoting him again:

No prude was Sappho but a full blooded woman, passionate and open hearted with a golden song and a soul large enough to enfold the whole world … The translation is weak and pallid in comparison with the “winged words” of the original Greek. But even so we catch the haunting melody, the wistful yet powerful, almost overcoming beauty of the songs of Sappho. God be with her – gone to the dust twenty-five hundred years ago – more than two thousand years ago.