Homo ludens at play with the songs of Sappho: Experiments in comparative reception theory, Essay Three

2019.01.25 | By Gregory Nagy

This posting for 2019.01.24 is Essay Three of a long-term project that started with Essay One at 2019.01.08 and continued with Essay Two at 2019.01.16. The numbering of my paragraphs here in Essay Three continues from where I left off at the concluding paragraph §52 of Essay Two, which had continued from where I had left off at the concluding paragraph §33 of Essay One. In Essay Three, as in Essays Two and One, I analyze examples of ancient texts composed by male authors who playfully imitate Sappho by appropriating aspects of her songs in their own literary creations. The primary examples in Essay Three here come from the poetry of Catullus.

The Kiss (1859). Francesco Hayez (1791–1881).
The Kiss (1859). Francesco Hayez (1791–1881). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Prologue: comparing the “kissing poems” of Catullus with mentions of kissing in the songmaking of Sappho

§53. I start Essay Three by offering some compressed comments on Poems 5 and 7 of Catullus, the so-called “kissing poems.” Both of these poems create a poetic impression about kisses that are being exchanged between a pair of lovers. The two lovers are (1) a self-staged Catullus, who speaks as ‘I’ in the first person, and (2) a staged puella or ‘girl’ named Lesbia, who is spoken to as ‘you’ in the second-person. Their kisses, says the first-person ‘I’ of Catullus to the second-person ‘you’ of Lesbia, are so many and so frequent that they are simply beyond counting. That is the poetic impression being created—even though there is a feigned attempt, in both poems, to arrive at a fixed count of kisses. I argue here in Essay Three that a comparable impression is created in the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe. As we already saw in Essay Two, the boy and the girl in the story are constantly exchanging kisses with each other—every possible chance they get. There is always a desire for more kisses: as Daphnis says at 1.18.1: καὶ ὅμως πάλιν φιλῆσαι θέλω ‘and yet, I want [thelō] to kiss [phileîn] again [palin]’. There is always a desire for just one more kiss, one more time, followed interminably by a desire for just one more time. With reference to the seemingly interminable kissing that goes on between Daphnis and Chloe, I already argued in Essay Two that the poetics of the kiss in the erotic novel about those two lovers can be traced back to Sappho. And now I make a parallel argument here in Essay Three with reference to the interminable kissing between the pair of lovers in Catullus 5 and 7: in these two poems as well, the poetics of the kiss can be traced back to Sappho.

§54. But such kissing in the songs of Sappho, as I argued in Essay One, especially at §22, can be homoerotic, as in the case of Sappho’s Song 1, where the verb phileîn refers not just to loving in general between two female personae but also, more specifically, to their kissing each other. How, then, do we explain the heterosexual transformation of the Sapphic kiss both in the poems of Catullus and in the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe? In Essay One at §0.2 and §32 leading up to Essay Two at §§50–52, I was already shaping an answer to this kind of question, formulating what I called a poetics of male appropriation.

Reviewing some male appropriations of Sappho in the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe

§55. The narrative of Daphnis and Chloe shows a variety of substitutions or replacements for female personae who would be engaged in various scenarios of lovemaking in the songs of Sappho. I review here two examples of such replacement—the details can be found at §§50–52 of Essay Two. In one scenario, Chloe in the Sapphic persona of a beloved girl gets continuously kissed by Daphnis in the persona of a lovesick boy, who replaces the Sapphic persona of a lovesick woman. And the kisses of the boy are gladly reciprocated by the Sapphic girl. In another scenario, Daphnis in the persona of a sexually inexperienced boy replaces the Sapphic persona of a sexually inexperienced girl who could get initiated into the heterosexual world of married life by way of a premarital homosexual encounter with the Sapphic persona of a lovesick woman. And the sexual advances of the woman are in this case welcomed by the boy.

§56. The Sapphic persona of such a lovesick woman, I must add, could also be engaged in heterosexual scenarios. A most telling example is the love professed by the persona of Sappho for a mythological figure: he is a radiantly beautiful solar boy named Phaon, as I mentioned already in Essay One at §30.4.

§57. Similarly, the Sapphic persona of a lovesick girl is ripe for heterosexual as well as homosexual feelings. Either way, what matters most to her is the privacy or even secrecy of her sexuality. The Sapphic girl is by convention secretive about her sexual feelings. And we see reflexes of such secretiveness throughout the story of Daphnis and Chloe. At 1.17.1, for example, Chloe hides her pothos or ‘longing’ to kiss Daphnis on the mouth, preferring this boy to the rival boy Dorkon. Then, at 1.13.2–1.14.4, she keeps hidden the lovesickness she feels after she sees, for the first time, the boy Daphnis bathing naked. And then, at a still later point in the story, 1.31.2, her embarrassment prevents her from telling Daphnis that she had kissed Dorkon on the lips when that boy, dying, had begged her to give him the favor of a first kiss as his dying wish. But the question remains about all these girlish secrets: how do we even know about them? My answer is, we see here another case of male appropriation: the narrator, who declares his male identity at the beginning of his story, proceeds to tell this story by consistently appropriating the secret thoughts of a sexually awakened girl.

§58. Having reviewed such male appropriations of Sapphic thoughts in the novel Daphnis and Chloe, I conclude with the most telling example of them all. It happens at 1.27.1, where Daphnis tells Chloe a love story about a lovesick girl who once upon a time underwent a metamorphosis into a prototypical bird—the phatta or ‘mourning dove’. This story within the story of the novel is told in a special way, since the novel refers to the actual telling of this love story as thruloumena ‘things that are told’, where the speech-act of ‘telling’ is expressed by way of the verb thruleîn, usually translated condescendingly as ‘chatter’. Such a translation blurs the significance of this word as the formal marker of a special genre of speaking that is characteristic of girls or women. As I have shown in a separate project, at §55 of Nagy 2015.10.01, this word thruleîn is used in the poetic diction of Sappho (as at line 5 of the newly-discovered “Brothers Song”) to indicate the telling of something by way of what can best be described here as girl talk. In the context of Daphnis and Chloe 1.27.1, Daphnis is starting to perform here the love story about Phatta the Dove by saying, in effect, ‘I will tell, you, girl, the story of a girl…’ (Ἦν παρθένος, παρθένε, οὕτω καλὴ..). A more literal translation would be: ‘Once upon a time, girl, there was a girl so beautiful…’. Here we see the ultimate degree of male appropriation: Daphnis as the male speaker who tells the story within the story of the novel talks like a girl to a girl because he is now talking girl talk, and he can talk girl talk because, at this moment of talking, he actually thinks like a girl. And of course the novelist as the storyteller who tells the story told by Daphnis is in his own right talking the same kind of girl talk by way of his own telling of the love story.

A poetics of male appropriation in the “Lesbia poems” of Catullus

§59. Having examined how Sappho gets appropriated by a male author in the erotic novel Daphnis and Chloe, I now compare the male appropriation of Sappho in the “Lesbia poems” of Catullus. A subset of these poems are Catullus 5 and 7, the so-called “kissing poems,” which I have already introduced at the beginning of Essay Three here. But now I extend my analysis to all the “Lesbia poems” of Catullus, that is, to all the poems that involve—either directly or indirectly—a puella or ‘girl’ named Lesbia. The groundwork for such an extended argument was originally published in a separate essay,Nagy 2018.12.13, where I concentrated on Poem 2 of Catullus. I now plan to integrate the relevant parts of what I argue in that separate essay into the overall argumentation that I have undertaken here in Essay Three of my inquiries into the ancient reception of Sappho. In what follows, then, I rewrite what I wrote at §§0.3–0.5 in Nagy 2018.12.13 in such a way as to fit my argumentation in what follows at §§60–62.

§60 [via §0.3]. Essential for the male appropriation of Sappho in the “Lesbia poems” of Catullus is the name Lesbia itself. The ‘she’ who is Lesbia is Sappho herself, the woman—or girl—from the island of Lesbos or Lesvos, as the name of the island is pronounced in Modern Greek. And the most telling context for this name of Lesbia is Poem 51 of Catullus, which matches closely Song 31 of Sappho in both form and content—so much so that his Poem 51 has at times been viewed as a “translation” of her Song 31. For a working translation of Sappho’s Song 31, I refer to text number 4 in Nagy 2015.10.22.

§61 [via §0.4]. To say that Poem 51 of Catullus is a “translation” of Song 31 of Sappho would be misleading, however. That is because we can see in the poem of Catullus a radical rearrangement of the roles that had played out in the corresponding song of Sappho. Here is what I mean. When the ‘I’ in Poem 51 of Catullus invokes at line 7 the girl in that song as Lesbia, what happens is that the subjectivity of Catullus in his Poem 51 becomes interchangeable with the subjectivity of Sappho in her Song 31. And this interchangeability leads to a change in roles: by contrast with the subjective female ‘I’ of Song 31, who is attracted to a female ‘you’ as a love-object in that song, the subjective male ‘I’ of Poem 51 is attracted not to that same female ‘you’ of Song 31 but rather to the subjective female ‘I’ who is Sappho herself. The girl to whom Catullus is attracted in Poem 51 is not the girl to whom Sappho is attracted in Song 31. Rather, the girl has now become Sappho herself. That girl is Lesbia, for now. But Catullus is ultimately in love not with Sappho but with the songs of Sappho. This is how he can supposedly feel the same feelings that Sappho feels. This is how he can love things that a girl loves—while loving the girl as well. The point I am making here—that Catullus taps into the imagined feelings of the girl she loves—is elaborated in the essay I cited earlier, Nagy 2018.12.13, with specific reference to Poem 2 of Catullus, one of the two “sparrow poems.”

§62 [via §0.5]. Thus the life of Lesbia—as the girl from Lesbos—derives primarily from the songs of Sappho and of her imitators, and only secondarily from love affairs experienced in the “real” world of the poet himself. Whatever happens in “real life” between the poet and his would-be girl-friend is subordinated to whatever happens in the poetic life of girl-Sappho as channeled by her would-be boy-friend Catullus.

Seeking origins for the male appropriations of Sappho

§63. I doubt that such a poetics of appropriating Sappho could be traced back to any single male poet as some sort of originator. And, in any case, such an originator could not have been Catullus, who dates from the middle of the first century BCE. We have seen in Essay Two that the songs of Sappho were already being appropriated by the poet Philetas of Cos, dating from the fourth into the third century BCE, who is credited by literary historians as one of the most influential originators of Hellenistic poetry. We have also seen that Philetas as an imitator of Sappho was a model for the author of Daphnis and Chloe in his own imitations—even if this later author, dating from the second century CE, also had direct access to the text of Sappho’s songs.

§64. So now the question is: was Philetas of Cos or some other such Greek poet a model for the appropriation of Sappho by Catullus in his Poems 5 and 7? I will attempt to deal with this question in my upcoming post, which will be Essay Four of my overall project. For now, I simply close Essay Three by mentioning one relevant detail about the poetics of Philetas as channeled by the author of Daphnis and Chloe: at 2.5.1 in that erotic novel, as Tim Whitmarsh has noticed (2005:145n2), the poet’s lessons about mouth-to-mouth kissing as expressed by the verb phileîn are linked with his name, as if Philētās were an agent noun that had actually meant ‘the kisser’.

The Kiss (1907/1908). Gustav Klimt (1862–1918).
The Kiss (1907/1908). Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Nagy, G. 2015. “A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho.” http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:NagyG.A_Poetics_of_Sisterly_Affect.2015. A shorter printed version is available as Ch. 21 in The Newest Sappho (P. Obbink and P. GC Inv. 105, frs. 1–5), ed. A. Bierl and A. Lardinois, 449–492. Leiden.

Nagy, G. 2015.10.01. “Genre, Occasion, and Choral Mimesis Revisited—with special reference to the ‘Newest Sappho’.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/genre-occasion-and-choral-mimesis-revisited-with-special-reference-to-the-newest-sappho/.

Nagy, G. 2015.10.08. “‘The ‘Newest Sappho’: A set of working translations, with minimal comments.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/the-newest-sappho-a-set-of-working-translations-with-minimal-comments/.

Nagy, G. 2015.10.15. “Homo ludens in the world of ancient Greek verbal art.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/homo-ludens-in-the-world-of-ancient-greek-verbal-art/.

Nagy, G. 2015.10.22. “Diachronic Sappho: Some Prolegomena.” Classical Inquiries. http://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/diachronic-sappho-some-prolegomena-2/.

Nagy, G. 2017.08.28. A response to the critique by Alexander Dale of my proposed etymology for Sapphō. Bryn Mawr Classical Review. http://www.bmcreview.org/2017/08/20170832.html?showComment=1503931355269#c5367783009603636431.

Nagy, G. 2018.12.13. “Two small comments on Catullus Two: an iconic effect and an expression of delight in what is beautiful.” Classical Inquirieshttps://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/two-small-comments-on-catullus/.

Whitmarsh , T. 2005. “The Lexicon of Love: Longus and Philetas Grammatikos.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 125:145–148.