Threefold in Wonder: Bliss Carman's Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics
by D.M.R. Bentley
Many of the most appealing and affective poems by Bliss Carman are to be found in Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, a volume published in Boston in 1903 when Carman was in the bright Indian summer of his career as a poet and as an essayist. "The best of the lyrics" in Sappho, writes Desmond Pacey in Ten Canadian Poets, "have a subtle, flowing melody, an exquisite choice of words, and a strangely wistful serenity."1 While support for this judgement could be assembled from the writings of numerous poets and critics, including, perhaps most notably, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound,2 the few scholars who have made a detailed study of the Sappho volume as a whole have registered disappointment, primarily, it would appear, because they have consistently used Sappho's fragments as the standard against which Carman's lyrics are to be judged and, by the inevitable logic of such classical comparisons, found deplorably inadequate. Taking their cue from Charles G.D. Roberts' notion in the "Introduction" to Sappho that, in attempting an "interpretive construction" of the Sapphic fragments, Carman undertook "the most perilous and most alluring venture in the whole field of poetry,"3 both James Cappon and Donald Stephens consider Carman primarily as a "poetic restorer"4 whose reconstructions fail "to capture the essence of Sappho"5 for a variety of reasons, including the poet's indolence as a scholar,6 his weakness as a translator,7and his failure to purge his "restorations" of his own aesthetic and metaphysical assumptions.8Even the poems in the volume that are neither translations nor restorations but relatively free inventions are judged harshly by Cappon and Stephens: "they tend towards vague generalization; detail is forgotten; journeys are taken but to nowhere; lovers are together but for no reason,"9 writes a disappointed Stephens: "many of the lyrics are just Carman himself"10complains an exasperated Cappon. That Stephens is largely wrong and Cappon is largely right in these last, brittle comments would be one way of stating the argument of the present paper, which will seek to demonstrate, not only that-the Sappho volume is "more coherent and rational''11 than it may superficially apt, but also that it does indeed contain, and to its everlasting credit, a great deal of "Carmen himself" -- his classical knowledge, his Unititarian philosophy, and, more surprisingly to some perhaps, his narrative and organizational skill.
In 1902, when Carman was living in New York, Mitchell Kennerley gave him a copy of Henry Thornton Wharton's Sappho: Memoir,Text, Selected Renderings and A Literal Translation ( 1885; 2nd. ed. 1887) and "suggested that he write a poem for each of Wharton's literal translations.''12 Carman took up this challenge and, according to Kennerley, who "printed two instalments [of the Sappho lyrics] in the Reader's Magazine, November, December 1902," "kept on writing [Sappho lyrics] for years."13 There can be no doubt that Wharton's Sappho is the principal source, not merely of the fragments in which Carman's lyrics are grounded, but also of the details of Sappho's life and loves which inform his lyric sequence as a whole. In Wharton's "Memoir" or "Life of Sappho" Carman doubtless encountered, possibly for the first time, an account of "what, in her age, Lesbos and the Lesbians were,"14 as well as the names of the "girl-friends . . . and pupils" (W., p. 23) who figure in the Sappho lyrics-Atthis, Andromeda, Dica and the less fetchingly named Gorgo. Unlike many classical scholars before and after him, Wharton gives credence to the story of Sappho's love for Phaon, the extraordinarily beautiful youth who "is said to have been a boatman of Mitylene" (W., p. 15). He does not, however, credit as truth the legend that Sappho leapt to her death "from the Leucadian rock in consequence of [Phaon's] disdaining her," but quotes instead Edwin Arnold's comment that "Sappho 'loved, and loved more than once, and loved to the point of desperate sorrow; though it did not come to the mad and fatal leap from Leucate, as the unnecessary legend pretends"' (W., p. 21). In a manner consistent with Wharton's view, Carman includes in his hundred lyrics several references to Phaon and, it will be argued later, a lengthy series of lyrics (XXXIX-LXI) on Sappho's love for the "boatman." Also consistent with Wharton's view is Carman's decision to exclude the Leucadian leap from his sequence, though it may be noted here that in some of the closing lyrics of the Sappho volume (XCIII-XCV) he has the poetess focus her thoughts on the sea as if in morbid contemplation of the watery grave assigned to her by legend. Wharton's inclination to accept Phaon as "a real personage" (W., p. 15), combined with his scepticism concerning the actual existence of Sappho's putative husband Cercolas (see W., p. 7, may similarly be behind, not only the absence of any explicit reference to Cercolas in Carman's poems, but also the implication of his narrative sequence that Phaon was the father of Sappho's daughter Cleis. Another obvious but picayune debt of Carman to Wharton is one of the epigraphs to the Sappho volume, a quotation from Elizabeth Barrett Browning which is also cited in part in Wharton's "Life of Sappho" (see W. p. 21).
While Wharton's Sappho is unquestionably the principal source of Carman's knowledge of Sappho's work and life, it does not appear to be the only work of classical scholarship that lies behind Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. In Lyric XCII Carman has Sappho refer explicitly to the "Eleusinian . . . Mysteries," a topic which is not mentioned by Wharton but which is of crucial importance to a full understanding of the lyric sequence.
In the absence of external evidence it is possible only to conjecture some likely sources for Carman's knowledge of the worship of Demeter ("Our loved and mighty . . . mother" [XCII]) which apparently gave to its adepts at Eleusis the promise of life after death. It is of course conceivable that Carman was conversant with some of the more recondite scholarship on the Eleusinian Mysteries that was available in his day (Paul Foucart's, Recherches sur l'origine et la nature des Mysteres d'Eleusis, for example, appeared in Paris in 1895). But there is a greater likelihood that his knowledge of the worship of Demeter came from less specialized and more poetic sources, two of which may be conjectured here: the essay on "The Myth of Demeter and Persephone" in Pater's Greek Studies (1895) and the chapter on "Theological and Philosophical Poetry" in Muller's History of the Literature of Ancient Greece (trans. 1840, 1858).
In Pater's essay, Carman could have found a fairly elaborate account of the evolution and significance of the Eleusinian Mysteries, including, not only details of the roles played in them by Demeter ("the great mother''15) and Persephone ("the goddess of death, yet with a promise of life to come''16), but also references to two other mythological figures, Hermes and Linus,17whose presence in the Sappho volume-the former as a "giver of secret/ Learning to mortals" (IO and the latter as a part of the seasonal pattern of death and rebirth-can be seen as entirely consistent with the theme of the "Great Mysteries" (XCII). In Müller's History, Carman could have found a very straightforward account of the genesis of these "Great Mysteries" in Ancient Greece:
It may be that Carman's decision to give his Sappho a knowledge of the "Great Mysteries" was prompted by Muller's assertion that the Mysteries of Demeter had wide currency among the Greeks and, in the period between Homer and Pindar (the period when Sappho of course lived), altered drastically their "notions respecting the state of man after death."19 Müller's discussion of the Mysteries makes no specific mention of Sappho, but it does include one passage-a translation from Pindar to the effect that a happy life after death is the portion of those who lead "a threefold existence in the upper and lower worlds"20 -that might have caught the eye and engaged the thoughts of a Canadian Unitrinian who was as alert as anyone to what Pater in "The Myth of Demeter and Persephone" calls the "various phases of Greek culture which are not without their likenesses in the modern mind.''21 Pater's remark is useful, if only as a reminder that, whatever the sources of his knowledge of Sappho and the Eleusinian Mysteries in Wharton, Müller, Pater himself, or any number of other writers, Carman went to Greek poetry and religion not to escape from his own preoccupations but as part of an urge to express and, it may even be, classicize and universalize them.
That Carman's central preoccupation at the time when he was writing the Sappho Lyrics was with the 'unitrinian' teachings and 'personal harmonizing of his friend, Mary Perry King"22 cannot be doubted.
Although The Making of Personality, the volume expounding the doctrine of Unitrinianism that Carman co-authored with Mrs. King, did not appear until 1908, three earlier collections of essays, The Kinship of Nature (1904; pub. 190323), The Friendship of Art (1904), and The Poetry of Life (1905) are permeated with the Unitrinian idea that personal and artistic integrity resides in the harmonious cultivation of the three faculties of body, mind, and spirit. A succinct and comprehensive description of Unitarianism can be extracted from a letter of October 12, 1910 from Carman to H.D.C. Lee, who was then writing a doctoral thesis on the poet at the University of Rennes:
Given this information, and given the fact that the Sappho volume appeared, as it were, among Carman's triadic series of essays on Nature, Art, and Life, it is hardly surprising that in his doctoral thesis Lee makes the connection between the poet's Unitrinian "philosophy of life"25 and his Unitrinian conception of Sappho. "One may . . . presume," says Lee, "that Sappho . . . interested Carman not merely as an incomparable artist, but also as something in the nature of a moral ideal."26 "Let this be said, however," he writes, "if . . . Sappho exemplif[ies] the poet's theories, it never transparently preaches them."27 That both Cappon and Stephens, having committed themselves to seeing the Sappho lyrics primarily as attempts at translation and restoration, seem unable to perceive the presence of Unitrianism at the heart of the volume can be taken as an instance of the contiguity of blindness and insight which is complicated, in their cases, by a tendency either to ignore (Cappon) or to ridicule (Stephens) the Unitrinian philosophy that became central to Carman and his poetry at about the turn of the century.28 Little wonder that when Carman's philosophy is construed as straightforwardly "transcendental29 a or merely somewhat "strange,"30 there is no perception of the way in which the poet's Unitrinianism lies behind the structure and movement of the Sappho volume.
Far from being the purposelessly arranged collection of pieces that Cappon and Stephens imply, Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics is a carefully composed sequence of lyrics which traces Sappho's search for the embodiment of a Unitrinian ideal of love-a love that combines the physical, the mental and the spiritual-and her journey towards the certainty that, by grace of "Our loved and mighty Eleusinian mother" (XCII), such a love will be continued after death. Contained within a framework of two poems in which the speaker is very evidently Carman himself and the listener is very likely Mary Perry King (more of these frame poems in due course), the lyric sequence proper divides into five loose groups of poems. At the beginning of the sequence, there is an Invocation Group of five lyrics-"Cyprus, Paphos, or Panormus," "What shall we do, Cytherea?," "Power and beauty and knowledge," "O Pan of the evergreen forest," and "O Aphrodite" -- which, as some of their very titles suggest, announce Sappho's trinitarian and eschatological concerns in a manner which is by turns questioning and apostrophic, as befits a lyric poet seeking insight into the meaning and purpose of life. There follow three groups of poems which are each constellated about Sappho's relationship with a different lover: Atthis (VI-XXXVIII), Phaon (XXXIX-LXI), and the radiant but unfaithful Gorgo (LXII-LXXXVII) who glamorizes the poet's life after the birth of Cleis. Although each of Sappho's lovers is presented as to an extent an embodiment of the Unitrinian ideal of a love that bears "sense and soul and mind at once away" (LXXXVIII), the most complete fulfilment of that ideal is Atthis, whose love becomes in the fifth and final grouping of the sequence (LXXXVIII-C) the focus of Sappho's conviction that after death "new-made lovers" (XCII) will find themselves participating in the Unitrinian ideal on a higher plane than was possible during their earlier lives. The lyrics in the Sappho sequence can thus be seen to move, like the poem's in Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861) and like the sonnets in Rossetti's The House of Life (1870, 1881), from a concern with matters generally associated with youth to matters generally associated with age. Indeed, Carman may have had in mind one or other or both of Les Fleurs du Mal and The House of Life when he decided to present a unified sequence of poems in which a speaker who is also a highly sensitive and sensual artist records responses to a variety of experiences and subjects, not least among these being love, mutability, death, and the function of art. Carman may even have been thinking specifically of Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), which contains, in addition to "Au Lecteur," a hundred poems formally divided into five sections, and The House of Life (1881), which consists, in addition to the "Sonnet on the Sonnet," a hundred and one sonnets divided into two sections and several groupings, when he decided to present in Sappho a sequence of One Hundred Lyrics arranged in five groupings and surrounded by a framing prologue and epilogue.
In view of the importance of Carman's Unitrinian conception of love in particular for the Sappho lyrics, it is worth delaying a moment longer a discussion the five groupings within the sequence, in order to quote his description in a 1911 letter to Lee of love's relation to the body, mind, and spirit. Carman is writing about the poems in the Songs of the Sea Children volume of 1904 but his comments apply equally well to the Sappho lyrics, published a year earlier:
Even more obvious in this passage than the syncretic aspect of Carman's Unitrinianism, its combination of elements from Platonism, Neo Platonism, Hermeticism and Christianity (not to mention the more particular sources assembled by Odell Shepard and John Robert Sorfleet32), is the poet's insistence on the transcendental and descendental nature of Unitrinian love. More than simply an experience that involves body, mind, and spirit, Unitrianian love is a reciprocal process whereby the physical is made spiritual and mental, and the spiritual and mental are made physical. Both triadic and dualistic, horizontal and vertical, Unitrinianism insists that human experience at its most intense in both life and art is not only "threefold [in] plan"33 but also higher in quality than anything in the merely natural realm. At this point no proof is probably required for the assertion that a "glint" of these assumptions can indeed be discerned in Carman's imaginative (re-)creation of a Greek poet renowned alike for the intensity of her experience in love and the intensity of her achievement in poetry -- her intensity, that is, in two of the areas in which, as even his letters to Lee reveal, Carmen was most committed to applying the interwoven and elevating symmetries of Unitrinianism.
It may be observed at this point, however, that a "glint" at Carman's philosophy is discernable even in the frame poem that precedes the Sappho sequence proper. Announcing that the purpose of his art is "to please [his] little Fiends (presumably Mary Perry Kingly34), the poet-speaker of the prologue affirms that his creations ("these notes of spring'') will at once n and surpass the phenomena of external nature:
The imperative under which Carman is operating here is thus twofold: he must imbue his art with the passionate and sensual qualities of spring in order to ensure that it does not "divorce [itself] wholly from the physical" and he must prove his art superior to the merely physical, presumably by investing it with the spiritual and mental qualities of "imagination and meditation" that are essential to any true act of creation (as opposed to procreation). In many of the lyrics in the Sappho volume, as here in the Prologue, Carman's aesthetic and philosophical assumptions are tacitly assumed rather than overtly displayed. If this was because the poet assumed in Mary Perry King an ideal reader for whom an explicit rehearsal of their shared Unitrinianism would be unnecessary, then it is fortunate for less privileged readers that in several of the poems in the Sappho sequence itself Unitrinian ideas are, as will now be seen, as readily discernable as they are obviously presented.
I: The Invocation Group
The Invocation Group opens in "Cyprus, Paphos, or Panormus" with an apoatrophic address to "imperial Aphrodite," the "sea-born mother'' of love, to whom Sappho, a self-styled "child of passion" I), will give her primary loyalty, at least until she gains knowledge near the end of the sequence of the "mighty Eleusinian mother" Demeter.35 The emphasis in the opening lyric on "the sea" and on seaports (Wharton observes of the references to "Cyprus, Paphos, and Panormus" that constitute fragment 6 that "all seaports were under the special protection of Aphrodite [W. p. 731] can be explained simply in terms of the tradition that the goddess of love was born from the sea off the coast of Cyprus and of the location of the poet in Mitylene on the island of Lesbos. But the emphasis on the sea in the opening lyric is also consistent with the Unitrinian notion, expressed by Carman in the "Seaboard and Hillward" essay in The Kinship of Nature, that a correspondence exists between geographical and "physical" phenomena -- that the "spiritual" and "mental" "zones of life" correspond, respectively, to the "zones of ocean and hill" and, less certainly, that the "physical zone corresponds to the zone of plain and level.''36 Seemingly of particular pertinence to Sappho's situation and psyche is Carman's contention that the "seaboard" is more than any other "region" a realm of "feeling," "emotion," "imagination," "romance," and "artistic creation."37 As an emotional attempt by Sappho the "child of passion" and the creator of poems to get Aphrodite to "regard, with pity" "This small unfrequented valley/ By the "sea," Cyprus, Paphos, or Panormus" ends appropriately with an apostrophe ("O sea-born mother"), a device which, as Jonathan Culler remarks, "is perhaps always an indirect invocation of the muse."38 When Aphrodite is seen as both a goddess and a muse to Sappho, then it can also be seen that the opening lyric of Carman's sequence is a prayer and an invocation 39 which, in calling Aphrodite into the presence of the poet, begins the interaction among the physical, mental and spiritual "zones" that continues intermittently throughout the Sappho sequence.
The second poem in the Invocation Group, an elaboration of Wharton's translation of fragment 62 ("Delicate Adonis is dying, Cytherea; what shall we do? . . ." [W, p. 106]), is also an address to Aphrodite, albeit now in the elegiac tones of the "ancient dirge or lamentation" which Wharton in his commentary calls "the Linus-song" (a phrase echoed in Carman's "Epilogue") and finds exemplified in "Bion's Lament for Adonis" (W. p. 62). In The Friendship of Art Carman writes that "the worship of Linus or Adonis among the earliest Greeks is surrounded with impenetrable mystery . . . but we know it was somehow typical of the changing seasons, the pulse of life and death through the revolving year."40 Something of this certainty is present in "What shall we do, Cytherea?/ Lovely Adonis is dying" (II) where the poet successfully achieves the quite complex effect of suggesting that, while Sappho is intensely concerned with the question of whether human life will be renewed after death, she is as yet ignorant or uncertain of both the details and the efficacy of the analogy between seasonal and human patterns. Another way of putting this is to say that a subtle tension exists in the poem: on the one hand, there are the reassuring implication's of the name Cytherea (which suggests the Mystery Cults that were supposedly dedicated to Aphrodite on the island of Cythera) and of the poem's structure (which follows the seasonal cycle through "Autumn" and "Winter" towards an implied Spring); on the other hand, there are the destabilizing implications of Sappho's uncertain questioninga ("Will he return when the Autumn/ Purples the earth. . .?," "Will he return when the Winter/ Huddles the sheep. . .?") and of the poem's final stanza":
Not only do Sappho's questions receive no affirmative answers but the atemporal quality of this final stanza -- the poet could be addressing either a dying or a reborn Adonis, and her lower case "spring" need not even be a season -- concludes the poem on a distinct note of ambiguity, even undecidability. The overall impression thus left by "What shall we do, Cytherea?" is of a Sappho who, despite the conceptual and spiritual implications of her probing questions, lives primarily in the experiential realm of feelings and perceptions. From the Unitrinian perspective this is a decidedly one-sided Sappho, a Sappho who must add both spiritual and intellectual awareness to her delight in the physical, her enjoyment of the "beauty of nature" and the "beauty of people," if she is to approach the harmony promised by "the threefold plan/ Of soul and mind and body.''41
That Sappho desires to achieve such a harmony becomes abundantly clear in the ensuing poem -- the third, not fortuitously, in the sequence. As indicated by the allegorical parallelism of its opening lines -- "Power and beauty and knowledge, -- / Pan, Aphrodite or Hermes" -- this third lyric establishes a correspondence between the Unitrinian triad of spirit (power), body (beauty) and mind (knowledge) and a triad of Pagan gods whose significances are expanded, it will shortly be seen, in the fourth lyric of the sequence. (Not surprisingly neither Lyric III nor Lyric IV is either based on a fragment in Wharton or praised in the discussions of Cappon and Stephens.) In the first of the three stanzas of Lyric III Carman has as yet unenlightened Sappho wonder which one of the three faculties and gods "we life-loving mortals" should "Serve and be happy?" In the lyrics third stanza, however, Sappho has become a convert to Unitrinianism whose very choice of verbs -- "Hearten" with its physical basis, "impel" with its moral implications, and "inspire" with its spiritual associations -- reflects her desire to achieve personal harmony:
For details of the correspondences between Pan and the spirit, Aphrodite and the body, Hermes and the mind, the reader need only turn to Lyric IV where the three gods are individually and symmetrically addressed by Sappho in apostrophes that set forth in some detail their attributes and dispensations. Thus "Pan of the evergreen forest" is petitioned for "strength and fulfillment/ Of human longing," "Hermes, master of knowledge" is petitioned for "wisdom;" and "sea born Aphrodite" is petitioned for a measure of the "infinite beauty" that she has in her gift. Consistent with these Unitrinian correspondences, but evocative also of the "pure worship" (XCII) and rigid secrecy surrounding the Eleusinian mysteries, is Sappho's commitment in Lyric IV to maintaining "Pure and undarkened" the "great worship" of Pan and her conception of Hermes, not as the "messenger of the gods and wine-bearer for them,"42 but as "often the giver of secret/ Learning to mortals!" To Cappon the presence of plebeian Pan in the sequence is inappropriate for the "aristocratic Sappho"43 and to Stephens the appearance of Hermes Trismegistus -- the thrice-great Hermes of the occult tradition -- in Lyric IV is evidence that Carman was "not always too careful in his concept of the ancient deities."44 Judged from the point of view of a pure classicism the roles assigned to Pan and Hermea in the Sappho volume may indeed seem indecorous or anachronistic, but from a different point of view -- the point of view that recognizes the importance of the Unitrinian philosophy and the Eleusinian Mysteries for the sequence -- the references to the pure worship of Pan and to the secret knowledge of Hermes will be recognized for what they are: appropriate reflections of the spiritual and mental orientation that will eventually take Sappho far beyond simply physical concerns towards a full awareness and understanding of the eschatological dimension of human life.
The fifth and final poem of the Invocation Group, "O Aphrodite," is Carman's translation of Wharton's first fragment, the apparently complete poem that is "commonly called The Ode to Aphrodite" (W. p. 60). Both in the original Greek and in Carman's translation, Sappho's "Ode" makes good use of what could, in a Christian context, be called the eucharistic power of apostrophe to call into proximity or presence the object of its address. After various requests to Aphrodite to come hither!," to be once again "Suddenly near," Sappho petitions the goddess to "come and release [her]/ From mordant love pain" and to "Help [her] accomplish" "all [her] heart's will." The dual function of "O Aphrodite" as both the conclusion of the Invocation Group and the introduction to the Atthis Group is evident in its channeling of the apostrophic impulse that governs Lyrics I-V towards a very specific end: the achievement now, as once before, of a "'loth loved one'" who, with Aphrodite's help, will "'Soon be [Sappho's] lover.'" That this devoutly and passionately desired lover is a woman is clearly indicated by the use of the pronoun "she" in the penultimate stanza of "O Aphrodite." That the monna innominata of "O Aphrodite" and subsequent lyrics is the Atthis who is first named in Lyric XXIII is, however, a critical inference drawn from the numerous gestures towards narrative coherence throughout the Sappho sequence: the association of Atthis with oleanders, with summer, and with the colours of silver and purple, for example, and the implication of several key lyrics that, of all Sappho's lovers, Atthis is the one who, as already remarked, represents the guiding, theological theme of the sequence: Sappho's search for an embodiment of Unitrinian love that, by virtue of the Eleusinian Mysteries, will achieve its highest level of perfection after death.
II: The Atthis Group
The Thirty-three lyrics that comprise the Atthis Group can be seen as a rehearsal in miniature of the overall movement of the Sappho sequence. As the reader proceeds through these lyrics towards what is probably the best-known poem in the volume -- Lyric XXIII, "I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago,/ When the great oleanders were in flower" -- there gradually emerges a pattern in which Sappho's affections for a particular lover are developed, consummated, dissolved, remembered, and reconstituted -- a pattern of recurrence or regeneration which almost inevitably brings with it the eschatological idea, entertained by Sappho near the end of the sequence as a whole, that there will be a renewal of personal love after death. Viewed perhaps too schematically, the Atthis Group divides into three subsections: Lyrics VI-XXI, which trace Sappho's passionate love for Atthis from its beginnings to first consummation and dissolution; Lyrics XXII-XXVI, which present Sappho's elegiac memories of Atthis after the dissolution of their relationship; and Lyrics XXVII-XXXVIII, which find Sappho's love for Atthis apparently rekindled, but with a greater emphasis now on in relation to the spiritual realm of the "wood-god" (XXVII) Pan and to the creative realm of Sappho's art -- an art seen clearly by the poet as inadequate to the related tasks of incarnating reality and bequeathing immortality. In the contrast by the somewhat despairing contemplation the limitations of human endeavour that occurs towards the end of the Atthis Group and the passionately hopeful anticipation of the fulfillment of Unitrinian love near its beginning there is early support for the contention that the lyrics in the Sappho sequence are arranged so as to suggest Sappho's movement from the desires of youth to the concerns of maturity.
For the most part a translation of one of Sappho's longer fragments (Wharton's fragment 2), the lyric that opens the Atthis Group (Lyric VI) differs from the original in two important ways: by emphasizing at the outset the poet's passionate attraction, not to the god-like man who appears in the lyric's opening stanza, but to the unnamed woman who "Sits . . . close to him" and by imbuing this monna innominata, especially in the lines added by Carman to conclude the fragment, with qualities suggestive of the Unitrinian ideal of love. It may be too far-fetched to say that the "silver speech-tones/ And lovely laughter" of the unnamed woman emanate from the "silver string" of "personal vibrancy" which Carman sees elsewhere as the source of Unitrinian harmony.45 It is certainly plausible, however, to suggest that a Unitrinian symmetry lies behind the triadic description of the monna innominata's appeal as "the lure of/ Beauty [Aphrodite] and summer [Pan]/ And the sea's secret [Hermes]." As if inspired by the threefold nature of this appeal, Sappho proceeds in the second lyric of the Atthis Group (a lyric, not fortuitously, of Carman's own invention) to imagine that in her "cradle" the manna innominata was endowed by Aphrodite, Hermes, and Pan with a triune balance of attributes. Pan sums up the Unitrinian endowments of the "child" who is later called Atthis in these terms in the final stanza of Lyric VII (italics added):
After depicting the monna innominata as the embodiment of the Unitrinian ideal sought by Sappho in lyrics III and IV, the Atthis Group presents in a series of four short lyrics (VIII-XI) some glimpses of the conflict, uncertainty, and mere miscellany that characterizes the poet's life in the aesthetic and cultural milieu of Mitylene -- glimpses of her relationships with various héroines secondaires (Gorgo, Andromenda, Dica) and of her knowledge of various religious rituals of the time. Meaning and direction are again given to the poet in Lyric XII when Aphrodite informs her in a dream that, behind the miscellany of the world, there exists the guiding principle of love. "'Child of the earth,'" says Aphrodite,
With the certain (and, again, Unitrinian) knowledge that all aspects of nature and man are under the control of what Sappho describes earlier in the lyric as "' This thing called love,'" comes assurance for the poet, not only that her feelings of desire for the monna innominata are an aspect of the primordial impulse of the universe, but also that the very strength of those feelings will lead to the attainment of the desired end.
Five lyrics now focus predictably on Sappho's anticipation of the inevitable consummation of her desires. Convinced that "there is a measure/ Set to all things mortal" (XIII) -- a rhythm which, like the alternation of night and day, brings different phenomena, desires, and relationships to fruition -- Sappho speaks without bitterness or impati ence a stanza which links the manna innominata to the Atthis of Lyric XXIII through the image of the "oleanders":
Although Sappho envisages the consummation of her desire for the monna innominata as an inevitable contingency of the primordial and rhythmic force that through the "green earth" drives the "blossoms" (XV), this certainty does not preclude her finally from experiencing a degree of "impatience" (XVII) as she listens for the "fluttering footfall" of her anticipated lover "Through the twilight" (XVI). The consummation so passionately, devoutly and impatiently desired does, of course, come. In four sensually quietistic and exquisitely unhurried lyrics (XVIII-XXII), it is presented as a delicately pastoral interlude in which the "purple shadows" of twilight and the "quiet blue" of the night provide a liquefying background for such "pleasant" manifestations of harmony as "the rustle of leaves," the sound of "running water," the "soft laughter" of other "glad" lovers, and "the pure strain of a flute" in the "purple quiet." So mutedly modulated are these faultless lyrics of consummated-desire that it is tempting to say that, in this instance, the near silence of Cappon and Stephens regarding Lyrics XVIII-XXI is an answerable and appropriate response to the effects achieved in them through Carman's mastery of his poetic means.
Such peace and fulfilment as is depicted in Lyrics XVIII-XXI can only be temporary, particularly in a world such as Sappho's where the rhythms of desire and time are constantly at work dissolving certain relationships and configurations in order to constitute others. The "pure" and anticipatory "strain of [the] flute" that enters the "portal,/ Where soon [the] lover will enter" in Lyric XXI thus soon gives way to the elegiac mood loneliss and remembrance that dominates Lyric XXII and, indeed, the entire second and central section of the Atthis Group:
With its emphasis on the memory of a "pure passion" that is now past, this lyric provides the narrative connection, not simply between the preceding poems of desire and consummation and the succeeding poems of remembrance and loneliness, but also between the monna innominata of those earlier poems and the Atthis of the ensuing Lyric XXIII. Even without this narrative connection, however, the recurrence in "I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago" of images, colours and themes hitherto associated with the monna innominata -- the "great oleanders," the "silver" stream, the "fair . . . summer by the sea," the grass "purple-misted in the fading light," and "the unutterable glad release/ Within the temple of the holy night" (XXIII) -- would surely suggest to the attentive reader that Atthis and the monna innominata are one and the same person. The repeated emphasis in the course of the sequence on the passionate and devout love of Sappho for one very special woman reinforces this identification, as does the connection by way of Unitrinianism between the woman who is desired in Lyrics VI and VII and the woman who is conceived in the lyric following "I loved thee, Atthis ..." in distinctly triadic terms. After vowing eternal fidelity to Atthis in that lyric ("I shall be ever maiden,/ If thou be not my lover") and after once again emphasizing the sanctity of her affections ("thou alone shalt gather/ This . . . beauty . . . like a holy incense"), Sappho concludes:
In its final stanza as well as earlier, this lyric recalls the passage in the essay "Concerning Pride" in The Kinship of Nature where Carman notes that the three manifestations of Eve are "physical attraction," "worship or reverence," and "pride."46 It also anticipates a lyric near the close of the Atthis group, Lyric XXXVII (a piece characterized by what Cappon calls "free invention"47), where the poet similarly presents his Unitrinian conception of a love which is "Past the reach of reason to unravel,/ Or the much desiring heart to follow" but not, it transpires, beyond the power of Sappho to suggest in images that reflect the harmony of mind, body and soul: "the spacious starlight,/ The cool wind's touch and the deep blue distance" (XXXVII).
After two more lyrics of remembrance, "It was summer when I found you/ In the meadow long ago" (XXV) and "I recall thy white gown, cinctured/ With a linen belt" (XXVI) -- lyrics which, it may be observed, are as resonantly Poundian in tone and image as anything in the Sappho volume -- there comes the third and final section of the Atthis Group: a series of longer and more diffuse lyrics (XXVII-XXXVIII) in which Sappho's relationship with Atthis ("thou dear and godlike mortal" [XXVII]) is apparently reconstituted -- though with a more spiritual or Pandean emphasis than before -- and, once again, dissolved. This final series in the Atthis Group achieves such coherence as it has largely through repeated references, not simply to Pan, but more complexity to the story of Pan's affection for Syrinx, the nymph who was changed into the reed pipe that bears her name in order to avoid the wood-god's advances. By turns likening both Sappho and her lover to a "Syrinx" (XXVII, XXX) that is awakened to music by the breath of love, these lyrics can be seen as a celebration of the power of a spiritualized love, working through the medium of one or other of the lovers, to transform both "remembrance and joy" (XXX), both past and present, both internal and external reality, into the content of artistic utterance. So construed, the Syrinx-lover becomes (appropriately, it might be thought, since Sappho herself was a product of Aeolian civilization) a very talented cognate of the Aeolian harp: an instrument capable of producing a variety of harmonious sounds, from the "Inarticulate love-notes" (XXVIII) of "mounting [sexual] fervour" (XXVIII), through the "wild music" exquisite lovers" who apprehend "the full measure/ Of the world's wonder" (XXXIII), to the "silver songs" of Sappho herself -- the poems that might just survive the ravages of mutability and mortality:
The hope of being correctly conjectured in the future through her art that Sappho expresses in this "free construction"48 of Carman's receives some reinforcement in the ensuing lyric where the poet, still working within the assumption that art can provide access to (and thus immortalize) the consciousness that created it, fancies that she can discern in the "magic music" of Pan himself the god's "grief for Syrinx/ Long ago" (XXXV). After two lyrics that stress the sanctity and contentment aaeociated with ideal, human love, but do so in a manner which stresses the "mortal" and temporal nature of such love (XXXVI-XXXVIII), the Atthis Group comes to a close with a lyric whose querulous tone seems to call into question, even as it posits, the ability of art to make accessible, let alone immortal, the emotions and the person that created it:
In addition to being a complex statement about the relationship of art in general and Sappho'a fragmented art in particular to the actual and metaphorical realities that it records, this final lyric in the Atthis Group shows Sappho's deepening awareness of her own mutability and mortality -- an awareness which will lead her eventually to the consolations, not of an art that can at best incompletely reflect (rather than immortalize) its creator, but of an Eleusis that can promise immortal life with an immortal lover.
III: The Phaon Group.
Evidently recognizing the change in locale and voice that occurs with Lyric XXXIX, "I grow weary for the foreign cities,/ The sea travel and the stranger peoples," Cappon first infers that this lyric concerns the "troubled times" when Sappho was "driven into exile" from Lesbos and then, after quoting the lyric's first two stanzas, suggests that it may emanate, "not from Sappho," but from "that gallant fighter and sea-farer, Alcaeus, returning home to Mitylene.''49 While these two conjectures are not entirely implausible, the speaker of Lyric XXXIX seems most likely to be Phaon, the "boatman of Mitylene" whom Wharton, it will be recalled, accredits as an historical rather than a legendary personage. Cappon is certainly correct, however, in recognizing Lyrics XL and XLI as "Phaon songs" in the sense that they are "Sappho's lamentations over [her male loverly] absence,"50 as, in fact, are the ensuing Lyrics XLII and XLIII. Beginning with the anticipated return of Phaon and ending with his sudden death, the Phaon Group (XXXIX-LXI) is perhaps the most distinct entity in the Sappho volume; indeed, the crispness of its start and the finality of its finish contribute significantly to the sense that on either side of it there are the distinct groups of lyrics that are being subsumed here under the names of Atthis and Gorgo. In addition (and possibly related) to the obvious matter of gender, two further aspects of the Phaon Group help to distinguish it from the Atthis and Gorgo Groups: the introduction with Phaon of an emphasis on Hermes, the "master of knowledge" (IV) who, perhaps appropriately, occupies a central place in the only male mind in the sequence, and the prominence in the Phaon Group of a dialogical element, a give-and-take between lyrics, which, again, is perhaps consistent, with the male-orientation of this portion of the Sappho volume. Concerning the emphasis on Hermes in the Phaon Group, the point can also be made that the reintroduction of the god who was all but ignored in favour first of Aphrodite and then of Pan in the Atthis Group helps to restore for the Sappho sequence as a whole something like the Unitrinian symmetry that was articulated in the lyrics of the Invocation Group.
From the outset of the Phaon Group, the "weary" mariner is characterized as a thoughtful seeker who regards Hermes ("knowledge," but also in Lyric IV "wisdom" and "secrets/ Learning") almost as highly as Aphrodite. As he himself puts it in Lyric XXXIX:
A wonderer and a wanderer, a quester (see XLVI) and a questioner (see LI), on what Carman elsewhere calls the sea's "limitless highroads,"51 Phaon is an "active spirit"52 and a "searching mind" (XLVI) whose "insatiable longing" (XLII) for "adventure" (XXXIX) and "knowledge" has now, apparently, given way to a longing for the love of the Sappho whom he has left "unrequited" (XLI) -- albeit only of male affection -- in his absence from Mitylene. Whereas Sappho's female lovers, even within the Phaon Group (Lyrics XLIV and XLV), are associated primarily with pastoral and Pandean evenings and nights, Phaon is principally associated with water and with noon, specifically the water that will quench the "unsluiced fire" (!) of Sappho's sexual longing and "quell the parching/ Ache" of the Lesbian "noon" (XL). Yet Phaon's aasociations are not exclusively with Hermetica and hydraulics, for as he contemplates his imminent arrival in Mitylene in Lyrics XLVIII and XLIX he reveals that, amongst other gifts for Elappho, he has "brought from Tyre/ A Pan-flute . . ./ Wherein the gods have hidden/ Love and desire and longing" (XLVIII) and imagines that, "as darkness gathers," "The god who prospers music/ Shall give [him] skill to play" (XLIX). But Phaon's overriding loyalty to Hermes and Aphrodite is emphasized even in the concluding stanza of the lyric just quoted:
Pandean music, Aphrodisiac beauty, and Hermetic words: here, as so often in the Sappho sequence, love is unobtrusively underwritten by the Unitrinian ideal of harmony among spirit, body, and mind.
Since Phaon is a mariner who is initially presented as he is in the process of returning to "anchor off the wharves of home" (L), it is hardly surprising that the longest poem spoken by him belongs to the same genre as Wordaworth's "Tintern Abbey," Charles G.D. Roberts' "Tantramar Revisited," and Carman's own "Low Tide on Grand Pré": the Romantic return poem. Though intuiting for several biographical and intertextual reasons, the echoes between Phaon's return poem ("Well bulwarked with boulders that jut in the tide . . ." [LII]) and "Tantramar Revisited" (". . . bulwarked well from the sea . . ."53) may be used here simply to amiss the recognition that, where Roberts' poem is set in a primarily horizontal region, Lyric LII employs both the horizontal and the vertical forms of external nature to suggest something of the correspondence between physical and "psychical" zones that is articulated in the "Seaboard and Hillboard" essay in The Kinship of Nature:
Nodally situated at a point of confluence between the austere "zone" of the mind ("mountain") and the active zone of the spirit ("sea"), Sappho's house -- "the third . . . on the left, with that gleam/ Of red burnished copper . . ." (LII) -- could be said to represent an ideal spot for the achievement of a Unitrinian harmony among the mental, spiritual, and physical "zones of life." Interestingly enough, Phaon's final lyric of anticipation is a bringing together of two fragments from Wharton (numbers 93 and 94) that envisages a "Free ... young ... Eros" (LIII) as the presiding and compassionate genius of a consummation that will eradicate all past and present sources of conflict and unhappiness. Amor vincit omnia.
But Phaon's vision of a love that is free, innocent, and capable of virtually eradicating the cares of the world is quickly countered by Sappho herself in "How soon will all my lovely days be over,/ And I no more be found beneath the sun" (LIV), the faultless and much-anthologised lyric which, as much as any piece in the Sappho volume, shows the poetess's increasingly painfill awareness of mutability and mortality. Sappho's conviction that "too soon" she shall 'be no more found in the fair world" (LIV) elicits from Phaon a series of questions about the source of her "sorrow" and "weeping" (LV). "Have the high gods deigned to show thee/ Destiny," he asks, and does disillusion" fill "thy heart at all things human,/ Fleeting and desired?" (LIV). In answer to his own question, Phaon offers the suggestion that even "the gods themselves" are bound by the "one law which links together/ Truth and nobleness and beauty,/ Man and stars and sea" (LV). "They only shall find freedom," he says, "Who with courage rise and follow/ Where love leads beyond all peril,/ Wise beyond all words" (LV). While it would be distinctly unwise to push the matter too far, the suggestion can at least be made that the conception of man and the world articulated by Phaon in Lyric LV contains more than a hint, not merely of Unitrinian thinking ("Truth and nobleness and beauty"), but also of the Hermetic idea that all aspects recreation whether divine, human, or inanimate are permeated and linked by a hidden "essence".54 With this possibility in mind, it may be remarked that, as Pater points out in his Greek Studies, the Eleusinian Mysteries were in part an enactment of the legend that Phaon's tutelary god Hermes was responsible for rescuing Persephone from the land of the dead and for restoring her to her mother Demeter. If only in its emphasis on a love that is "Wise beyond words," Phaon's riddling advice to Sappho to "follow/ Where love leads beyond all peril" is fully consistent with the ineffable quality that is assigned to most "Great Mysteries."
In the remaining lyrics of the Phaon Group, a Sappho who, it must be emphasized, is still largely or wholly ignorant of the Eleusinian Mysteries and, hence, of the possibility of eternal life for mortals as for gods, continues to ponder the prospect of impending extinction. Repeated admonitions to put aside "doubt" and "fear" (LVII-LVIII), give way first to quiet speculations about what people might say after her death (LIX) and then to bossy instructions about what they should say (LX). Loudly echoic of Christina Rossetti in its opening lines ("When I have departed,/ My but this behind me ..." [LX]), the penultimate lyric in the Phaon group proceeds through a sustained Rossettian morbidity to the positively agnostic statement that when she is " 'safe . . ./ From all harm"' in her grave, Sappho will have " 'Found out all/ Of truth at last' " in " 'land that knows now/ Bitterness nor sorrow' " (LX). In the final lyric of the group, a thoroughly depressed Sappho is pushed to the brink of the silence that is poetic extinction by what appears from the narrative logic and asaociational coherence of the sequence to be the death of Phaon, the lover whose "mind" has been the subject of repeated references in previous lyrics. Although ambiguous on the issue of whether an individual's personality is extinguished or perpetuated after death, Lyric LXI seems to endorse the Hermetic notion that there is a divine spirit in each man which, at death, returns to its origins:
The Phaon Group thus closes with a cruel inversion of the theme of arrival and the sense of anticipation with which it began. With no return of Phaon and no renewal of love now possible, Sappho faces a life devoid even of Unitrinian purpose: where once Pan, Aphrodite and Hermes had conspired in the realization of her desires, there is now neither "meaning," nor "glory," nor "pride" -- nor, it would appear, either joy or certitude or help from pain. Sappho's sojourn on the darkling pain is a temporary one, however, as an examination of the opening lyrics of the Cleis-Gorgo Group will soon confirm.
IV: The Cleis-Gorgo Group
The lyrics that are placed in the Sappho sequence between the arrival of the poet's daughter Cleis (LXIII) and the departure of the "radiant" Gorgo (LXXXVII) are for the most part a continuation and elaboration of the concern with mutability, mortality and the possibility of immortality that helps to characterize the Phaon Group. With its alternations of memory and desire (LXXVIII and LXXIX, for example), its references, to "autumn leisure" (LXVII) and "winter'' cold (LXVII), and its repeated emphasis on peace and tranquility, the Cleis-Gorgo Group conveys the impression of a Sappho whom time and experience have brought to a mellow maturity of "long thoughts" (LXVII), abstract ideas,55 turmoil-free love (LXXXII) and, art occasion, a resigned and epicurean fatalism that finds expremion in the tones of Fitzgerald'a translation of the Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám:
With "autumn" and "twilight" come two consolations for Sappho: the "beautiful child" Cleis whom she values above " all the Lydian land/ [And] lovely Hellas" and the continued affection of such lovers as Gorge who are now, in the poet's declining years, the focus as much of friendship as of passion.
After three lyrics of birth and rebirth (LXIII-LXV) in which the presence of Cleis lifts Sappho from the depression caused by the death of Phaon, there follows a series of six lyrics (LXVI-LXXII) in which the emphasis falls on the impossibility of knowing and the futility of asking what meaning and purpose might lie behind the various patterns and phenomena of external nature and human life. But even as they reiterate their twofold advice that the ultimate questions are futile and that the greatest gift is a " 'tranquil mind"' (LXX), a mind content to think only of the here and now of love, these lyrics foster the suggestively Eleusinian notion that behind the workings of nature lies a "secret" which, if revealed, would explain the origin and destiny of human life. "Ask how the wood-flowers waken to the sun,/ Unsummoned save by some mysterious word," says Sappho in Lyric LXVIII, "And you shall know What leads the heart of man/ To the far haven of his hopes and fears." Since the natural patterns whose secrete lid at the heart of Sappho'a musings are those of death and rebirth, departure and return, it is hardly surprising that several of the lyrics in the Cleis-Gorgo Group participate in two distinct patterns of imagery: on the one hand, there is the imagery of autumn and twilight, winter and cold, that connotes the approach of death; on the other hand there is the imagery of spring and morning that connotes the possibility of rebirth. Central to this second body of rebirth imagery are the resonantly hermetic (or alchemical) colours of green and gold: Cleis is "formed like a golden flower" in Lyric LXIII; the "sunlight" fills "the green earth with a quiet joyance" in Lyric LXV; "A daffodil blooms in the grass,/ Golden and gracious and glad" in Lyric LXXVIII. Images which, in the context of the Cleis-Gorgo Group, are suggestive of autumn and spring, decline and renewal, are brought together in Lyric XXXV, where an unnamed male lover reminiscent of the clear-minded Phaon is challenged to provide what can only be hermetic answers to the riddles of existence:
With its assumption that there exists a "lost secret" to life this lyric echoes back in the Sappho sequence to the poet's address to Hermes as "the giver of secret/ Learning to mortals" (IV) and forward to her conviction that Demeter, "the tacit earth," the "mighty Eleusinian mother" (XCII) will provide the means of achieving personal rebirth after death.
The twelve poems in the Cleis-Gorgo Group that follow Lyric XXXV ("Tell me what this life means. . .?") find Sappho singing the praises of a new female lover who, though unnamed in Lyrics LXXVI-LXXXIV, can be identified by the logic of the grouping -- its implication that a relationship begins in Lyric LXXVI and ends in Lyric LXXXVII -- with the Gorgo who is mentioned by name in Lyrics LXXXV and LXXXVII. Fraught almost from the start by "doubt" (LXXVII) and marked at the close by betrayal ("Hadst thou, with all thy loveliness, been true. . ." [LXXXVII]), Sappho's responses to Gorgo invest their liaison with the qualities of a January-May relationship: "Let me be your lover/ And your friend!" proclaims Sappho in one lyric (LXXX); "we two [are] lovers past all turmoil now" she asserts in another (LXXXII). It is perhaps in the nature of January-May relationships that the older member of the couple will tend both to bask in the reflected glory of the younger lover's beauty and to sing the younger lover's praise in a highly formal way. Certainly, both of these tendencies are discernible in the longest poem of the Cleis-Gorgo Group -- the elaborate piece of flattery and self-flattery that begins "Have you heard the news of Sappho's garden/ And the Golden Rose of Mitylene" and proceeds, not merely to praise the "melting, half sad, wayward beauty" of Gorgo ("the Golden Rose"), but also, and of much greater interest to the present discussion, to suggest a complex parallel between Sappho's art and the art of the alchemists56 That Sappho's art is able to transform Gorgo into a "Golden Rose" seems at first to suggest that she is a successful alchemist of words. As the poem proceeds, however, it becomes clear that more than mere art is required to incarnate and so immortalize Gorgo's beauty: "Only Hermes, master of words, music,/ Every yet in glory of gold language/ Could ensphere the magical remembrance" of that beauty, admits Sappho, "Or devise the silver phrase to frame her,/ The inevitable name to call her. . ." (LXXXV). That the power to eternize even a lover's beauty resides only with the father of hermeticism is one admission among others already discussed in the Sappho sequence that the species of immortality sought by Sappho cannot be found in the realm of poetry.
The Cleis-Gorgo Group ends, like both the Phaon and the Atthis Groups before it, with the dissolution of love. This time, however, an older and wiser Sappho accepts philosophically the failure of her relationship with Gorgo and, instead of indulging in either despair or self pity, offers lovers generally a cautionary word about the frailty of love (LXXXVI) and Gorgo Darticularly an encouraging word about starting afresh:
The expectation generated by the conclusions of the Atthis and Phaon Groups that here, as there, dissolution will give way to regeneration is more than fulfilled in the lyrics of the final group in the Sappho sequence -- the lyrics of what may with justice be called the Eleusinian Group.
V: The Eleusinian Group
The Eleusinian Group begins with a glowing celebration of awakening and renewal which, if nothing else, signals Sappho's egress from the resigned stoicism that accompanied the "ruin" and "desolation" (LXXXVII) of her relationship with Gorgo. Divided into two unified stanzas, each consisting of ten interfluent lines of loosened blank verse, Lyric LXXXVIII bears a formal resemblance that can hardly be fortuitous to Lyrics XXIII ("I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago. . .") and LIV ("How soon will all my lovely days be over. . ."), two earlier poems of "elegiac pathos" whose mood is at once invoked and revoked at the start of the Eleusinian Group. The first of the two stanzas of Lyric LXXXVIII is an extended epic simile that uses the imagery of growth and fertility to describe the moment when a traveller, after descending from "the deep green seclusion of the hills" (the zone of mentality) through an insistently physical realm of "forest" and "fern," rounds "a great rock/ Covered with frondage, dark with dripping water" and beholds the "burnished silver of the sea" (the zone of spirituality). This shining and prescient moment becomes in the second stanza of the lyric a simile for the "first spring day" when, as Sappho recalls, "time. . ./ Led [her] all lonely to [the] door" of a lover whose characteristics and associations males almost inevitable her identification with Atthis, the exquisitely beautiful woman so passionately and devoutly adored by the poet in the juvenescence of her life. As Sappho remembers the momentous events of "that spring day" the reader in turn recalls Sappho's youthful dedication both to Unitrinianism and to Aphrodite:
As well as being described as a scene of Unitrinian harmony ("sense and soul and mind at once"), the relationship of Sappho and Atthis is represented here as a maturing and motivating source of purpose that transforms the poet from "a vagrant child" into "A servant of joy at Aphrodite's will." That the relationship also provides entry to "a pure region where the gods might dwell" is a property which deserves special emphasis at this point in the discussion for, as will be seen, the constellation of purity and immortality is central to the conception of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the final movement of the Sappho sequence.
Since the Eleusinian Group opens with a lyric that makes obvious Sappho's concern to remember forward her relationship with Atthis, it is fully predictable that, following Lyric LXXXVIII, there will be one or more pieces in which the poet ponders the weighty matter of how and when her "lost love" (XC), her "own lost Atthis" (LXXXIX), will be recovered. The first of these predicted lyrics is set against the austere backdrop of winter, a season of inclement weather, shortened days and "Pale . . . sun" that is entirely appropriate, not merely to the poet's advanced age, but also to the emerging parallel between Sappho in her search for the "lost Atthis" and Demeter in her search for the lost Persephone. Lyric LXXXIX actually finds Sappho "Close to the hearthstone," "remembering/ All [her] spent hours/ And [Atthis's] fair beauty" and envisaging some future "morning/ When all earth revives" and Atthis, like Persephone, will return from her wintry exile to the one who loves her. Two plants, the first a traditional emblem of rebirth (because supposed to have sprung from the blood of Hyacinthua) and the second a traditional emblem of immortality (because evergreen and, moreover, connected with the Daphne of Lyric XCIV), make significant appearances in Sappho's vision of the return of Atthis:
Like Villon in the "Ballades des Dames du Temps Jadis" made famous by D.G. Rossetti's translation, Sappho in the ensuing Lyric XC employs the ubt sunt formula to ponder "where . . . all the wonder" and "joy" that she shared with Atthis in the spring nights of yesteryear have gone. In a question that could as well be addressed to Persephone in Hades as to the absent Atthis, Sappho asks: "What god's malice/ Undid that joy/ And set the seal of patient woe upon thee,/ O my lost love?" Under the pressure of remembrance Sappho is "almost," but not quite, able to "hear the Mitylenean love song" sung by Atthis "in the hour" of her "first wild girl's-love" (XC) -- "almost" and 'not quite' because much more than memory will of course be required to effect the return and renewal of a "love" whose temporal and physical absence seems, despite Sappho's wish-fulfilment fantasies, to be absolute and irremediable.
Linked by references to Atthis in the context of an unknown "town" (XCI) and an unnamed "city" (XCII), the two lyrics that follow Sappho'a sorrowful and hopeful remembrances of her "lost lover" (XCI) contain the pointed allusions and explicit references to Greek mythology and to the "Great Mysteries" which constitute the key to an understanding of the poet's emergent conviction that mere mortals can indeed achieve rebirth and a renewal of love after death. Beginning with two questions that forge an unmistakeable link between Sappho and Demeter, Atthis and Persephone ("Why have the gods . . ./ Severed us . . .?/ Where have they lured thee to wander . . .?"), Lyric XCI proceeds, through more speculations about the whereabouts of Atthis and more reminiscences about the lovers' "Spring days" together, towards an explicit and important reference to the story of the love of the goddess of the moon (Selene) for "that shepherd/ . . . On Latmus" (Endymion) -- the love, that is, of an immortal for a "mortal." In the "spring days" when Atthis's "beauty" was "mingled" with her own, says Sappho, she became, like Endymion loved by Selene and, hence, like one permanently "enchanted," a perpetual wanderer "Over the wide world" While the magical mingling of the human and the divine in this lyric indicates a promising interfluency of the mortal and the unmortal, the full guarantee of human rebirth on a higher plane is not given to Sappho until Lyric XCII. There, after seeing in the heart of "the city" an Atthis whose "Unsullied, wild, and delicate" beauty conjures up the image of an incandescent "red lily" (almost certainly another floral emblem of rebirth57) swaying in the "wind" among "the meadow grasses," Sappho states without hesitation or equivocation:
With the twofold knowledge that Atthis has been initiated into the "Great Mysteries" and that she herself can participate in the "pure worship" of Demeter, there comes to Sappho the promise of "a renovation of life and a new birth to men" and (in Müller'a words again) "the most elevating and animating hopes with remand to the soul after death." Anachronistic though they may be, the echoes of the final version of "The Blessed Damozel" that sound through Lyric XCII's closing description of lovers "new made"58 in the "dusk" of death do contribute an authenticating resonance to Sappho's vision of herself and Atthis renewing their Unitrinian love in a land of the heart's desire.
The remaining poems in the Eleusinian Group, Lyrics XCIII-C, emanate from a philosophical but uncomplacent mind that has looked through death and seen new birth. No more than Wordsworth after his intimations of immortality does Sappho recapture a carefree, child-like vision of the world: while properly emphatic on the Eleusinian point that, just as winter gives way to spring in the natural realm, so death is followed by renovation in the human sphere, she continues in her final lyrics both to pose questions about love and to focus attention on mutability. "When to the meadows the young green comes back," she asks Atthis in Lyric XCIII, "wilt thou" in "that so lovely earth . . ./ With all thy beauty love me all one way,/ And make me all thy lover as before?" "How many loved ones" will hear the sounds of the "sea," she exclaims in Lyric XCV, "When all our day-dreams/ Have been forgotten/ And none remembers/ Even thy beauty!" As intimated even by this last quotation, a notable and unifying focus in several of the final lyrics of the Eleusinian Group is the, by turns, "bitter," and "mild" (XCIII) sea whose ceaseless rhythms and seasonal transformations are reflective of the linear and cyclical rules that govern "all things mortal" (XCV). Lyric XCV is dominated by "mighty sea sounds," and the two lyrics preceding it both end with Sappho observing a try wintry sea-sounds of "thundrous" waves (XCIII) and "racing billows" (XCIV). A possible explanation for this apparent fascination with the sea may reside, as suggested earlier, in the myth that Sappho leapt to her death in the waves below the cliff of Leucadi. Another explanation may reside in the information that, according to Pater, "the initiated ... underwent a purification by bathing the sea"59 as part of the Eleusinian rituals. Nor are these two possibilities" mutually exclusive, for as Wharton points out, the Leucadian leap itself has been interpreted by some scholars as a "poetical metaphor taken from an expiatory rite" (W, p. 20) and, moreover, has been conceived by certain comparative mythographers as an aspect of the same dualistic pattern of death and rebirth that undergirds the stories of "Adonis ... Hyacinth ... Adrastus ... Linus"60 and, of course, Persephone. As Carman's epigraph from Elizabeth Barrett Browning has it: "None forgoes/ The leap, attaining the repose."
Whether or not the wintry sea is present near the conclusion of the Eleusinian Group to suggest all or some of these possibilities may never be clear. What seems clear enough, however, is that the four concluding lyrics of the sequence turn on the sad recognition that, in the end, the tantalizing parallels between the rhythms of external nature and the rhythms of human life must be subordinated to two immutable facts: the fact that death is for humans the only gateway to new life and the fact that the dead cannot return through the gateway of death to rejoin the living. Buoyed up by the return of a migrating "purple swallows "at the onset of spring in Lyric XCIX, a hopeful and intently listening Sappho asks "Was there a footfall?/ Did no one enter?" But answer comes there none. Similarly, in the final lyric of the sequence "spring revisits the glad earth" but neither the "crimson morning" that "Flushes fair-built Mitylene" nor the plaintive singing of "young garlanded women" can bring the dead Lityerses back to mortal life on Lesbos. Traditionally associated with harvest rituals on account of its namesake's ferocious fondness for reaping contests, the "Lityerses song"61 is presented at the close of the Sappho sequence in the contest of a spring ritual that does not awaken the human dead. At once reinforcing the disjunction between the renewal of plants in the spring and the rebirth of humans after death and addressing the dead Lityerses in a vocative manner which suggests that he is somehow, somewhere, able to hear the "summons" of the "women" and the voice of the poet, Lyric C both assumes the existence of personal immortality and places it, as Hamlet (his own experience somewhat to the contrary) says, in an "undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns." It is just possible that the more darkly agnostic implications of this position are averted in the final stanza of Lyric C where Sappho appears to be drawing on the hermetic idea, used elsewhere by Carman in The Making of Personality, that in flowers and their fragrances can be detected the "supramundane"62 essence or spirit which inhabits all animate and inanimate nature:
Even granting the presence of a hermetic significance in these lines, the fact remains that the Sappho sequence closes in Lyric C with the bittersweet recognition that, when all is said and done, death is the leap that Sappho cannot forego if she is to become finally and forever the new born lover of her cherished and beautiful Atthis.
* * *
Following Lyric C, and, thus, lying on the boundary between the Sappho sequence and the world beyond the volume, appears the "Epilogue" which, true to its intermediate position, serves a transitional function between the hundred "songs" and the "pause," the silence, that finally occurs only with its own cessation. Speaking in his own voice again, and again probably to Mary Perry King, the Carman of the "Epilogue" contemplates both the completion of the Sappho lyrics and the conclusion of his own life in terms of the laying aside of the "flute"63 and the silencing of the "voice" which has "made" the "hundred songs" of the sequence proper. (The frontspiece to the English edition of Sappho, a reproduction "From a Greek Gem in the British Museum" of a woman reading a scroll with a lyre nearby, could be said to have insisted from the start on the lyric [lyre-ic] nature of the ensuing poems.) Clearly echoing the Anglican service of "The Burial of the Dead" and obviously referring both to his "songs" and to himself, Carman states with gloomy finality in the "Epilogue": "Out of nothing they were fashioned/ And to nothing must return." This nihilistic prognostication is quickly mitigated, however, by a series of stanzas which assert that "something" of the qualities of the beloved inspiratrice, "something" of her "love,/ Passion, tenderness, . . . joy," "beauty" and "tears," will "imperishably cling," remain eternally present, in the "cadence of the words," the "transport in [the] rhythm," of the Sappho lyrics. More interesting in these stanzas than the suggestion that Mrs. King's emotional life provided the inspiration for the gamut of feelings from "love" to "tears" express by Sappho in the course of the sequence meat surely be the implication of the Epilogue" that, through the medium of Carman's lyrics, the "lyric moods" of the inspiratrice will be carried through time to "quicken/ Souls of lovers yet unborn." The effect of this elaborate and flattering compliment is not to affirm the immortality of the body or spirit, but to assert the persistence, through poetry, of emotions which, long after the death of their progenitors, will serve to enliven and inspire others who know what it is to be in love.
If there is one central, overriding theme that runs through the Sappho volume from Prologue to "Epilogue," uniting all the lyrics in the sequence proper and subsuming even Carman's Unitrinian philosophy, it is of course the theme of love. At once a part and the apex of the triangle of Aphrodite, Hermes, and Pan, Aphrodite is for Sappho, as elsewhere for Carman, an ancient incarnation of the Aprilian force that "brings back the purple swallow at the appointed day" and brings on the "spring wind and the southwest rain."64 A "great spring goddess," the goddess of love is at least as much as Demeter and Adonis a figure connected in Carman's thinking with ancient Greek guesses "at a future for the soul, an eternal springtime supervening upon an autumn of mortality."65 Love in its physical manifestation of desire thus lies behind all the goings and comings of Sappho's mundane life -- not merely her attractions and liaisons but also the diurnal and seasonal cycles against which they occur. As well as making the world go round, love lies at the heart of all the hopes of life after death that Sappho entertains in the course of the sequence. Participating even in the conquest of death, love, Sappho comes to believe, persists beyond the grave in an after-life of supramundane joy, wisdom, and beauty (loveliness) that is the portion of "new-made lovers." That Carman attributes to Sappho a belief in an after-life of personal love need not, of course, mean that he himself shared such a belief. Indeed, one of the remarkable features of the "Epilogue" to the Sappho volume is its complete silence on the matter of a "future for the soul" after death.
In order to understand why Carman in his "Epilogue" conspicuously avoids applying the lessons learned by Sappho, particularly in the Eleusinian Group, to his own life and times, it is necessary to appreciate his complex sense of the relation that must exist, especially in religious matters, between the modern sensibility and its ancient counterparts in Greece and elsewhere. Insistent in his essay on "The Poet in Modern Life" in The Poetry of Life that "modern poetry" must discard "those old conceptions of the universe, however time honoured and picturesque, which recent knowledge has proved erroneous,"66 he also repeatedly asserts, for instance in such essays as "To 'Moonshine"' and "Saint Valentine" in The Friendship of Art, that modern man should cherish as a bulwark against the materialism and monotony of the contemporary world whatever residual sense he has of the ancient and largely vanished idea of a spiritual dimension to nature and to life.67 Both dissociating himself from the religious (hermetic) beliefs of Sappho and affirming the persistence of a magical element in modern life, the Carman of the "Epilogue" asserts that the "something" of Mary King that clings imperishably to his lyrics does so in a manner that is "Like" -- akin to but not exactly the same as -- "a spell of lost enchantments/ Laid upon the hearts of men." Precisely because the ancient "enchantments" have been "lost," it is no longer possible or desirable to believe with Sappho that Persephone or Atthis, "Adonis or Linus," will be revived with the vernal life of spring. But it is possible and desirable to recognize that, though the Greek gods have been replaced with mere seasons, there remains in the care of the poet the power to insist upon the spiritual and emotional dimensions of life -- to project outwards onto physical nature the qualities of human feeling and to project forward into unknowable futures the spiritual signature of someone dearly loved. In the final stanzas of the "Epilogue" to Sappho both of these powers are exercised: the first in the "sob" and sigh of an anthropomorphized "south-wind" and the second in the conviction that, presumably through the good offices of future readers and scholars, the "name" of the paradoxically unnamed inspiratrice will be assimilated to the elegiac tradition:
Participating by virtue of its rhythm in the same "principle of recurrance"68 that underpins the seasonal cycle of disappearance and return, the poetry of the Sappho volume will ensure that, as long as the seasons turn and poems are read, the inspiratrice will be brought into life through her inclusion in the expressions of mourning and remembrance which accompany "the changing seasons, the pulse of life and death through the revolving year." 69
Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics is undoubtedly one of the most attractive, engaging and satisfying works by any of the Confederation poets. Not only should this highly "coherent and rational" volume be judged a success in terms of Carman's dictum that "successful art ... must be modulated, modelled, limited, bounded, directed"70 but it may also be seen as closely approaching the poet's Unitrinian ideal of an art which possesses in an "equally marked degree" the components of beauty, mind and spirit -- the craftsmanship that satisfies the senses, the ideas that satisfy the intellect, and the "spiritual reinforcement and consolation"71 that satisfy the feelings. Nor is it necessary to invoke Carman's own aesthetic in order to assess the achievement of a volume that evidently exercised an appeal and influence on such writers as Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound. In its imaginative treatment of figures from the distant past, Sappho lies in the continuity that stretches back from the Modernists to the Victorians, from the Pound to Personae, for example, to the dramatic monologues of Browning, Tennyson, and William Morris. Yet the sharp, evocatively Mediterranean dmplicity of several of the lyrics in the volume, while not without precedent in the nineteenth-century, echoes less backwards than forwards -- to the aesthetic of Imagism and to the classicism of T.E. Hulme. And to the degree that its narrative line is covert, disconnected, fragmented, Sappho exhibits fewer affinities with earlier long poems than with later experiments in the genre by poets in the modern and post-modern traditions in Europe, North America and elsewhere. None of this is intended to suggest for either Sappho or Carman a seminal role in the development of twentieth-century literature. It is, however, intended to indicate by way of conclusion come of the qualities of Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics which render almost inexplicable Cappon's final aasessment of it:
Perhaps the preceding discussion will succeed in encouraging a few more "literary professional" in Canada to remove Carman's Sappho from the "pigeon holes" into which the volume has been placed. Failing this, then the discussion will stand in its own limited way as a partial vitiation of Cappon's bleakly prophetic "or not."
I am grateful to various students and colleagues at the University of Western Ontario, particularly Ian MacLaren, Leon Surette and Tracy Ware, for valuable discussions of ideas contained in this essay. I am also grateful to H. Pearson Gundy and Malcolm Ross for refereeing the essay on behalf of Canadian Poetry, and for making valuable suggestions towards its improvement.
See my "Preface: Minor Poets of a Superior Order," Canadian Poetry, 14 (Spring/Summer, 1984), p. [v] for Wallace Stevens' comments on Sappho. Pound's admiration for Sappho is implicit in the debt of subject-matter and tone of poems like "Thy soul/ Grown delicate with satieties/ Atthis . . .," Selected Poems ed., with an Introduction, by T.S. Eliot (1928; rpt. London: Faber and Faber, 1968), p. 116 to such spare, "imagistic" poems as Lyrics XVIII, XIX and XXII. [back]
"Introduction," Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, by Bliss Carman (Boston, 1903; rpt. London: Chatto and Windus, 1930), pp. XIV-XV). All quotations from Sappho are from this edition. [back]
James Cappon, Bliss Carman and the Literary Currents and Influences of his Time (Toronto: Ryerson, 1930), p. 151.[back]
Donald Stephens, Bliss Carman (New York: Twayne, 1966), p. 75.[back]
See Cappon, p. 179.[back]
See Stephens, p. 75.[back]
See Cappon, pp. 177-179 and Stephens, pp. 75-78. [back]
Stephens, p. 78.[back]
Cappon, p. 179.[back]
Letters of Bliss Carman, ed., and with an Introduction, by H. Pearson Gundy (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1981), p. 149. Carman is writing in 1905 about his most recent work. [back]
"Kennerley on Carman," ed., and with an Introduction, by H. Pearson Gundy, Canadian Poetry, 14 (Spring/Summer, 1984), p. 72.[back]
Ibid The "two installments," both entitled "Sappho: Lyrics" can be found on pp. 39-42 and pp. 158-160 of the issues of Reader's Magazine mentioned by Kennerley. [back]
Henry Thornton Wharton, Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation, 2nd ed. (1885; London: David Stott, 1887), p. 11, hereafter cited in the text as W.[back]
Greek Studies: A Series of Essays (1895; rpt. London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 101.[back]
Ibid., p. 93.[back]
See ibid., pp. 89-90 and p. 109. [back]
A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece continued after the author's death by John William Donaldson (Breslau, 1841; trans. London: Longmans, Green, 1858), I, 305 - 306.
Carman could merely be rewording Muller when he writes in The Friendship of Art (London: John Murray, 1905), p. 259 that the ancient Greeks and British when observing the seasonal cycles "would grasp quickly at the poetic analogy between the life of man and the life of nature through the season's progress. Seeing all nature die down and revive, they would eagerly guess at a future for the soul, an eternal springtime supervening upon the autumn of mortality." Carman could of course have heard of the Eleusinian Mysteries from oral sources or from any number of other works such as Andrew Lang's Myth, Ritual and Religion (1887; rpt. London: Longman's, Green, 1913), II, 279-295 which, while containing a lengthy discussion of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, takes the view that "It is impossible to argue with safety that the Eleusinian mysteries . . . were later than Homer, because Homer did not mention them."[back]
Müller, I, 304.[back]