Introduction and Synopsis for

Ovid, Heroides XV

Text of the Poem

The Basic Situation

Sappho, one of the great lyric poets of the ancient world, has been abandoned by her lover, Phaon.  Phaon has gone to Sicily, where Sappho imagines him wooing the local girls.  Meanwhile, Sappho remains behind on the island of Lesbos, broken-hearted and bereft of emotional support.  She apparently had many female lovers in the past, but Phaon was her only male lover, and now that he has gone, her old loves give her no comfort.  Her father died when she was very young, and the only brother she mentions, Charaxus, is alienated from her and taunts her in her suffering.  As she writes the letter, she is contemplating throwing herself from the high cliffs on the island of Leucos.  There is a legend that a spurned lover will not die from the fall into the sea, but will instead will be relieved of the pangs of unrequited love.  She is apparently writing the letter just before traveling to Leucos.  (One of the legends about Sappho is that she did commit suicide by taking the "Leucadian Leap" from the cliffs of Leucos.)

The Background

This poem is unique among the Heroides in that its narrator is not a mythical or legendary figure, but a real historical personage.  Sappho was, in fact, one of the great lyric poets of early Greek literature.  Alexandrian scholars (associated with the Museum and Library in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which was one of the most important centers of scholarship in the third and second centuries B.C.) cited her as one of the nine lyric poets in Greek, and her work was widely admired and quoted.  Only a fraction of her poetry has come down to us, however.  There is a large number of fragments of poems, mostly lines cited by other authors, as well as one complete poem and a handful of almost complete ones.

Not much is known about Sappho's life.  She was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, apparently into a family of high rank, and she lived there for most of her life.  Tradition says that she had three brothers, and that she was not on the best of terms with one of them.  She went into exile in Sicily for a number of years, probably as a result of political conflicts on Lesbos, but it is usually assumed that she returned and lived once again on her native island.

Sappho was the central figure in a group of women writers on Lesbos.  From what we can tell of the surviving fragments and from comments by other writers who were familiar with her work, much of her poetry was emotionally, and sometimes erotically, charged lyrics written to women.  It was widely assumed in antiquity that she had female lovers, but there was also a tradition that she was married and had at least one daughter.  Regardless of what Sappho's own life was really like--and we don't have any means of judging that since the only direct evidence comes from the surviving bits of her own poetry--the tradition Ovid was relying on makes her a woman who had strong romantic and sexual relationships with women.

But there was also a tradition--again one which it is impossible to confirm--that she had at least one male lover as well, in addition to the husband who is sometimes mentioned.  That lover was Phaon, the man to whom Heroides XV is addressed.  Phaon is supposed to have gone to Sicily, abandoning Sappho anad leaving her grief-stricken.  Sappho pined for him in his absence, and one of the legends about her says that she committed suicide by leaping from a cliff on the island of Leucos.

How much of this is true?  Probably very little.  The Phaon story, in particular, seems very suspect, and there are at least some indications in Sappho's own poetry that she may have lived a fairly long life.  But the legend of Sappho and Phaon was well known, and it is the story that Ovid adopted for this poem.  The letter is set in the time when she is contemplating a journey to Leucos to make her final leap from the "Leucadian" cliffs.

The Letter

Lines 1-8:  Sappho sets up the letter by immediately raising doubts about Phaon's commitment to her.  She opens by asking Phaon whether he recognizes her handwriting, and then names herself in the third line in case he would not know her otherwise.  She also points out that a difference in her poetic technique, implying that it would seem strange to him:  she is writing the alternating lines of elegiac verse, rather than her customary lyric poetry.  The reason is her sadness--elegy is more suited for lament and complaint--and it is already implied that he must be responsible for her unhappiness.

Lines 9-20:  In this second section, Sappho launches immediately into the severity of her distress.  She burns with passion, and she compares her plight first to a wind-whipped wildfire sweeping through a field of ripening grain, and then to the fires of an active volcano, Mt. Aetna.  For the first time, too, we learn where Phaon is; he is in Sicily, where Mt. Aetna is located.  She goes on to lament the loss caused by her unhappiness; she can no longer sing or write poetry because her mind is too burdened by care.  She also draws an implicit contrast.  She used to sing and write love poetry for the girls of Lesbos, her native island, and she runs through a brief list of places (Pyrrha, Methymna) and former lovers (Amactorie, Cydro, Athis); now, however, she cares only for Phaon, the "wicked one" who has deserted her, and her poetry is mute in his absence.

Lines 21-40:  In this section, Sappho first echoes the reproach at the end of the previous section ("wicked one"); Phaon is young and beautiful, she says, but his beauty was "treacherous" to her.  The she goes on to expand on two themes:  first, the perfection of Phaon's physical beauty, and then her own shortcomings and the way in which they are counterbalanced by her other merits.  She begins by comparing him to the gods Apollo and Bacchus, both famous for their beauty.  Then she reproaches him for not loving her; Apollo loved the nymph Daphne, and Bacchus loved the human girl Ariadne ("the Gnosian maiden"), and neither of these women was as worthy of love as Sappho, since they did not share her gift for poetry.  Sappho herself can call upon the Muses ("the daughters of Pegasus") to sing the "sweetest songs," and as a result her name is famous throughout the world.  Even Alcaeus (another famous poet from Lesbos) is not more widely praised than she is.  She then turns to her own physical characteristics.  She admits that she may not be as beautiful as some others are ("If obdurate nature has denied to me a lovely appearance"), but says that her "genius" should make up for this.  If her body is short, then her fame ("my true height") is large indeed.  She continues to list and refute her possible shortcomings.  If she is dark rather than fair, then Andromeda, an Ethiopian princess, was also dark but nevertheless captured the heart of the Greek hero Perseus.  Even in the animal kingdom, birds of different colors often mate with one another.  She ends the section by warning him not to wait for someone who is as beautiful as he is--otherwise, "none shall be yours at all."

Lines 41-50:  In this section, she turns away from her reproaches to reminiscences of their past love.  She focuses first on her poetry and how it pleased him--"when I read you my songs, I already seemed beautiful enough."  She moves on quickly to the physical pleasures that accompanied the reading of her poetry--"the stolen kisses,"  and the actual lovemaking ("when we did love's work")--and claims that she "pleased in every way."  She says that he was also pleased by her "playfulness" and her wit ("the fitting word in jest").  She ends the section with a reminder of the pleasant mutual fatigue that followed their lovemaking ("when the pleasures of both had mingled").

Lines 51-70:  This section begins with a series of rapid changes in tone, in contrast to the erotic reminiscences of the previous section.  She describes the "girls of Sicily" as Phaon's "prey."  But just after she uses this rather violent term to describe his activities, she makes an abrupt turn and wishes that she were a Sicilian, too. She begs the Sicilian women ("Nisean mothers and Nisean daughters-in-law") to send Phaon back to her, and then she turns once more to reproaches and warns them that his "flattering tongue" will deceive them, just as it deceived her.  She then invokes the pity of the goddess Venus, choosing to address her as Venus Erycinam, whose original temple was on Mt. Eryx in Sicily.  She asks Venus whether her fortunes must continue to be "heavy," and the rest of the section is taken up with a catalogue of her misfortunes:  the death of her father when she was only six; the delinquency of her brother, who "burned" with love for a courtesan, lost his fortune and his reputation, and then, appaarently, turned to piracy, hating Sappho because she had warned him about his actions; and finally the burden of caring for a daughter.

Lines 71-96:  This section picks up where the last one left off, completing her catalogue of misfortunes with its final item--Phaon himself.  She describes her own wretched state:  her disordered hair, her lack of jewelry or other ornaments, her "cheap" clothing, her lack of scents or perfumes ("no gifts of Arabia").  Although her condition might seem to be the result of poverty, she immediately corrects that misimpression:  she has allowed herself to get into such a state simply because she has no reason to take care of her personal appearance (lines 77-78)--Phaon was her only concern, and now he is gone.  She then shifts away from recounting her misfortunes and explains the reasons for her vulnerability.  It may have been the Fates ("the Sisters") who made the thread of her life less serious from birth, or it may have been her later association with Thalia, the Muse of comedy, which "made my nature soft."  Whatever the case, she says, it should be no surprise that the beauty of a very young man ("the age of first downiness," when a beard first starts to appear) should have "carried me away."  She then goes on to praise his beauty, pretending to fear that a series of goddesses might take him away because of his loveliness:  Aurora, goddess of the dawn, does not kidnap him, only because she has already abducted Cephalus; Diana (Phoebe) might want to gaze upon Phaon as he slept, instead of her eternally slumbering Endymion; Venus would sweep him away in her ivory chariot, except that she worried lest her own lover, the war-god Mars, might be too taken with the beautiful young man.  She ends the section with two more lines of praise for Phaon's attractions and begs him to return to her--not to love her, but to allow her to love him.

Lines 97-122:  In this section, Sappho returns to reproaching Phaon.  She describes her weeping as she writes the letter, telling him to look at the blots left by her tears.  She rebukes him for not saying goodby to her, or even giving her any forewarning that he was going to abandon her ("Even at the last I did not fear what I was to suffer.").  He left nothing with her but injury, and took nothing with him to remind him of her.  She claims that she would not have demanded anything of him except that he not forget her.  She then moves into describing the stages of her grief following his departure.  At first she was numb; she could not cry or speak, and her heart felt cold ("My breast was constricted with icy cold.").  Then, when her grief "discovered itself," she went through the Greek displays of mourning--beating her breast, tearing her hair and howling out loud--as if she were a mother who had lost her son.  Her grief is not made easier by her brother, Charaxus, who "rejoices" in her suffering and taunts her for her excesses; he tries to embarrass her by reminding her that her daughter, who is still there, is a more appropriate focus for her affections.  She ends the section by describing how she cast modesty aside and bared her breast in public as she grieved.

Lines 123-34:  The tone of the poem takes another abrupt turn in this section.  Sappho moves away from complaining about Phaon and describing her grief, and instead describes her erotic dreams about her vanished lover.  She says that she can find him in her dreams even though he has left her side.  The dreams are not long enough, but she can still feel his kisses, still speak to him, and still do other things that "I am ashamed to tell."  All the acts of love "happen," and "moderation is not allowed to me."

Lines 135-56:  In this section, Sappho moves away from her dreams and back into the real world of her grief.  When the sun ("Titan") rises, she laments waking up, and she seeks out the caves and woods that she and Phaon used to frequent ("They were aware of my delights").  She describes herself as raving, like someone enraged by the war-goddess Enyo.  She revisits the places where they made love ("the forest, which often offered us a bed"}, but her lover is absent ("the lord both of the woods and of myself"), and the place is just "worthless soil;" Phaon was the only thing that made it worthwhile.  She finds the place where the weight of their bodies has made a depression in the soil, and she lies down there.  She weeps ("The once pleasing grass has drunk my tears"), and even the trees seem to be in mourning since they have lost their leaves. The only bird that is now singing is the "Daulian bird," one which is linked in myth to a mother who murdered her own son for revenge against her husband, and which now cries endless laments for her loss ("The bird sings of Itys").  Other than this, everything is silent, as though nature itself participates in her distress.

Lines 157-72:  In this section, the poem begins to move towards its climax.  She visits a "sacred spring."  It is a verdant place, with a massive water-lotus and earth that is "green with soft turf."  She is weeping beside the spring when a Naiad, or water-nymph, appears to her.  The Naiad tells her that she should go to Ambracia, or Actium, a land in northwestern Greece, to seek a cure for her unrequited love.  There, on the cliffs that rise above the sea on the island of Leucos (the "Leucadian" land), the legendary king Deucalion once threw himself into the sea when he was tormented by love for the woman Pyrrha.  Instead of dying from the fall, he arrived in the sea unharmed, and was cured of his unsatisfied love in the process.  The Naiad tells Sappho not to be afraid to leap from the cliffs like Deucalion did, so that she too can be cured of her love.

Lines 173-84:  This section picks up immediately where the previous one left off.  Terrified and still weeping, Sappho stands up and tells the Naiad that she will go to the Leucadian cliffs and throw herself from them--whatever happens "will be better than now."  She invokes the breeze to carry her body off and asks Love to use his wings to break her fall so that she will not shame the Leucadian island by dying in her attempt.  Then she promises to dedicate her musical instrument, the lyre, to the god Apollo ("Phoebus"), and she gives the verses she will write beneath the dedication.

Lines 185-206:  In this section, the poem continues building to its climax, touching on many of the themes that were elaborated earlier in the letter.  In the opening lines, Sappho shifts back from her plans for the future to address Phaon more directly.  In each of the first four line-pairs, she contrasts her impending death to life with him.  She starts by asking him why he is sending her to Leucos ("the shores of Actium") when he could simply come back himself.  She goes on to tell him he is more beautiful than the "Leucadian wave," and compares him once more to Phoebus Apollo.   She calls him "savage," and tells him that he will have the blame ("dishonor") for her death.  She reminds him of their lovemaking again ("for my breast to be joined to yours") and declares that this is preferable to being "cast headlong from the rocks."  She then shifts to pleading with him, reminding him of her own beauty ("the breasts...that you were accustomed to praise,") and of her "genius."  She wishes that she were "eloquent" enough now to persuade him, but declares that her poetic gifts have been sosthered by her "grief," leaving her musical instrument ("plectrum and lyre") silent.  She then calls on the women of Lesbos who had been her admirers, and warns them that there will be no more music because "Phaon has carried away all that pleased you before."  She begs them to "make him return," so that she can play for them once more.

Lines 207-20:  In this final section, Sappho asks Phaon once more to return, or at least to send word to her that he has abandoned her for good.  She asks whether her pleading has done any good ("Do my prayers accomplish anything"), and wishes that the "winds that bear away my words" would bring his ship back to Lesbos.  She urges him to hurry ("Why do you tear my heart with delay?"), and tells him that Venus will protect his ship and that Cupid will even steer for him and tend the sails.  She ends the poem by telling him that he has no reason to flee from her, and begs for at least a "cruel letter" so that she can make her final leap into "Leucadian waters."




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Last updated 06/23/2013