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The Modernist Sappho and the Genre of the Fragment

Kay Gabriel

Department of Classics, Princeton University

This paper addresses the history of poetic engagements with Sappho in the 20th century, and the mediating relationship that these engagements have assumed towards the disciplinary practice of classics. Specifically, I argue that the aesthetic valorization of Sappho in her capacity as fragmentary author occurred through the canonizaton of modernist aesthetics in the mid-20th century.

Ellen Greene’s Reading Sappho volume (1996) anthologizes prominent moments in the literary interpretation of Sappho between the late 1970’s and mid-1990’s. Taken together, these disparate interpretations (especially those of duBois, Carson, Winkler, and Skinner) frequently turn on an analogy between the erotic content of the poems, framed in terms of desire and loss, and the form of the textual fragment, the task of interpreting which lends this literary work a seductive aesthetic. Providing a subjective gloss on the “subliminal fascination” of interpreting fragments, Glenn Most writes: “Perhaps, if we can succeed in rescuing the broken fragments of some long-dead Greek philosopher or sculptor, then might not the shattered hopes of our own existence somehow be restored? … [O]ur lives are ineluctably all fragments” (2009: 18). But in Most’s words we may see an encapsulation of what Nicholas Brown (2005: 19) has termed the modernist sublime, according to which “the privileged signifier of the modernist thing … signifies a lack, the absolute absence of a certain kind of content.”

At an expansive scholarly moment of highly literary interpretation of Sappho in the late 20th century, therefore, an aesthetic valorization emerges of Sappho specifically qua fragmentary author. This aesthetic structure appears modernist in the very terms that Brown sets forth. To comprehend the historical roots of this aesthetic we may turn to Fredric Jameson’s claim that, through the canonization of modernist texts in university curricula following the end of the second world war, the literary canon “is simply modernism, as the late modernists have selected and rewritten it in their own image” (2002: 210). If we contextualize this valorization of Sapphic fragmentation against the canonization of modernist aesthetics, modernism reveals itself as the critical mediating moment in the contemporary interpretation of Sappho, even within the disciplinary formation of classics. This aesthetic of fragmentation is indebted in particular to the poetics of H.D. and Ezra Pound, for whom, as Kenner (1971: 68) famously contended, the fragmentation of the Sapphic corpus provided a generative formal register for an “aesthetic of glimpses.” But note that the thesis I am advancing here inverts Kenner’s impulse to read the fragmentation of the modernists as a genetic inheritance from the classical authors they adapted. Instead, in this paper I uncover the influence that H.D. and Pound exert over professional classicists in the modernist wake: while textual fragments survive from antiquity, fragmentation as an aesthetic quality of texts capable of exercising a Mostian “subliminal fascination” is modernist through and through.

The argument of this paper thus produces a reading of the aesthetic impulses in the late-20th century literary interpretation of Sappho to argue that these depend on the canonization of an ultimately modernist aesthetic, and therefore that the Sappho of the disciplinary interpretation of classics is manifestly the Sappho of H.D. and Pound. I demonstrate this via a survey of several canonical literary interpretations (duBois 1978, Carson 1980, Carson 1986, Winkler 1981, Skinner 1993). I flesh out the modernism of these interpretations through a symptomatic reading of Most (2009) in tandem with key modernist adaptations of Sappho: Pound’s translation “Papyrus,” his seventy-sixth Canto, and H.D.’s Fragment 36 and Fragment 113. Finally, I contend that the continued dominance of this aesthetic over interpretations of Sappho may be registered in Carson’s now canonical 2002 translation If Not, Winter. In taking fragmentation as the “form” of Sappho’s poetry, Carson ultimately reproduces the modernist Sappho as the Sapphic text itself.

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Gender and Reception

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