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Lyric ephemerality in Sappho

Alex Purves

University of California, Los Angeles

This paper reads Sappho’s corpus against two different articulations of the present in lyric poetry: Gallagher’s “formalism of ephemerality” (2006), which argues that lyric is always contending against time and durability, and a special, poetic form of the present as identified in studies of modern lyric (Culler 2015). The Greek word ἐφήμερος, as Fränkel argued, applies to the precarious and variable nature of human life, as well as to man’s limited understanding of time beyond the single day which he inhabits. This conception of time is strikingly compatible not so much with human life in Sappho, however, as with her notion of aesthetic form. In this paper, I argue that what has often been described as “evanescent” in Sappho’s poetry (garlands of flowers, fleeting gestures such as Anactoria’s step, the play between presence and absence, even the aesthetics of the fragment) can be understood within the context of a larger poetic program which strives against the idea of what is monumental or lasting and instead focuses on the impermanence of the day as a means of constructing a special form of lyric temporality. Sappho, in other words, is firmly resistant to embedding her poetry in time which is stable or has length; her poetry depends on the recurrence of an idea of temporality that exists only within the time-frame of “the day”.

Gallagher has argued that lyric’s aesthetics of ephemerality is founded on a paradoxical relation between the fleeting and the eternal in modern poetry, with the result that, although “the [poetic] figure indicates an event so brief that it seems almost to participate in a negative temporality” (311), in doing so it acquires a form of transcendence or universality. Ephemerality in modern lyric, therefore, is driven by an impossible quest to escape or outpace time; it achieves its poetic significance, ironically, by striving towards a kind of nothing and non-event (“the nothingness of the formal, epiphanic moment,” 326). Much of Gallagher’s discussion is helpful for understanding the aesthetics of a form we might call similarly “ephemeral” in Sappho, if on slightly different terms. The ephemeral objects and gestures in her fragments, such as flowers, whirring sparrows, dew, and trinkets, or the flutter of a dress (fr. 22), the briefest of glances (fr. 31), and the raising of a head (Brothers song), cause the poems to skim the surface of present time—whether in the “now” of the poem’s utterance or through the presencing of memory ­– without grounding themselves in duration, either narratorially or materially.

Finally, the marked theme of iterability in Sappho’s poems provides a connective thread between Gallagher’s pairing of the eternal and the ephemeral. To borrow from the analogy that Fränkel draws between ephemerality and leaves, Sappho counts time only as a regenerative occurrence of independently-transpiring days. Although these days may fall one after the other, they do not have sequence, as her resistance to mythological narrative and historical event makes clear.

This paper seeks to add to the discussion of the lyric present in general and of Sappho’s approach to time in particular by considering ephemerality as a formal and aesthetic category throughout a selection of her fragments. I will begin with a brief discussion of ephemerality in frs. 16, 31, and 94, before providing more detailed readings of frs. 22, 58b, and 114.

Session/Panel Title

Aesthetics and Ephemerality

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