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LHMP #284 Gubar 1984 Sapphistries

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Gubar, Susan. 1984. "Sapphistries" in Signs vol. 10, no. 1 43-62.

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Gubar looks at the ways in which poets and writers have used and reinterpreted both the poetry and the image of Sappho across the ages, particularly in the context of sexuality. In the early decades of the 20th century, as translators were shifting to honoring the female pronouns in Sappho’s work and classicists were re-examining the myths of her life, a wide range of women writers focused on Sappho as an inspiration and model for their own work.

This focus included rejecting images of Sappho as chaste or the myth of Sappho’s suicidal leap for rejected love of a man. Virginia Woolf held up Sappho’s era as supplying an essential context for women’s literary accomplishment: artistic predecessors, membership in a group where art is discussed and practiced, and freedom of action and experience.

The flip side of this was that even literary women sometimes held up Sappho as a sole exception to the rule that “women’s simply awful” (Edith Sitwell). Sappho could be held up as a lost ideal while failing to challenge contemporary dismissal of women’s poetry in general. At the same time, Sappho could be used to stand in for all the lost literary women in history (without having to champion any particular non-lost women).

The massive gaps in Sappho’s surviving work inspired rather than intimidated women by creating the need for a “contemporary collaborator” to fill in those gaps. Such different poets as Renée Vivien and H.D. could collaborate with Sappho to produce wildly different images of the lesbian experience. Vivien embraced the French decadent image of a sadistic and devouring Sappho (there is a long discussion of her writing in this context), while H.D. is more lyrical and yearning, addressing the contradiction for a woman poet between the artist and feminine socialization.

The article covers (at less length) several other authors who embraced Sappho’s tradition, including Amy Lowell whose sapphic poetry celebrated her lifelong companion Ada Russell, and a wide variety of writers contemporary to this article (i.e., 1980s). Gubar concludes that “early twentieth-century lesbian poets had to reach back into antiquity to find a literary foremother...empowered to do so by the formation of autonomous female communities that the friendships of nineteenth-century women poets could only adumbrate.” She sees 19th century women poets as isolated and the rise of modern sapphic poetry as enabled by new types of erotic unions and female friendships starting around the turn of the century.

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