To gain a sense of Sappho as a character within her poems is difficult, chiefly because so many verses are extremely brief. Then, we can never know how much of herself is being expressed and how much of the work represents Sappho’s ideas of another woman’s perspectives. At the same time, there is a distinct voice in virtually all of her poems, and it is very strong in “To Lady Hera.” The poem fully represents a woman who is complex and determined to use her own voice, even as she is respectful to the goddess. In “To Lady Hera,” there is a specific sense of Sappho as an individual woman of her era, and the poem presents that woman as reverent, proud, and ambitious.
That Sappho is reverent is clearly indicated by both the subject of the poem, “To Lady Hera,” and the way in which the message is created. This is certainly a prayer, to begin with; the first two lines are virtually a classic form of humble request: “Be near me Lady Hera while I pray/ For your graceful form to appear” (ll 1-2). Respect is in every word, and this is reasonable given that Sappho is praying to the queen of the gods. The actual request is unclear; the poet wishes top sail safely and reach a shrine, presumably of Hera, but nothing else is known about the purpose of this journey. Nonetheless, Sappho is consistently mild in her plea, and never addresses the goddess in any way that does not reveal deep reverence.
Sappho refers to needing help as a, “holy and beautiful virgin” (ll 13-14), a description not appropriate for the goddess, who was a mother, but even this reflects reverence. She asks for assistance, in other words, because she is worthy of the help of a great goddess. Then, the respect is reinforced by the main part of the poem, which relates how Hera helped the sons of Atreus in the past, who were unable to reach the desired island: “Till they called on you and Zeus, god of supplicants” (L 8).
At the same time, there is a powerful sense in the poem of Sappho being a proud woman. This goes beyond the reference to herself as a holy and beautiful virgin. The tone of the entire poem, if reverent, is assured. Even the opening words, “Be near me” (L 1), are not especially humble; they are more of a demand from a woman who believes she has the right to request the divine presence. That request as specific also goes to pride. In other words, Sappho is not asking only for help, but also for the goddess’ presence, and someone less proud would be content to plead only for assistance. The feeling is then that Sappho sees herself, again, as worthy to be visited by a great goddess, and this clearly indicates pride. Connected to that pride is ambition, which is also more implied than directly stated. The reader does not know what Sappho’s goal is, but Sappho seems to equate it with the great ambitions of former kings. She sets herself as one with those “dazzling kings” (L 4), and she evidently has plans of importance. She definitely wants to reach a shrine, and this alone points to a goal beyond normal human affairs, so Sappho’s character is then as ambitious as it is proud and respectful.
On a personal level, I can relate to the character of Sappho as described above, and certainly understand this type of nature. It is not unusual that a man or a woman of any era prays because they feel they deserve divine help, and that they observe respect in the process. At the same time, there is something in this character that disturbs me. It is as though Sappho represents a behavior or viewpoint I have issues with, which is the human insistence on greater and mysterious powers coming to human aid. It is to my mind a kind of arrogance because it elevates the person’s ambitions beyond what they usually are, and is a way for people to attach great significance to their lives and their desires. I note that Sappho’s real goal is unknown, but I maintain that the combination of pride and ambition, the reverence notwithstanding, demands suspicion, or at least creates suspicion in me.
- Sappho. The Complete Poems of Sappho. Trans. Willis Barnstone. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2006. Print.