Teaching a Course on Sappho and 'Sappho'

Kosta Hadavas

Beloit College

My paper will detail how I teach an entire course-in-translation on the Greek poet Sappho. Erecting a fourteen-week course on such a meager base (less than 400 lines of Sappho's verse survive, and only one poem is complete) may seem somewhat perverse, but the inherent complexity of Sappho's poetry, the extensive influence of it on so many later poets, and the seemingly unending appropriation of her persona by individuals and communities throughout the history of western civilization have created an enormous body of material which one can explore. To give a taste of what I will talk about with respect to the materials I have selected and the approaches I employ in this class, my course description follows:

Explore the poetry, loves, and lives of the world's first female poet, Sappho of Lesbos

(c. 600 BCE). Topics to be examined: love, sex (hetero-, bi- and homosexuality), gender (constructing, escaping, denying, and transcending it), and literary and ideological appropriation, fabrication, denunciation, exultation, and annihilation in Greece, Rome, England, France, and America. Authors include Sappho (in a variety of guises and translations), Catullus, Ovid, Donne, Pope, Mary Robinson, Swinburne, Baudelaire, Daudet, and H.D. In the first half of the course we will examine all of Sappho's surviving poetry in the context of the ancient world. In this light we will read Sumerian, Egyptian, and Hebrew love poetry, with a special focus on Greek and Roman erotic verse. Themes to be explored include sexual identity, same-sex love, and gender perspectives on love. The second half of the class will be a selective examination of the appropriation made by writers, artists, and composers of Sappho's poetry and persona. This part of the course will examine how different 'Sapphos' were created and used by English, French, and American authors from the Renaissance to the present.

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