Sappho Boemica: A Reading of Jaroslav Vrchlicky's "Sapfó"

Robert Sklenar

University of Tennessee

This paper offers a reading of the poem "Sapfó" by Jaroslav Vrchlicky (1853-1912). Composed in Czech Sapphics, "Sapfó" is a virtuoso performance from a technical standpoint: Vrchlicky substitutes stressed syllables for the compulsory longae of the original Greek meter and allows the quantities of the Czech language to play freely against this pattern (quantity and stress are completely independent of each other in Czech); this procedure results in an extraordinary rhythmic complexity. At the thematic level, the poem is in many ways typical of the Romantic reception of Sappho: heavily influenced--like its most immediate predecessor in this tradition, Franz Grillparzer's play Sappho--by Ovid's Heroides 15, it takes as its starting-point the story that Sappho threw herself from the Leucadian cliff out of unrequited love for the ferryman Phaon. As the poem develops, Sappho emerges as a poetic ideal, the "Tenth Muse" of later Greek tradition. Overt eroticism is suppressed, but allusions to Sappho's own poetry, notably Fragments 1 and 31, alert the doctus lector to its presence. At the end of the poem, however, the speaker drops his neo-Alexandrian mask and identifies himself both as the poet (básník) and as Sappho's "eternal lover" (vecny milenec). Just as Sappho's eroticism is ultimately inseparable from her poetry, so too, for Vrchlicky, poetic and erotic communion with her are one and the same.


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