In praise of women writers

Ode to Aphrodite

Deathless Aphrodite, throned in flowers,

Daughter of Zeus, O terrible enchantress,

With this sorrow, with this anguish, break my spirit

Lady, not longer!

Hear anew the voice! O hear and listen!

Come, as in that island dawn thou camest,

Billowing in thy yoked car to Sappho

Forth from thy father’s

Golden house in pity! … I remember:

Fleet and fair thy sparrows drew thee, beating

Fast their wings above the dusky harvests,

Down the pale heavens,

Lightning anon! And thou, O blest and brightest,

Smiling with immortal eyelids, asked me:

‘Maiden, what betideth thee? Or wherefore

Callest upon me?

‘What is here the longing more than other,

Here in this mad heart? And who the lovely

One beloved that wouldst lure to loving?

Sappho, who wrongs thee?

‘See, if now she flies, she soon must follow;

Yes, if spurning gifts, she soon must offer;

Yes, if loving not, she soon must love thee,

Howso unwilling…’

Come again to me! O now! Release me!

End the great pang! And all my heart desireth

Now of fulfillment, fulfill! O Aphrodite,

Fight by my shoulder! 

Sappho

The dominance of patriarchy in ancient societies did not allow many women to ascend in disciplines such as art and literature. In the western theatre they were non-starters until the latter part of the seventeenth century. Neither did traditional societies escape this. In West Africa, for example, the masquerade dances were performed by members of an exclusive male society, while the Egungun performers were an all-male club.

Despite an extraordinary and significant feminist treatise by the radical and controversial English writer and activist for the cause of women Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and an even more amazing novel by her daughter Mary Shelley (1797 – 1850) – Frankenstein (1818), women writers still suffered up to as late as the late 19th century. Shelley’s novel was ahead of its time and is outstanding for the rewards it still yields.

All of this, of course, was long before the first feminist movements began in the 20th century. Patriarchy in Europe still provoked strong criticisms of society in the plays by the founder of modern drama Henrik Ibsen, who at one time was presented with an award by a women’s group. 

It is true that there were successful women writers very early in that century, like Jane Austen (1775 – 1818) and the two Marys – mother and daughter.  But Wollstonecraft was against the norm – a strong independent radical who resisted male dominance and patriarchal conventions in her private life and did not seem to be afraid of social disapproval. Her daughter, too, had a will of her own and, besides, had an advantage. She married the great and influential romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who was not only privileged but did not seem too mindful of good public opinion himself.

After Austen, others like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894) also thrived. Rossetti portrayed a disapproval of the way society regarded and treated women in her poetry and feminist tendencies are also there. Nevertheless, women writers remained suppressed, discriminated against and often not taken too seriously in her time and late in the 19th century.  Some were afraid to reveal their true identities or go public as writers.

Some of the most outstanding women novelists of the Victorian era published under male pseudonyms. George Eliot, for instance, a prominent Victorian novelist, was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. She admitted to using a man’s name to avoid stereotyping and for her work not only to be published, but to be taken seriously. Similarly, three famous sisters, two of them major novelists, resorted to using male names. Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë, started as poets and published as Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell, hiding behind those aliases for years.

However, perhaps the most extraordinary female writer in all of antiquity is the Greek poet Sappho (circa 630 – circa 570 BC). She lived early in the glorious years of Greek civilization during the classical era, in the 6th century BC. Very little about her life can be claimed as undisputed facts; there is a good deal of speculation and a few myths. Much has been gleaned from different sources, some authenticated, but as much disputed by scholars and researchers.  Some autobiographical facts have also been taken from her own poetry, as she sometimes referred to herself by name in the poems.

Sappho was known to have belonged to a wealthy and highly placed family and lived on the island of Lesbos. She conducted the equivalent of an academy for unmarried girls, taught religious rites and was a devotee of the Goddess Aphrodite. She has the distinction of being one of the most highly acclaimed poets of the classical era, and certainly the most accomplished and renowned woman writer of that time.

She was famous for lyrical poetry – verses written to be performed to the music of the lyre. The word lyrics, as we use it today to mean the words of a song, is derived from Sappho’s verses.  She has been widely influential and definitely inspired the Roman poet Catullus. Like her, he wrote love poetry, often about his mistress to whom he gave the name Lesbia in a reference to Sappho and her home island Lesbos. As distinguished an authority as Plato referred to her, as did Ovid.  She was so highly thought of as a poet that they called her “the tenth muse”.

Sappho’s reputation largely focused on her sexuality, and indeed, that was often the subject of her poems. She was best known for having women lovers, including a few of her students. That has been so legendary that the word lesbian as it is used today derives from Lesbos, home island of Sappho. One of the unproven myths is that she was promiscuous.

One of the biggest problems with this exceptional poet is that most of her work has not survived, and most of what is extant are fragments. “Ode to Aphrodite” is the only fully complete poem.  One source tells us that “according to legend, Sappho’s poetry was lost because the church disapproved of her morals”. History records that Pope Gregory VII ordered her work burnt in Rome in 1073 (Wikipedia).

The “Ode to Aphrodite” is not a seemingly serious hymn to the goddess in a religious sense as one might expect. In fact, it is one of Sappho’s references which established her as a lover of women. In the poem, she appeals to the goddess to help her get the love of one whom she admires, but who has so far spurned her attention. Aphrodite hears her prayer, appears to her and pledges her assistance. The poem is often held up as proof of the myths about the poet’s personal life. The persona in the poem refers to herself by name and the object of her desire is unmistakably a woman.

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