Monday, May 16, 2011


Harold Zellner, The Poetic Style of the Greek Poet Sappho: A Study in Word Playfulness. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010. Pp. iii, 130. ISBN 9780773436268. $99.95.

Reviewed by Laurie O'Higgins, Bates College (

Version at BMCR home site

Professor Zellner's book on Sappho, drawing on, and adding to, several articles he has published in recent years, considers Sappho's tone, and finds it often to be witty, light even fantastic, in the manner of Lewis Carroll. As in the case of Carroll, the whimsy marks a sharp intellect, versed in logic and argument. Professor Zellner notes the contiguity of Lesbos to Ionia, the scene of an intellectual revolution in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., a revolution to which Sappho herself may be seen as contributing. He deploys the conceptual tools and resources of modern logic to examine arguments perceptible in some of her fragments. In particular he considers the argument known as modus tollens whereby a circumstance, if fulfilled, requires some second situation also to be true. Thus, if the second situation does not obtain, the first, likewise, cannot be true. If it is day, then it is light. It is not light, and so it cannot be day. Thus fragment 201 L.P., in which Aristotle cites Sappho as saying "to die is an evil; for the gods have thus decided. For otherwise they would be dying." This witty and playful use of logic may be imagined as confronting the sanctimonious claims of Tyrtaeus (and others) that dying among the forefighters for his country is a fine thing for the good man.

Similarly in the famous fragment 16 L.P., which begins:

Some, on the one hand,[say] a force of horse or foot soldiers
some say, on the other hand, a force of ships
is the most beautiful thing on earth (lit.,, the dark earth), I, on the other
hand, [say] it [the κάλλιστον] is that which one passionately loves....

Professor Zellner parses the logic of the argument, this time using "inference to the best explanation." He includes the problem of figuring out how Helen herself, the agent in subsequent verbs and participles, and described as the "most beautiful of mortals," fits into it. Helen left her husband and went to Troy, not remembering or considering her child or parents. As the superlatively beautiful human (to everyone else), she found someone else more beautiful. For indeed one considers most beautiful that for which one feels sexual passion. Helen, as subject and object of desire is a witty example of the relativism of aesthetic evaluation. This philosophical "proof" in turn constitutes a playfully elaborate introduction to Sappho's own poetic/amatory agenda: Anaktoria is the most beautiful to Sappho. Therefore Anaktoria is that which Sappho loves.

Other features of Sapphic whimsy, in the author's view, include her "supra-superlatives," such as "more golden than gold" or (hair) "more yellow than a torch." These hyperboles Sappho used to charming effect, as Demetrius observed. Professor Zellner notes that the logical impossibility of many of the supra-superlatives (and a surprising number survive in the Sapphic corpus, fragmentary though it is) bestows on them a kind of goofy humor.

Surprise is another feature of Sapphic humor. Rosy-fingered—moon grabs Homer-habitués by the collar. When Aphrodite shows up in fragment 1 L.P. there is a suspenseful description of her departure from Olympus, with a golden chariot pulled by swift…. sparrows, madly beating their wings. As Professor Zellner notes, gods routinely were conceived of as larger than human, and thus the mental image of the aircraft seems to plunge us into absurd calculations; was she Barbie-sized? Were thousands of sparrows needed for take-off? Incongruity is familiar comic territory, it and functioned as such even in serious genres. Thus the gods laughed when Hephaistos served the drinks in Iliad 1, and perhaps we are meant to smile when the poet calls on Aphrodite to "mix" nectar with the festivities on Lesbos.

Following and expanding on previous scholars, Professor Zellner looks at several examples of sexual humor in Sappho, especially in wedding contexts. Most interesting and novel is his discussion of P. Oxy. 2637 Fr. 35 = Campbell [1990] 214A. He helpfully includes an excellent photograph of the relevant papyrus, together with his attempts at reconstruction, in an appendix. If he is right, particularly with regard to the reconstruction of a partially visible word (the pronoun με at the end of line 6), the passage may be a flirtatious request ("Throw an apple at me, Gongyla!) or an unaugmented imperfect indicative ("Gongyla used to throw an apple at me.") Either way the fragment may supplement our image of the Sapphic tradition as one that celebrated love—between women, as well as in marital contexts.

Overall there is much to like in the book, and I believe that it may change our vision of Sappho. So much excellent work has been done in recent decades on this poet, and from many different perspectives: papyrological and textual; feminist; performance context, reception, queer studies; philological. This is something new. I wish that the author's own prose were easier to follow, and that he had had the benefit of a tougher editor. There were so many passages that I had to read several times before I could make sense of them, and so many occasions where it seemed that chunks of comments in the text should have been placed in footnotes, and vice versa. This clunkiness is especially unfortunate in a book on Sappho's wit and humor. Someone should have rewritten sentences such as: "Apparently sharing in the roses of Pieria is here thought of as a necessary condition of a satisfactory state after death" and "However, such interpretations do not point unambiguously to sexual themes, to say nothing of homoeroticism."

This awkwardness diminishes the value of a valuable and novel interdisciplinary endeavor, since Professor Zellner's own training is as a philosopher and logician. It is good for us philologists to be shaken out of our sometimes unconsidered reliance on literary conventions such as that old lyric (interpretative) standby: the priamel. Instead, alas, I found myself longing for the elegant clarity of Jack Winkler's readings of Sappho 16 L.P. or the subtlety of I.L. Pfeijffer's interpretation in CQ 50 (2000) 1-6. It would have been useful if Professor Zellner had given us a more substantial contextualization for, and explanation of, his approach at the beginning of the book. Then, more easily seeing the value of a logician/philosopher's approach to Sappho, scholars might be inspired to re-read the corpus in the context of the Ionian Enlightenment. But I still baulk at an approach that often seems to push me into making a choice between two courses. For example, on p. 25, in a discussion of 1 L.P., the author suggests that the sparrow-powered chariot element of the poem "was probably intended to amuse, rather than to record a religious experience." In many ancient cults one could and did laugh and worship at the same time. Similarly, I would need to be convinced that a reading of lyric poetry should press for particular logical choices, rather than rely on allusion and ambiguity.

On p. 62 πεδέχῃς should be translated as "you [do not] share…" It is not a subjunctive. More important, παράγαγ' in the third stanza of 16 L.P. is an active verb ("led astray"), and indeed Winkler (1996, 98) translates "beguiled", making Helen the subject of the verb, not the object, and suggests it evokes the scene in Iliad 3 where the old men of Troy "There is no blame for Trojans or armored Achaians to suffer pains for so ling a time for such a woman" (156-57). ἔγω δὲ κῆν' ὄττω τις ἔραται in lines 3-4 of 16 L.P. is not best translated "is that which one passionately loves" since ὄττω should either be an indefinite pronoun (which is how most scholars have taken it –"whatever one passionately loves") or (as per Page 1955, 20) "most beautiful" …" because one passionately loves it." Page actually does not choose this reading of ὄττω, although Thorsen (1978) does, contrary to what Zellner's footnote 4 (p. 84) suggests.

The footnotes at the end of chapters 2 and 5 have some miscued numbers, and there are a few other minor typographical errors. More serious are some careless or carelessly worded observations. Hardie (ZPE 154 (2005) 13-32 has indeed made an interesting argument about Sappho's possible participation in a cult of the Muses on Lesbos; it is misleading, however, in referring to the theory, to describe members of Sappho's circle as "disciples in a religious sense", as Zellner does on 104. Despite the ignorance and prejudice which persist in many places in the US and elsewhere it is not desirable "to keep the heterosexual schoolmarm interpretation of Sappho by, to be dusted off in case of need in darker times" (103). Thanks to Holt Parker's paper (reprinted in E. Greene, Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, Berkeley 1996) she is gone for good. The Sappho that Professor Zellner has shown us is a much more delightful and worthwhile companion.

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