‘He Is More Than A Hero’ by Sappho is a seventeen line poem that has been separated into one set of four lines, or quatrain, and five sets of three lines. The poem was translated from the original Greek and therefore has not retained any sense of a rhyme scheme if there was one. Sappho’s poems were written from somewhere around c.630 — c.570 and were meant to be accompanied by a lyre. A great number of her poems are now lost, and others, like ‘He Is More Than A Hero,’ only survive in an incomplete form.
As another point of interest, the term “lesbian” founds its origins within Sappho’s life. She was from the Greek island of Lesbos and as most of her poetry dealt with relationships between women, the word “lesbian” arose.
Summary of He Is More Than A Hero
The speaker begins this piece by describing the position that a man holds in her mind. This person, who does not end up being the main focus of the piece, is like a “god” to the speaker. He is “more than a hero” as it is he who is allowed to “sit beside you.” The “you” to whom the speaker refers is a woman she is in love with but cannot have.
The speaker is tormented by the sight of the intended listener of this piece sitting and speaking intimately with her lover. In the following sections of the poem, the speaker goes through all the emotions she experiences in her everyday life as she thinks, sees, and tries to speak with this woman.
Her words are often jumbled, her vision blurred, and her ears clogged with the sound of her own heartbeat. She is unable to control her own body and is all of a sudden shaking and covered in sweat. The poem concludes abruptly with the speaker describing how her emotions are so strong it feels as if she is often close to death.
Analysis of He Is More Than A Hero
He is more than a hero
he is a god in my eyes–
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you — he
In the first stanza of ‘He Is More Than A Hero’ the speaker begins by utilizing the line which would become the title of this short piece, “He is more than a hero.” This phrase is quite ambiguous at first as a reader is not yet aware of what this man means to the speaker or if the man is “more” in a positive or negative way.
The second line adds some additional information to the speaker’s idea of the man. He is like a “god” to her. Once again, this can be positive or negative. What kind of god is he? A kind and forgiving one? Or a spiteful one?
The next two lines provide the background information a reader needs to interpret the bare bones of the situation. The reason the speaker feels so strongly about this person is that he gets to “sit beside you.” Although a reader does not know who exactly these people are, one can assume that the “you” to whom the speaker refers is her love interest and intended listener. This person is in a relationship of one kind of another with a man and the speaker is jealous of their closeness.
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
The next stanza is a tercet, meaning that it is made out of three lines. It begins where the first stanza left off, with the speaker describing the man as being the one “who listens intimately” to “your voice.” He is allowed the closeness the speaker longs for. She imagines what their lives are like together and is brooding over the fact that he hears the listener’s “sweet murmur.”
It is clear the speaker has deep feelings for this person as she is emphasizing something as simple as speech. Even common communication between the couple angers her. She would replace the man with herself if she could.
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can’t
The third stanza also contains three lines and begins with the speaker describing the listener’s “enticing / laughter.” It gives her life and makes her “hear beat fast.” Once again it is a simple part of life that makes the speaker feel most passionately about this woman she cannot have.
Sappho’s poetry, especially ‘He Is More Than A Hero’, is able to reach out across the centuries due to its deeply relatable subject matter. A reader should take note of the commonalities in one’s own emotions to those experienced by the speaker. She describes how when she meets this person, no matter where or under what circumstances, she “can’t / speak.”
speak — my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
The narrative continues into the fourth stanza with the speaker describing how when she attempts to speak to the woman she loves her “tongue” seems to be “broken.” She is unable to form the words she is looking for and stumbles over her speech.
In the following lines, she speaks of a “thin flame” which “runs under [her] skin.” These are emotions she is unable to escape. They are within her body and she cannot shake them. At points in her everyday life, they are so strong that she is unable to see.
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
In the fifth stanza, she begins by expanding on the blocking of her senses. Her sight is obscured by the strength of her love, desire, and anger that she cannot be with this woman. The only thing she can hear is the “drumming of her own heartbeat in her ears.
The rest of her body is acting of its own accord. She is “shak[ing]” and “drip[ping] with sweat.” She is unable to control herself.
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me
In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker devotes further description to how her body reacts when she sees or speaks to the woman she loves. Her skin turns “paler” than the color of the “dry grass.” She feels so intensely at these moments that her mind and heart become overwhelmed. The emotions are so strong that she believes she cannot be “far” from death in these situations.