The poem is quite lyrical, making use of similes and imagery that are hard to forget. Readers can enjoy Sappho’s allusions to marriage and her passionate depiction of what a woman is like before and after it. Although ‘One Girl’ is quite short, it packs a lot into its six lines.
One Girl SapphoLike the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.
Explore One Girl
‘One Girl’ by Sappho is a thoughtful poem about the nature of marriage and how it changes a young woman.
The speaker uses the first stanza to compare “one girl” to an apple high up in a tree. It’s perfect in every way and has, for a time, been out of reach. But someone does eventually retrieve it. The second stanza depicts a hyacinth flower that grows wild and beautiful in a field but is trampled over and over by shepherd’s feet until its ground into the earth. Both of these similes are meant to convey the way that marriage changes someone. A young woman who enters, willingly or not, into a marriage is going to lose the wild freedom she had when she was younger.
Structure and Form
‘One Girl’ by Sappho is a two-stanza poem that is separated into sets of two lines, known as tercets. These tercets follow a simple rhyme scheme of AAA BBB. It should be noted that this poem was translated from the original Greek by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This means that the original rhymes are different. The lines are also around the same length, something that’s probably consistent with the original.
Throughout ‘One Girl,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “topmost twig” in line two and “none” and “now” in line three.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, “Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow.” This pause is created through punctuation but it’s also possible to make them out of natural pauses in the meter.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses and make them feel or sense something. For example, “Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound.”
- Simile: can be seen when the poet creates a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, “Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough” starts the poem and is the first way that the poet’s speaker describes the “girl.”
Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.
In the first lines of ‘One Girl,’ the speaker begins with one half of a simile. It takes reading through the rest of the poem to determine what it is that she’s thinking about. She compares something to a “sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough.” It’s out of reach and very tempting. It’s also perfect in a way that very few things can be. It’s up there, way out of reach and somehow forgotten by the “pluckers,” or those whose job it is to pick apples off of trees.
The speaker changes her mind in the third line. She decides that there’s no way that anyone could forget that perfect apple. They just couldn’t get it “till now.” The “now” in these lines likely symbolizes marriage. The perfect apple, which is being compared to a girl, was happy and pristine. That was until she was married. The final three lines help to emphasize what it is Sappho is likely thinking about in regard to this institution.
Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.
In the second stanza, Sappho brings in another simile that should help readers better understand what her opinions of marriage are. She describes the same girl (who really likely symbolizes all young girls) as a “wild hyacinth flower.” She was growing beautifully and free until she is “found” and wounded by the “passing feet of shepherds.” Eventually, after being ground down enough, she is “trodden in the ground” and destroyed. No one can live through endless abuse. Once married, the girl loses the freedoms she had before and is subjected to the rule of the man she’s bound to. This means that her beauty, like the apple and the flower, is eventually ground down until she no longer resembles herself.
Sappho wrote ‘One Girl’ in order to explore the institution of marriage. She creatively compares it to two natural images. This helps convey the feelings of loss and destruction she associates with it.
The meaning is that when one becomes trapped in marriage, as an endless number of young girls had during her time, and since, they lose what makes them beautiful. Their elusiveness and wildness are ground into the earth until they’re no longer themselves.
The speaker is someone who understands marriage well. She’s aware of what is lost when a girl is bound to a man who is allowed to control all aspects of her life. It’s likely the speaker is a woman and is quite possible Sappho herself.
The themes in this poem are independence and marriage. The speaker compares the way a girl is before to how she is after marriage. There’s only so much one can take before they end up like the wild hyacinth, ground into the earth and lost.
Readers who enjoyed ‘One Girl’ should also consider reading some of Sappho’s other poems. For example:
- ‘The Anactoria Poem’ – a widely read love poem in which Sappho uses the story of Helen of Troy to speak on the nature of beauty.
- ‘To an army wife, in Sardis’ – describes the power that the thing one loves has over the forward momentum of one’s life and the world at large.
- ‘XII’ – explores the purpose of love and the pain that it can cause when a speaker dreams about, and speaks to, Aphrodite.