‘The Anactoria Poem’ is one of several popular poems by the Greek poet Sappho. Sappho, who is now famed for her homosexually suggestive poetry, was born sometime around 615 B.C. on the island of Lesbos. There is little known about her life. Some suggest that she killed herself after having her heart broken. It is up to readers to interpret her works as they see fit, but it is commonly believed today that her poetry has been overly sexualized regarding relationships with women. There is evidence in her poetry for relationships with men and women.
Explore The Anactoria Poem
Summary of The Anactoria Poem
In the stanzas of this piece, Sappho, or at least the speaker she’s channeling for this poem, addresses the nature of beauty and love. She knows that what she loves is that which her lover, Anactoria loves. She thinks these same things are the most beautiful and most worth admiring. Sappho uses the example of Helen leaving her family, friends, and home as proof.
Structure and Form
‘The Anactoria Poem’ by Sappho is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains or, especially in this case, Sapphic stanzas. This refers to a stanza that is made up of four lines, the first three of which contain eleven syllables and the last which contains five syllables.
Sappho makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Anactoria Poem.’ These include but are not limited to caesura, allusion, and enjambment. The latter is a formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines three and four of the second stanza. There are several more examples in this piece as well.
An allusion is a reference to something that’s not clearly explained or described by the poet. In this case, Sappho alludes to the classic story of Helen of Troy, something that would’ve been even better-known in her time than it is today.
A caesura is a pause in the middle of a line, created either through punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, line one of the third stanza reads: “men—went sailing off to the shores of Troy and” or, line four of the second stanza. It reads: “husband—that best of.”
Analysis of The Anactoria Poem
Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers,
others call a fleet the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s what-
ever you love best.
In the first lines of ‘The Anactoria Poem,’ the speaker begins by suggesting some of the things that people find beautiful. These include fleets of ships and foot soldiers, grand sights that would likely feel more sublime and awe-inspiring than loving and warm. The word “but” in the third line of this stanza immediately informs the reader that the poet’s speaker does not feel the same way. She declares that her lover’s preferences are the most beautiful thing to her. If this person, Anactoria, wants something, then that’s what’s beautiful to Sappho.
Stanzas Two and Three
And it’s easy to make this understood by
everyone, for she who surpassed all human
kind in beauty, Helen, abandoning her
husband—that best of
men—went sailing off to the shores of Troy and
never spent a thought on her child or loving
parents: when the goddess seduced her wits and
left her to wander,
While it might seem like a hard thing to understand, Sappho knows this isn’t true. She thinks it’s easy to make others understand what this is like. She makes a comparison, through an allusion, to Helen of Troy who abandoned her husband. He was the “best of / men” she says. This is at odds with the popular depiction of Menelaus today but works in Sappho’s favor in proving her point. Helen was willing to leave her husband, her home, parents, and child behind in favor of wandering around with Paris in Troy.
It should be noted that some depictions of Helen, such as that written by Herodotus, suggest that Paris kidnapped her. In Sappho’s words, Aphrodite “seduced her wits” and encouraged her to leave with the prince.
Stanzas Four and Five
she forgot them all, she could not remember
anything but longing, and lightly straying
aside, lost her way. But that reminds me
she’s not here, and I’d rather see her lovely
step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on
all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and
Helen forgot them all and she couldn’t remember loving anything except the longing in her heart. She “lost her way” by stepping off the path that seemed to be the right one for her. In the same way that Helen left her husband, family, and home behind, Sappho states that she’d rather see and love what Anactoria loves than “gaze on / all the troops in Lydia.” Their glistening armor is nothing compared to “her sparkling glance.” She’s suggesting that no matter what anyone else thinks, it’s what one loves the most that is going to direct their life.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Anactoria Poem’ should also consider reading some of Sappho’s other poems. For example:
- ‘XII’ – explores the purpose of love in one’s life and the pain it can cause. In this piece, the speaker begins by discussing a dream she had in which she spoke to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
- ‘He is More Than a Hero’ – describes a speaker’s longing for someone she can’t have.
- ‘To an army wife, in Sardis’ –is a longer poem in which the speaker describes the power one thing can wield over the forward momentum of one’s life.