‘To an army wife, in Sardis’ by Sappho is a seven stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, or tercets. This piece was translated by Mary Barnard from the original Greek and perhaps for this reason, or due to the poet’s own choice made over two thousand five hundred years ago, there is no rhyme scheme present in the poem. It is written entirely in free verse, although the lines do conform to an average length.
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Summary of To an army wife, in Sardis
“To an army wife, in Sardis” by Sappho describes the power that the thing one loves has over the forward momentum of one’s life and the world at large.
The speaker of this piece, the poet herself, begins by stating that there are many things people hold to be the most important in the world, but what she knows to be true is different. She believes that the thing one loves is the true driving force behind one’s life and decisions. In the next stanzas, Sappho uses the example of Helen of Troy and the way that her love changed the direction of the world much more than did Menelaus’ weapons.
In the final lines, it becomes clear that this piece was dedicated to a woman that the poet loved, and she is hoping to convey to her that their love is of the same providence. It is the “finest” thing in this “dark world.”
Analysis of To an army wife, in Sardis
To an army wife, in Sardis:
Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars
Sappho’s speaker, in this case, the poet herself, begins the poem by stating something that some people believe to be true. This statement is in regards to the strength of an army, and the importance of such strength when measured against everything else in the world that might matter.
In this instance, the speaker is hoping to dispel the belief that a strong army, “cavalry corp,” or “infantry” is the “finest” most worthy sight on earth. There are many who would stand staunchly by this assertion, with nothing to sway them.
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.
In the second stanza of ‘To an army wife, in Sardis’, the speaker finishes the thought that she started in the first. She continues one, adding another element to the list of things that might be the “finest / sight on dark earth.” The “sight” she adds in this stanza is that of “the swift oars / of our fleet.” Sappho does not agree with any of the three things that she has so far mentioned. She might see the worth of these sights and qualities, but does not believe they should be considered the most important things on earth.
It is important to keep in mind who the speaker is directing this monologue to, the wife of a soldier. This woman is in need of some type of reassurance, although what type is in question. The relationship between speaker and listener becomes clear in the final stanzas.
The main point of the second stanza, and of this first section of the poem, is that the speaker believes that the “finest / sight on dark earth” is “whatever one loves.” She gives no further description of what that could be, only that it is determined by one’s love.
This is easily proved: did
not Helen—she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood—
As if the listener is appearing doubtful of what the speaker has said, she goes on in an attempt to prove herself. She mentions Helen, who she says, saw all the men that the world had to offer. Because of her beauty and providence, she lived among many of the greatest heroes and soldiers that the ancient world put forth. From all of these men, she was able to choose one. The speaker continues her thoughts in the next stanza.
choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?
warped to his will, forgetting
The man that she marries and was chosen for her by her father, well known in the annals of Greek mythology, is Menelaus, King of Mycenaean Sparta. In tandem with Helen, this man was responsible, through the rage that he felt and acted upon, for the destruction of Troy. He was the one who “laid Troy’s honor in ruin,” but was he?
While married to Menelaus, Helen was changed. She was “warped to his will” and made to do as he demanded. Whatever love that she might have felt for him was forgotten and so the direction of the world was changed.
love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So Anactoria, although you
Her love and allegiance to Menelaus were not all that she forgot, in her flight from Sparta alongside Paris of Troy she abandoned her “own blood,” her daughter. In making this statement to the listener of this piece, the Sappho is hoping to convey that the world is not made and changed by spears and fine ships, by what one loves the most, this is what truly matters.
In the last line of this stanza, the listener of the poem is named: “Anactoria.” While no more is known about this woman than what is contained within the poem, it is safe to assume that she was a lover of Sappho’s. This woman seems to reside in the ancient kingdom of Lydia, the capital city of which was Sardis.
being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes
It becomes clear in the final lines that there is some distance between the speaker, Sappho, and her listener, Anactoria. She is “far away” but that does not keep Sappho from thinking of her and considering her to be the “finest” of things on the “dark earth.”
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry
In the last tercet Sappho concludes her argument by stating that above all else that could move her, the thought of the light in Anactoria’s eyes, or the sound of her footsteps move her more than any “horse or armored / tread of mainline infantry.” This last reference to war connects the beginning of ‘To an army wife, in Sardis’ to the end, and in the speaker’s eyes, and perhaps in Anactoria’s, she has proven her point.
Sappho was born into an aristocratic family on the island of Lesbos, Greece sometime around 615 B.C. Although it is not entirely clear from records, it appears that she may have had a number of brothers, and have gone on to marry a man by the name of Cercylas. The two had a daughter together, named Cleis.
Most of her life was spent working in Mytilene, a city on Lesbos, running a school for unmarried women. The school was devoted to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros. While working there she attained for herself a prominent position in society due to her dedication to teaching.
It is unclear how Sappho died but some historians believe it was simply due to old age, around 550 B.C. There is a legend from Ovid, the Roman poet responsible for the Metamorphoses, in which, heartbroken by a failed love affair, Sappho throws herself off a cliff.
Many years after her death her work became labeled as “over promiscuous and lesbian.” This label has lasted until today. The modern word, “lesbian” is even derived from her home on the island of Lesbos. This characterization is not rooted in any discernible fact as her poems appear to be addressed equally to men and women.
Sappho is only one of a very few women poets that are known from antiquity. Her poetry is, and was, meant to be sung by one person who would then be accompanied by another playing the lyre.