‘XII‘ by Sappho is a short four stanza poem that is constructed from sets of quatrains, or stanzas, with four lines. Each of these stanzas is similar in length. The first and third lines are consistently longer, and the second and fourth, consistently shorter.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a dream in which she spoke with the goddess of love, Aphrodite. In this dream, she asked the goddess what the purpose is of having love be so painful and eternal. She describes it as being like a thorn in the side of a man. It does not ever fully abate, it is always there, ready to remind one of past losses. The speaker does not understand why this needs to be the case.
Aphrodite responds to the speaker’s question in two parts. First, she describes how when one is born, they come from desire. Before they do anything else, the emotion that created them, and the first one that greets them, is love and want.
She goes on to list the greatest elements of life. From the wisdom of the gods to the power of the sun. These things have the ability to allow one to find knowledge, joy, and complete important deeds in life. But, once more, before any of this can happen, desire or love must exist. All are subject to its pull.
Analysis of XII by Sappho
In a dream I spoke with the Cyprus-born,
And said to her,
“Mother of beauty, mother of joy,
Why hast thou given to men
In the first quatrain of ‘XII’, the speaker begins by explaining that within a dream she had spoken: “with the Cyprus-born.” It is not an uncommon belief, in antiquity, or in modern times, to interpret or consider dreams as ways of communicating with higher beings. In this case, “Cyprus-born,” refers to the goddess Aphrodite, who is said to have been born on the island of Cyprus.
The myth says that Aphrodite was born, or at least came from the island. It is said that she came from the white foam that was produced by the severed genitals of Uranus, who had been mutilated by Cronus. This story was first recorded by Hesiod in Theogony.
Having this background information, it is easier to understand why the speaker would be interested in asking Aphrodite her questions, rather than another god or goddess.
She asks the goddess why she has bestowed onto men a certain pain. Before getting this far though, she refers to the goddess as the “Mother of beauty” and the “mother of joy.” These compliments fit with the personification of Aphrodite as the goddess of love.
“This thing called love, like the ache of a wound
In beauty’s side,
To burn and throb and be quelled for an hour
And never wholly depart?”
The speaker of ‘XII’ is interested in finding out from Aphrodite why she has given to men, “This thing called love.” She sees love for men as being something that is eternal in its pain and “ach[ing.” It is a thorn in “beauty’s side” that may die down for a time but will never “wholly depart.”
It is unclear whether the speaker sees love as being an unnecessary part of a man’s life, or whether she simply wants to know why it hurts so much. Either way, she does receive an answer.
And the daughter of Cyprus said to me,
“Child of the earth,
Behold, all things are born and attain,
But only as they desire,—
Once more the speaker refers to Aphrodite as being the “daughter of Cyprus.” Her response comes through the next two quatrains.
She begins by copying the speaker’s form by calling her, “Child of the earth.” This designation is not an insult but an acknowledgment of their differences.
Her answer is in two parts. She begins by saying that when all life begins, it starts with desire. She describes humans as being born and then attaining the goals of their life. All this is done through desire. She sees love, lust, and want as being the driving forces of the world.
“The sun that is strong, the gods that are wise,
The loving heart,
Deeds and knowledge and beauty and joy,—
But before all else was desire.”
At the beginning of this last quatrain, Aphrodite takes a brief overarching view of the world. She speaks in short phrases about the strength of the sun and the wisdom of the Gods. These two important elements of life are crucial to human development, as is “The loving heart.” From these factors “Deeds” may be completed, the knowledge gained and beauty appreciated.
But, before the realization of any of these facts, “Before all else,” there “was desire.”
Her answer to the speaker’s question is a simple one. Men must experience the pains of love because desire is from where the whole world is born. Love cannot be painless or harmless, it must engender passion and commitment.
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.