To Sappho I by Sara Teasdale

‘To Sappho I‘ by Sara Teasdale is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet composed of fourteen lines, that is dependably consistent in it’s rhyme scheme. As do the majority of Italian sonnets, the first section of “To Sappho I” rhymes, ABBAABBA. This conforms fundamentally to what is expected from sonnets written in this style. In the remaining lines, Teasdale chose to diverge slightly from the normal patterns. They rhyme, CCCDDD. 

 

Summary of To Sappho I

“To Sappho I” by Sara Teasdale speaks on the beauty of the past as seen from a tainted future that has lost it’s joy and magic. 

The poem begins with the speaker addressing Sappho, a female poet of ancient Greece, and describing the world in which she must have lived. It was a happy time in which nature was pristine and there was no “doubt” present in everyday life. The doubt that the speaker is describing can refer to doubt in oneself or doubt in one’s purpose in the world. This is backed up in the next lines as the speaker refers to the earth as being half worn out by the progress that humankind has made. 

There is no more need for magic or myths and “nymphs and satyrs” have vanished from the eye of the people. 

The poem concludes with the speaker comparing Sappho’s world to that of the modern age. There is no longer the dedication to gods and goddesses, nor is there the desire to explore the mysteries of the Earth as they have already been mapped. The time in which the ancient poet lived was before Venus, or Aphrodite, was lost from the water, and before Ceres, or Demeter, lost Persephone to Hades. These myths form a before and after wall to the two worlds of these poets. 

 

Analysis To Sappho I

Lines 1-8

Impassioned singer of the happy time.

When all the world was waking into morn,

And dew still glistened on the tangled thorn,

And lingered on the branches of the lime —

Oh peerless singer of the golden rhyme,

Happy wert thou to live ere doubt was born —

Before the joy of life was half out-worn,

And nymphs and satyrs vanished from your clime.

The speaker of this piece begins the poem by address the poet to whom the poem is dedicated, Sappho. Sappho is one of the only known female poets from antiquity. She was born around 615 B.C. and died in 550 B.C. She is known for his lyric poetry and relatable subject matter. 

The speaker refers to Sappho as being the “Impassioned singer of the happy time.” This time to which the speaker is referring is that before the modern age. She sees “antiquity,” the age of Sappho, as being happier than the time in which the speaker of the poem is living. 

Sappho is said to be “Impassioned.” She sang, or wrote poetry, with a real passion that can still be felt today. Her work was written during this “happy time” in which the “world” was only just waking up. Humankind was just discovering the wonders the world had to offer and the beauty of nature. 

The following lines trace through different images of beauty that one might find in nature. She begins by speaking of the “dew” that shines on the “tangled thorn” branches. This simple, harmless part of nature is contrasted with a more harmful one. The dew can also be seen, “linger[ing] on the branches of the lime” tree. The world is interconnected in a simple, and matter of fact way. 

Once more the speaker turns to address Sappho. She tells her that, although she was “peerless,” without much recognition, she wrote and sang “golden rhyme[s].” These poems that are now appreciated for the simplicity and style show the speaker that Sappho and her contemporaries, were happy to live in a world that did not have “doubt.” They lived before it was real and widespread. This “doubt” could refer to one’s place in the world, or the general purpose of life. 

The “happy times” of Sappho existed because, as it is now, “joy” was not “half out-worn.” The wonders of the world were not halfway to annihilation as they are in modern times. This can refer both to nature and to the magic that the ancient Greeks saw in their everyday life. 

This conclusion is supported by the following lines in which the speaker is mourning the “vanish[ing]” of mythical creatures. 

 

Lines 9-14

Then maidens bearing parsley in their hands

Wound thro’ the groves to where the goddess stands,

And mariners might sail for unknown lands

Past sea-clasped islands veiled in mystery —

And Venus still was shining from the sea,

And Ceres had not lost Persephone. 

She continues on to describe how other worthy elements and beliefs about life have gone.

One particular occurrence that one will no longer see is that of “maidens bearing parsley in their hands.” These women, have collected the herb and are taking it into the “grooves”to where they can dedicate it to Persephone, the goddess of the underworld. The herb was commonly considered to be the herb of the dead and many Greeks grew it in their garden. It was often used in funerals and fed to horses. 

Another fact of ancient life now lost, is that of “mariners…sail[ing] for unknown lands.” There is no more unknown land in the modern world, the mystery of the planet has dwindled with the vast expansion of the human race. Men used to, before the advancements of the modernity, relish the “sea-clasped islands veiled in mystery.” Adventure and exploration were ingrained in Greek society and storytelling. 

The final two lines of this poem reference Persephone, and the goddesses Venus and Ceres. 

During Sappho’s days, “Venus” was still “shining from the sea” and Persephone had not been “lost” to Ceres. These lines reference the birth story of Venus, or Aphrodite, who was said to have come from the sea as well as that of Persephone and her mother. 

Ceres, or Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, had one daughter, Persephone. When she was a child, she was kidnapped by Hades and carried to the underworld where she was forced to become his bride. It is this loss to which the poem refers. 

 

About Sara Teasdale 

Sara Teasdale was born in 1884 in St.Louis, Missouri, and was an American lyric poet whose work was mainly concerned with a beauty, love and death. She was known to work her own experiences into her poetry, from those of youth, to those of depression around the time of her suicide in 1933. 

She grew up in a staunchly religious household and was privately educated. Sara Teasdale’s first poem was published in Reedy’s Mirror in 1907 and in that same year she published her first book, Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems. She was married in 1914 and moved with her husband to New York in 1916. She worked throughout this period on her own poetry as well as editing two anthologies, The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women, and Rainbow Gold for Children. 

Her poems are well known for their emotional subject matter and lyrical language. She gained fame during her lifetime and won the first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1918. Today her popularity has waned, she is not as well known or as popular amongst readers and critics as she was in her own lifetime. 

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