Sappho was a metrical virtuoso. Many of her fragments survive because they were quoted solely to illustrate otherwise unattested metrical forms. Indeed, there is no precedent or parallel in the poetry of other ancient Greeks for both the range of meters Sappho used as well as the individual characteristics of certain of such meters. The only obvious precedent is in the meters of the Vedic hymns of the Rsis of ancient India.
That may not seem to be a big deal, but it is. One takeaway is that Sappho represents a very old tradition of poetry. Exactly how old is impossible to say. The similarities between Sappho’s meters and those of the Rsis may reflect a poetic tradition common to each that is even older than their respective traditions.
One Vedic aspect of some of Sappho’s meters is that the first two syllables could be either long or short. Again, this by itself may not seem to be a big deal, especially compared, for example, to the improvisational elements of modern jazz. But it does represent an unusual degree of freedom compared to all other ancient Greek poetry.
To understand what this metrical freedom meant for Sappho herself, a distinction needs to be made between what Sappho’s audience heard versus what Sappho, as a composer, contemplated before composing. Take ‘1’ to represent the length of a short syllable and ‘2’ the length of a long syllable: what her audience heard at the beginning of a line could be any of the following permutations: (1, 1), (1, 2), (2, 1), (2, 2). That, however, would not be how Sappho sensed things before she composed. What she would seem to have had is a ‘placeholder’ of some sort for either value.
In technical discussions of meter the placeholder for each such syllable has traditionally been referred to using the obviously anachronistic Latin term ‘anceps,’ symbolized by an ‘x’. There is, however, a well established basis for recognizing in poetic meter a type of mathematics, and from that perspective Sappho’s placeholder is the equivalent of zero. The place for each of the first two syllables of such meters should thus be symbolized by ‘0’, representing the potential, in Sappho’s mind, to be either a ‘1’ or a ‘2’.
Again, this may not seem to be a big deal, but it is. Sappho would appear to have been thinking of poetic composition in a manner analogous to the thought underlying the binary number system of modern information technology. Support for attributing such thinking to Sappho can be drawn from the very fact of the range of meters she used. That suggests that the freedom of selecting either a long or short syllable to start a given line was but one aspect of a systematic way of choosing among a range of possibilities (binaries) in composing.
Binaries are hardly unique to Sappho. Yet, Sappho’s sensitivity to them is what defines her as a poet. The fundamental binary for Sappho was that between saying something or nothing at all (S.120). A subtle echo of that binary is heard in how she plays with the pause between words when she complains: “I do not know what to do: I am of two minds” (S.51)(the ‘colon’ (not in the Greek) represents a pause in the meter that symbolizes Sappho’s awareness of the presence of the binary ‘two minds’–that is, the potential to go one way (speech) or another (silence)).
A particularly telling example of such thinking is in how Sappho combines the polar opposites ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ to characterize the one emotion of love. It happens to fit perfectly what Charles Peirce refers to as a “consciousness of polarity” he thinks is equivalent to a “consciousness of willing.” The modal logic needed to explain the validity of such a consciousness (and its relationship to potentiality, freedom and related concepts) did not emerge in the West until two millennia after Sappho. It would seem outlandish to impute such thinking to her, except for the fact that it has been fairly analogized to Buddhist logic, a logic expressed predominantly in a Sanskrit meter the ancestor of which is the meter of the Vedic hymns. That meter is thus the metrical cousin, albeit distant, of some of Sappho’s meters.
This too may not seem to be a big deal at first. Largely due to Aristotle’s ridicule of poetry as a form of philosophical expression, for over two millennia in the West poetry has been perceived as a matter of aesthetics, a matter of how something is said, rather than what is said. Yet, in Buddhist logic everything is interdependent: how something is said must relate to what is said. Furthermore, poetic performance (chanting) and hence meter were (and are) vital not so much to the expression, as the experience, of what is the essence of Buddhism: sunyata. So inseparable was meter deemed to be from experiencing sunyata that notwithstanding linguistic differences Chinese Buddhists incorporated Sanskrit metrical principles into their own poetry, principles imitated in turn by Korean and Japanese Buddhist poets.
By far the single most important Buddhist poetic form consists of four eight syllable lines. Two famous examples are found in the Diamond Sutra. The form (often printed as two sixteen syllable lines when it is part of a sequence of stanzas in a longer work) was used effectively by Nagarjuna (eg., Mulamadhyamakakarika 25.20) and is common in the Bhagavad Gita, portions of which betray Buddhist influence (well imitated in each stanza of Emerson’s Brahma). To compose a poem of such a form was (and is) considered an important milestone in a Buddhist’s life.
How does this relate to Sappho? S. 168b, one of her most famous and influential fragments, consists of four eight syllable lines (recited here in ancient Greek with a choreographed interpretation).
Detailed notes and references to all of the foregoing can be found on my blog on Sappho.
Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City. Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.