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Study Questions on Sappho's Poetry

Additional Vocabulary: Imagery, implied audience, lyrics, thiasos, Sapphic meter, poetic speaker.

Introduction: none.

Lecture or Handouts: What island did Sappho live on in Greece? Some scholars think she may have been a priestess; if so, what deity did Sappho probably worship? What is one legend concerning Sappho's life that scholars have proven is false? Why does so little of Sappho's poetry survive? In what unusual location were the most recent fragments of her poetry located? What meter did Sappho use most often for her poetry?

Identify the following folks: Zeus, Aphrodite, Anactoria, Diana (Dian)

Reading Questions:

  • "On a Priestess of Diana."
  • In the first line of the poem, "On a Priestess of Diana," the speaker claims to answer from an unusual place or situation. What is that place or situation? What does that imply about the status of the speaker?
  • In the poem, "On a Priestess of Diana," how did the speaker became a priestess? Was it her choice?
  • In the poem, "On a Priestess of Diana," what is the one request the speaker asks of her goddess?
  • "Ode to Anactoria."
  • In the poem, "Ode to Anactoria," the poetic speaker addresses an implied audience named Anactoria. Anactoria, however, is not paying attention to the speaker (herself? himself?), but paying attention to someone else sitting beside her (him?). Who does the implied audience pay attention to? What does this third person look like?
  • In the first stanza, the youth's ears are doing something unusual. What are they doing? Why is that an impossible image? What does this image mean the youth is doing as he listens to Anactoria?
  • How does Anactoria's smile affect the speaker?
  • What happens to the speaker's eyes while watching Anactoria? What does this image mean?
  • The last stanza states that the speaker grows "grassy pale." What do you suppose this means? Why might we call such a complextion grassy pale? How can grass be pale?
  • "Hymn to Aphrodite."
  • What does the speaker ask of Aphrodite in the opening of the prayer?
  • Where or what is "your father's golden house" in the second stanza section?
  • When Aphrodite goes out riding in her chariot, she hitches her vehicle up to some rather unusual animals. What animals does she hitch her chariot to? Why is that appropriate or inappropiate as a beast of burden for the goddess of love?
  • What does Aphrodite promise the speaker to provide her with some comfort concerning the lover playing hard-to-get?
  • In the last stanza, the speaker asks Aphrodite for an odd favor. Why is that favor odd, given the nature of the goddess Aphrodite?
  • "Fragment Three."
  • In fragment III, what is the relationship between the moon and the "planets" or stars described in the poem? Why does this power-dynamic make sense, given the qualities of these celestial objects?
  • What does "full-orbed" mean? How do you know it means that since it doesn't appear in any dictionaries in the world?
  • The poet chooses an unusual verb to describe the way moonlight falls on the earth in the final two lines. What does the moon do with her "silver radiance"? Why is that odd or poetic?

Sample Passage Identifications:

A. Come, Venus, come
Hither with thy golden cup,
Where nectar-floated flowerets swim.
Fill, fill the goblet up;
These laughing lips shall kiss the brim--
Come, Venus, come!

B. Does any ask? I answer from the dead;
A voice that lives is graven o'er my head:
To dark-eyed Dian, ere my days begun,
Aristo vowed me, wife of Saon's son:
Then hear thy priestess, hear, O virgin Power,
And thy best gifts on Saon's lineage shower.


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