John Donne “Sappho to Philaenis”

John Donne as a lesbian! Although, unless you discount the title (and Sappho was known to love also men), the genre of the addressee is not revealed until mid-way through the poem. “Sappho to Philaenis” is an imitation of Ovid’s Heroides, a cycle of poems which are supposed to be letters exchanged between famous lovers (real or imaginary).  At the beginning, Sappho laments her apparently unhappy love: have her tears quenched her poetic fire, so that she cannot charm her lover with her poetry? Her lover is as beautiful as gods, and this comparison is rather flattering gods. In fact when Sappho wants to explain what gods are, she says they are like Philaenis, because Philaenis cannot be compared to anything. People believe that every human being is a microcosm but Philaenis cannot be really compared to cedars or lilies – only one half of her body is like the other half, which is both a nice illustration of how to describe something indescribable and a kind of subconscious reflection of what sociobiologists tell us about how we consider symmetrical faces and bodies as pretty. Philaenis should not flirt with boys with budding facial hair because her body does not need “perfection” – it is perfect already. A woman was said to have “perfection” when she had sex with a man, apparently being imperfect up to this point. Besides, men leave “that which their sin shows”, which I guess means pregnant ex-lovers. But the love between women leaves no traces and is perfectly natural – the like years for the like.and when Sappho touches herself, it feels as if she touched her lover. The poem ends with an exhortation for the lover to return to her and in turn Sappho is going to immortalize her in her poetry.

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