26 November, 2016
Sappho’s A Company of Soldiers
In the poem, A Company of Soldiers, Sappho draws comparison between the different interpretations of the notion of “beauty” – one being the beauty of the battlefield, and the other being love, which is her own interpretation of what she considers to be beautiful. Sappho even draws on the story of Helen and Anactoria to further illustrate themes of love and the force of desire in life. The contrasting views on “beauty” highlights the fundamental difference between a masculine and feminine interpretation of the concept and the potential impact this difference can lead to.
Sappho begins the poem with a reflection on what “some say” to be the “most beautiful sight upon earth’s dark soil” [to be] “a company of soldiers on horse,” “a line of soldiers on foot,” and “a fleet of ships.” The majestic and epic militaristic imagery illustrated by Sappho frames a very patriarchal and patriotic view on beauty, suggesting that what is beautiful comes from honour of war, of fight, and of battle. Through the use of sharply drawn imagery of numerous battlefields, Sappho draws connection between honour and love to politics and war, highlighting the “beautiful sight” on earth, to some, comes from the presence of a company of soldiers. What it means is that, beauty is reflected and seen in what one loves. If one is passionate about the company of soldiers, they war will be the most beautiful thing. “Beauty” in this case, represents the ability to fight, the honour of belonging to a larger group, and believing in a cause greater than oneself that allows one to make great sacrifice. “Ah, but for me,” Sappho notes at the end of the first stanza, “this honor belongs to whoever one loves.” Through the use of aposiopesis, the sudden interruption of illustration of battlefield, she is powered with emotion and expresses her position very differently from what some may say to be beautiful. Although she has made it clear that her perspective is quite different than that she described in the beginning of the poem, her statement remains open-ended, without stating the loved or the beloved.
“It is easy to see why,” Sappho continues in the second stanza in explaining why she believes love is the most beautiful sight. “Look!” Sappho invokes the story of Helen to make her case, saying that even the “most gorgeous woman on earth” chose to abandon the “most excellent of all man,” leaving her children and parents behind as she “made sails for Troy.” The use of hyperbole, the exaggeration of Helen’s beauty, the status of her husband shows that love is quite relative because when one falls in love, even the most beautiful woman Helen will have a different perception on what is beautiful and thus what she desires, even the most excellent man will not be able to change what she decides to be beautiful. At the same time, Helen must have found the man she loves to be exceptionally beautiful because even “the most gorgeous woman on earth” became so in love “so suddenly, so easily, so gently.” The use of isocolon, a kind of parallelism in describing the impact of love once again reflects and highlight the way desire makes human beings fragmented, deranged, and alienated. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, has led Helen “so far astray” in a way that is perhaps unexplainable and bizarre. However, as Sappho points out, beauty is what can inflict desire, and the judgment of what is beautiful is simply a matter of preference.
Just as Helen finds her man to be beautiful, Sappho finds Anactoria to be the “dazzling beauty.” “Ah! This reminds me of Anactoria who is very far away,” Sappho exclaims, pointing out the person who finds the most beautiful in her eyes. Although Anactoria is not generally perceived by most people to be the rarest beauty like Helen, she is however, the goddess to Sappho. Here, we can see that Sappho’s intelligent use of parallelism compare and connect her admiration for Anactoria to Helen’s love that has led her to Troy. Further, the repeat usage of aposiopesis in Sappho’s poem reflects the eagerness of expressing emotions, echoing to Sappho’s illustration of beauty and desire, something that is spontaneous and passionate. In the case of Helen and Sappho, both of the people they find to be beautiful are individuals. They, unlike soldiers and fleets of ships, do not come in large number as a collective, but as individual whose beauty is admired and appreciated by someone else. Sappho’s concern with individual preference perhaps act as a critique to the traditional and conventional framework laid out by patriarchal values. The fact that she would “rather look upon [Anactoria’s] charming step and dazzling beauty of her face than upon all the glittering chariots,” “foot soldiers [in their] weighty armour” shows that if women, unlike men, find other human beings to be attractive, their preference should not be seen as any less authentic or valuable.
Through the use of various figurative devices, vivid imagery, Sappho’s poem makes the point that “beauty” is a driving force that motivates certain choices and behaviors, as illustrated in Helen’s story. Beauty, as pointed out by Sappho, is purely relative, subjective, and even unreasonable. Her poetic imagination and words of poetry, ultimately, defines her emphasis on individual desires and the human experience of those desires, and allows for a feminine voice to be expressed.