He seems to me equal to gods that man
who opposite you
sits listening close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.
— Sappho, fragment 31
On the surface of it, the lover wants the beloved. This, of course, is not really the case. If we look carefully at a lover in the midst of desire, for example Sappho in her fragment 31, we see how severe an experience for her is confrontation with the beloved even at a distance. Union would be annihilating. What the lover in this poem needs is to be able to face the beloved and yet not be destroyed, that is, she needs to attain the condition of “the man who listens closely.” His impassivity constitutes for her a glimpse of a new possible self. Could she realize that self, she too would be “equal to gods” amidst desire; to the degree that she fails to realize it, she may be destroyed by desire. Both possibilities are projected on a screen of what is actual and present by means of the poet’s tactic of triangulation. That godlike self, never known before, now comes into focus and vanishes again in one quick shift of view. As the planes of vision jump, the actual self and the ideal self and the difference between them connect in one triangle momentarily. The connection is eros. To feel its current pass through her is what the lover wants.
— Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
Neil Hertz has a reading of this in one of his books that’s quite good (End of the Line, maybe?).
The first thing to note is that the fragment is “On Jealousy”, which explains a great deal more about the “equal to gods”. Second, the more significant fact is that the shattered body described in the poem is, in fact, whole on the side of authorship: there’s an appropriation of passion that reconstitutes the fragmented body of the lover as the poetic self, the whole.
Definitely one of Sappho’s best. I almost wonder if there’s at least some pleasure for Sappho in this conflict of emotions itself — possible proximity to the beloved, and thus divinity, over against a looming death. Also, it’s worth highlighting that we have this fragment thanks to its having been quoted in (pseudo-)Longinus’ On the Sublime (10.1-3), where that author gives this passage as an example that clearly depicts “the emotions that occur with the madness of love” (τὰ συμβαίνοντα ταῖς ἐρωτικαῖς μανίαις παθήματα).