Since the beginning of time writers have expressed their deepest thoughts and desires through poetry. In poetry, writers have found that they can express a thought, a memory, a person, a landscape, etc. More often authors write about love, both physical and mental. Found in this genre of love is intimate imagery, suggestive language, and exotic fanticies. Most published love poems express love relationships between men and women but what most anthologies and collections leave out are those that imply relationships involving individuals of the same gender, specifically women. Writers in all literary eras have eloquently described this romantic love between women. A few of the poets who wrote of homosexual love were in fact honored during their life, while others of them in more recent times have risked their careers as writers because they or their material were lesbian.
Sappho was a pioneer in many aspects of Greek culture. One of the great Greek lyrists and little known female poets of the ancient world, Sappho was born soon after 630BC. Aristocratic herself, she married a merchant and had a daughter named Cleis (Robinson 24). Her wealth gave her the chance to live however she chose, and she chose to spend her life studying the arts on the isle of Lesbos which was a cultural center in the seventh century BC. Sappho spent a majority of her time here, but she also traveled extensively through Greece (Robinson 35). She spent time in Sicily too, because she was exiled due to certain activities of her family. The residents of Syracuse were so honored of her presence that to pay homage to her they built a statue of her because she had become a well-known poet (Cantarello 56).
She was determined a lyrist because her poems were to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre. She wrote her own music and adapted the dominant meter to what is now known as "Sapphic meter," (Robinson 54). She became one of the Greek lyrists who began writing from the point of view of the individual instead of the view point of the gods and therefore made her contributions to lyric poetry in both technique and style (Robinson 55). She was also the first to write from the first person perspective which she used to speak of love and loss and how it personally affected her (Robinson 60).
Her innovative style was sensual and melodic. She mainly wrote songs of love, yearning, and reflection. The focus of her affections were commonly females, and many times it targeted women who had been sent to her to be enriched in the arts (Robinson 72). Sappho cared for these women, wrote poems of adoration to them, and when it came time for them to leave and marry, she wrote their wedding songs (Cantarella 58). "I have not had one word from her" tells of a sad parting between Sappho and one of her students. She tells her pupil to "Go, and be happy but remember . . . / Whom you leave shackled by love," (Line 6-7). She also asks a women to come back to her in the poem "Please." She writes "Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight, / You, my rose," (Line 1-2). Her poetry was not condemned by her society, although later scholars ridiculed it. This hints that love between two women was not persecuted as harshly in Sappho's time as it has been in more recent times (Cantarella 81). She has become synonymous with homosexual woman-love to the extent that two popular words describing it, lesbian and Sapphic, have been derived from her name (Robinson 20).
During her time she was honored immensely. Lesbian coins were minted with her picture imposed on them and Plato, the great Greek philosopher, heightened her position from great lyric poet to one of the muses (Robinson 21). More recently, many poets have cited Sappho as a strong influence on their work (Cantarella 56). Given the popularity of her works, it is surprising that just one of her poems is accessible in its entirety; the rest are in fragments of their original form. Though there were possibly complete volumes published at one time, over the centuries due to neglect, natural disasters, and censorship they were lost (Robinson 100). From ancient times up until the present, Sappho has remained an important figure in literature and culture.
It is not very surprising to find lesbian poetry during the nineteenth century, labeled as being the Romantic Period, since throughout this time there was "new emphases on imagination, on feeling," (Mack 443). Emily Dickinson, a Romantic writer born in Amherst, Massachutteses, attended the Amherst Academy and spent a year at the Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary but left because she disliked the religious surroundings (Cody 10-12). While in her twenties she led an active social life though she became more introverted with the passing years (Cody 24). During her thirties she developed the status of a myth because she was rarely seen but when people did catch a glimpse of her, she was wearing white (Cody 30). Although she hardly ever got out she did not withdraw from society on a mental level. Dickinson wrote many letters to correspond with many friends and relatives. The letters which survived her death proved that her letter writing skills were comparable to her talent as a poet (Cody 38). In her writings she is "enigmatic and abstract, sometimes fragmented, and often forcefully sudden in emotion." She often included her poetry in these letters and was often encouraged to publish her work. After a failed attempt, though, she did not try again (Cody 42). Between seven and eleven of her poems were published during her lifetime but they were submitted by some of her friends without permission (Cody 42). 1768 poems were uncovered after her death (Cody 5).
It is questionable who motivated her to write so abundantly. Many researchers agree that a mentor, a man, encouraged her though ideas differ on whether it was Samuel Bowles (a newspaper editor) or Judge Otis Lord. She could have possibly been in love with one or both of these men but evidence shows that the person who effected her the most was Susan Gilbert (Cody 80-95). She is the woman Dickinson wrote "hundreds" of her poems about and to. Emily and Susan met in Amherst and became very close friends to the point that they trusted one another completely. Emily was very affectionate toward Susan in their correspondence. At first Susan responded but Emily's attention became pacified when Susan got engaged to Emily's brother, Austin (Cody 102-103). They did not correspond for two years but when the couple moved next door Emily began to express her ideas of "worshipful love" to Susan (Cody 105).
Scholars who have studied Dickinson's letters from a homosexual view point say that her letters surpass just a romantic friendship and step into being obviously passionate. When Emily died, all of Susan's letters were destroyed therefore it is impossible to know how Susan responded (Cody 105) though Emily's letters project a woman who is dependant on her friend's love:
It is a sorrowful morning Susie--the wind blows and it rains; "into each life some rain must fall," and I hardly know which falls fastest, the rain without, or the rain within--Oh Susie, I would nestle close to your warm heart, and never hear the wind blow, or the storm beat, again. Is there any room there for me, darling, and will you "love me more if ever you come home?"--it is enough, dear Susie, I know I will be satisfied. But what can I do towards you?--dearer you cannot be, for I love you so already, that it almost breaks my heart--perhaps I can love you anew, everyday of my life, every morning and evening--Oh if you let me, how happy I shall be!
The precious billet, Susie, I am wearing the paper out, reading it over and o'er, but the dear thoughts can't wear out if they try, Thanks to Our Father, Susie! Vinnie and I talked of you all last evening long, and went to sleep mourning for you, and pretty soon I waked up saying "Precious treasure, thou art mine," and there you were all right, my Susie, and I hardly dared to sleep lest someone steal you away. Never mind the letter, Susie; you have so much to do; just write me every week one line, and let it be, "Emily, I love you," and I will be satisfied!
Your own Emily (Dickinson 141)
This letter to Susan insinuates immodestness as does her poem "Wild Nights - Wild Nights!" which suggests sexual behavior (whether female-love or male-female-love), because the speaker's goal is that she "Might . . . But moor - Tonight--/In Thee!" (Line 11-12). Also in "Her breast is fit for pearls" the speaker longs to provide for someone, a woman. These suggestions could be intentionally done, subconsciously done, or they could have been made coincidentally. It can also be debated if she did have an affair with her sister-in-law, or if she was writing from a male perspective, or if her intentions were innocent and present day readers consider have gone overboard with the implications of her imagery (Cody 83). Dickinson's sister asked Mabel Todd to edit the newly found poems after she died which leads some to believe that female pronouns were edited out and censored at this time (Cody 108).
Male poets of the Romantic Era also contributed to lesbian poetry. Their writings give readers some idea of how men looked at intimate relations between women at that time and they too provided inspiration for later gay-female poets. William Wordsworth, the ultimate romantic, emphisized nature in his poetry with great desriptions of the surrounding environment (Mack 601). "To Lady Butler and the Honorable Miss Ponsonby, Composed in the grounds of Plas-Newydd, Llangollen" is a great example of how men saw beauty in this otherwise forbidden activity. Wordsworth speaks of the breathtaking landscape that includes a secluded, peaceful stream where the two women, "Sisters in love," (Line 13) lived and let their love prosper "above the reach of time," (Line 14). Perhaps he wanted to convey the message that love between women was just another beautiful part of nature. "Christabel and Geraldine" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers a more physical side to lesbian poetry. Beginning in lines 236-237 Christabel undresses and lies down "in her loveliness," and watches "the lady Geraldine," (Line 243). After taking a deep breath Geraldine drops her robe, reveals her body to her lover (Line 244-254), and lies "down by the Maiden's side!--/And in her arms the maiden she took," (Line 261-262). Though they must keep their practices a secret, Geraldine declares she has "found'st a bright lady, surpassingly fair;/And didst bring her home with thee in love and in charity,/To shield her and shelter her from the damp air," (Line 268-277). Coleridge possibly imagined this act as he did most of his poetry instead of using something he had seen as reference. He was more than likely an advocate of female-female love considering he wrote of it in such extreme detail.
Writers of the Harlem Renaissance also contributed to this Sapphic style of poetry. Angelina Weld Grimke wrote of the African-American experience along with lesbianism. Of mixed racial background, she (named after her mother's aunt, an abolitionist an advocate for women's rights) was born in 1880 in Boston. After receiving a physical education degree she eventually became an English teacher which she did until her retirement. While teaching, she wrote in many genres including poetry (Hull 6-10). Her most famous work is a play entitled "Rachel," which focuses on a woman of African decsent who rejects the archetypal mother-woman role (Hull 23). Only in her poetry does she uncover her romantic love toward females. A significant amount of her poetry are love poems to women or about women and therefore they were rarely published (Hull 43).
Journals and letters of Angelina's reveal her trend toward lesbianism began during her teenage year. A letter to Mamie Burrill she wrote when was sixteen read: "I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, 'my wife'," (Hull 72). She for the most part kept her sexuality hidden, due to her father's strong morality which in effect showed-up in her writing, describing her sorrow for her inability to find a companion (Hull 104). In "Rosabel" and "Naughty Nan" reveal these sentiments. In "Rosabel" she wished the wind to tell a women how she thought of her since she herself cannot. "Naughty Nan"describes a woman who taunts and teases the speaker though not intentionally and it has a great effect on the speaker because she could not unleash what was going through her head.
Close-minded editors, critics, and readers are the main reasons that many of the lesbian poets' works remain hidden and unpublished. They are also a contributing factor to modern poets who refuse to reveal their works to the public. What if Michealangelo or Shakespere had been discouraged when they were starting out? Society would be deprived of their genious and those who they influenced would have possibly never exhibited their talents, leaving a narrow trail for the future of the arts to follow. Someone's sexual orientation should have nothing to do with whether we enjoy or destroy their works and talents. Now there is much more media sources devoted toward homosexuals such as in television, books, and of course the internet.In a changing society such as the one today people must learn to open their minds to accept others for who they are instead of criticizing what they are.
Cantarella, Eva. Pandora's Daughters: The Role and the Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1987.
Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Coleridge, S.T. Selected Poetry. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambride: Harvard University Press, 1955.
Grimke, Angelina Weld. Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimke. Ed. Carolivia Herron. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Mack, Maynard, et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. 6th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1992. 2 vols.
Robinson, David M. Sappho and her Influence. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1924.
Sappho. Sappho. Translated by Mary Bernard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.
Wordsworth, William. Complete Poetical Works. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
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