Comfort Classics: Kerry Phelan

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Kerry Phelan

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

One author that I turn to for comfort reading is Sappho. As part of my research, I spend so much time thinking about the Athenian legal courts, the speeches therein, and the texts and laws written by men for a community which gave civic precedence to its male members. For me, then, I can escape for a little while by reading the fragments that have survived from Sappho’s poetry. Not only does she stand as the most famous female writer in both Greek and Roman antiquity, but her universal appeal stems from a unique and unashamed ability to express emotions, and to capture the human condition so well that even a modern audience can easily recognise and identify with her descriptions. My favourite edition of the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry is Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter (2002).

When did you first come across Sappho?

I had heard about Sappho during my undergraduate lectures at Maynooth University, but we only really covered lyric poetry in a fleeting manner, having to grapple instead with the more demanding characters and motifs of epic. However, when I was writing my master’s dissertation, I was keen to examine the social reality of Athenian women in Classical Greece. Looking at depictions of women in popular myth, images on grave stele, and even illustrations on vases, I became very aware how important an authentic female voice like Sappho’s actually was; though hailing from the earlier archaic period, her popularity continued into the Classical period, as her songs were performed and passed from singer to singer. That’s really when I started to pick up books about Sappho’s life and poetry for my own pleasure, and I began to read bits and pieces of her work whenever I wanted to unwind. I’ve kept this up ever since, reading the fragments of her poems at different stages of my life and seeing something new and different each time.

Sappho by Gustave Moreau

Can you tell me a bit about Sappho’s poetry and its context?

Sappho lived in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, from about 630 BC. Her family appears to have held a high social position and, as such, she received an education in choral composition and musical performance. She seems to have devoted her life to composing songs and, of the nine books of lyrics that she is said to have written, only one complete poem has survived and the rest are fragments. In addition to the divine and the mythical, the major themes explored in Sappho’s work are beauty, eros, and the condition of the human body and its various reactions.

What is it about her poetry that appeals to you most?

Sappho’s poetry can be read from decidedly different perspectives, and each reader – regardless of their generation, or indeed social and cultural background – can find a line, or even just a word, that simply resonates with them and inspires a personal reaction. That ability, to engage with someone on the basis of their depth of feeling, is incredibly powerful.

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

Before Covid-19 and lockdowns and social distancing, myself and a very dear friend of mine had taken up Irish dancing – she was a complete beginner, but I was returning to dancing for the first time since I was a child! Not only was it a great way to keep fit, but it was a fantastic way to exercise the brain too, trying to remember old routines and also learning new variations of reels and jigs. I was delighted to have this hobby again during the current social restrictions as, in spite of the fact that normal classes have yet to return, there’s nothing more uplifting than having a spin around the sitting room with the music turned all the way up! My dog, Max(imus), isn’t a fan of my dancing – he’d rather listen to rock music, it seems – but he does prefer it to me having to work on my forthcoming book.

Dr Kerry Phelan completed her PhD in Classics at Maynooth University. Her principal research interests lie in Classical Greek political, cultural and legal history. She is currently preparing her PhD thesis – a social and historical commentary on Demosthenes’ Against Euboulides (Dem. 57) – for publication by Liverpool University Press, as part of the Aris & Phillips Greek Orators Series.

She has a keen interest in Classical oratory and rhetorical theory, and in Greek literature, especially comedy and tragedy. In addition to her lecturing commitments, Dr Phelan has taught Greek at the Belfast Summer School in Greek and Latin since its inception in 2016.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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