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 Yentl Love
(The Queer Classicist)
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
It might be a cliché, but for me it has to be Sappho’s Fragment 31.
When did you first come across this poem?
I first fell in love with Sappho when I was 15, after I had just come out to my closest friends and family, and this poem has always held a special place in my heart since.
Can you tell me a bit about this fragment and its context?
Sappho’s poetry is famously fragmentary – only little pieces survive here and there, found scribbled on papyrus, or quoted by another long dead source. This poem is one of the most complete pieces we have of hers, and was copied in a 1st Century CE literary critique known as ‘On the Sublime’. For some reason though, the author stopped copying her work in the middle of a verse, leaving the rest of the poem unknown.
What is it about this poem that appeals to you most?
The poem itself describes Sappho watching a man who is sitting opposite the woman that she’s in love with, and making her laugh, and the feelings this ignites within her. To her, Sappho tells us, this man seems “equal to the gods”, just for having the privilege of sitting next to this woman, and that Sappho’s heart pounds as she hears her laughing. Because even when Sappho glances up at her – even just for a second – she’s lost, her tongue tripping over words, her skin burning, skin trembling, ears buzzing… She feels like she could almost die with what she’s feeling, and yet, she continues to endure.
To me, this poem exemplifies my experiences as a queer woman. The quintessential yearning that seems intrinsically sapphic (‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ anyone?), and the pain of wanting someone that you can’t have. As a young queer woman, this feeling seemed to consume my teenage years – sat hopelessly in love with another girl, and wishing that it could be me sitting beside her instead of her boyfriend. Though most lesbians and bisexual women that I’ve spoken to have told me they experienced this same teenage yearning, at the time, the feeling of unrequited queer love is deeply isolating. Finding this poem by Sappho felt like having someone reach out across almost three thousand years, and saying yes, I felt the same; this is a beautiful and historic and deeply human experience. The fact that Sappho was able to express the feeling of being in love in such a way that it still resonates so deeply thousands of years later never fails to remind me of the breadth of the human experience, and of why I choose to study Classics and Ancient History.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Coffee shops and (socially distanced!) walks have been keeping me going throughout this quarantine. I’ve also been using Facetime more than I ever thought possible to try and keep in contact with all of the people I love that I unfortunately can’t see right now! Finally I’ve both started and got tired of, about seven hundred different hobbies (a conservative estimate), so probably whichever new hobby I’m currently obsessed with!!
Yentl Love graduated from Cardiff University in 2019 with a degree in Ancient History, and has since been awarded an MA in Classics and Ancient History from the University of Exeter. She is passionate about ancient concepts of gender and sexuality, and is currently in the process of applying for a PhD. In her free time, she runs the website The Queer Classicist, with the goal of making ancient history seem accessible, sexy, and fun.
Find her on Instagram (@thequeerclassicist), Twitter (@queerclassicist), or most recently, Tiktok (@thequeerclassicist).
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.