Mary Robbinson’s “Sappho and Phaon” describes the love-struck Sappho’s infatuation with Phaon that ultimately results in her fatal end. The long poem is broken up into sonnets, each titled and reserved for a specific emotion or scene. Sappho’s desire and yet her condemnation of these desires color Robbinson’s poem and result in the transformation of the blazon.
In the section titled, “Describes Phaon” Sappho’s awareness of the danger that accompanies her lust and the lust itself come to a head. Robbinson writes, “Dangerous to hear is that melodious tongue, / And fatal to the sense those murderous eyes,” (lines 127-8). Already, the adjectives Sappho is using to describe her beloved have negative connotations, creating tension in the traditional blazon form. These opposing alliterate adjectives being used to describe the physical attributes of Phaon, melodious and murderous, serve to amplify what is at the core of Sappho’s emotions: confusion. Sappho is being torn in two different directions by her heart and head which ultimately results in a blazon that is not traditional. Instead, we end up with a paradoxical blazon, one that lists the beauties and charms of a beloved but also seems to demonstrate an understanding of the harmful and dangerous effect these attributes have on the beholder. Nevertheless, Sappho continues to describe Phaon invoking images of an arrow in a sapphire sheath made to represent the danger that lurks in Phaon’s beautiful but haunting eyes (lines 129-30). Sappho’s descriptions take a sharp turn, represented as the volta of the sonnet, as she positively describes her beloved’s “smooth cheek” (line 132) and “polished brow” (line 135). Robbinson writes, “That lip, like Cupid’s bow, with rubies strung,” (line 134) can be paralleled to the earlier description of the arrow in a sapphire sheath. Much like how Cupid has a bow and an arrow, something that can kill and something that cannot, Phaon has the power to evoke both desire and danger in Sappho through his physical characteristics.
Sappho’s processing of this information results in a transformed blazon. Robbinson modifies the blazon by simply writing in this form as a woman and cataloging the physical attributes of a male beloved. However, the blazon is also transformed through the opposing feelings regarding love, which are danger and desire. The beloved doesn’t have eyes that are “nothing like the sun” (Sonnet 130, Shakespeare) but instead eyes that are murderous. The beloved’s tongue while melodious and pleasurable inspires feelings of danger. Through this formation of what I have coined the paradoxical blazon, one can begin to see commentary on love emerging. Sappho, and therefore Robbinson, are acknowledging the pain that accompanies love. By reworking the blazon and creating space within it to talk about the danger of lust and the power physical attractiveness can have over individuals, Robbinson is providing commentary on our traditional notions of love and desire. The feeling of danger that arises as one begins to fall in love, or lust, is just as strong as the lust itself and therefore, deserves to be written about.