What is Love?

What is love? Is it an obsession? An addiction? What constitutes the rush of endorphins felt upon seeing your beloved? How passionate, how deeply does first love truly feel? While these questions may never be able to be answered fully, Mary Robinson’s “Sappho and Phaon” illustrates the intense attraction felt on behalf of Sappho and provides insight into what all-consuming love is like. The introduction provided for the reader by Robinson introduces this idea right away, saying sapphic love is “… enlightened by the most exquisite talents, yet yielding to the destructive control of ungovernable passions” (41). This sets the tone for the poem immediately – cluing the reader in that the story that ensues is one about wild, uncontrollable passion and emotion.

This theme of passion is consistent throughout the entire poem, yet it is in the sonnet “Sappho Discovers her Passion” that it really runs wild. This sonnet is describing Sappho’s first encounter with the excitement that comes alongside intense attraction, and the intensity of her feelings is matched with the intensity of the parallels in the first three lines of the sonnet, each a question beginning with the word “why.” Why, Sappho pleads, does she feel this wild attraction to Phaon? “Why does each thought in wild disorder stray?” (44) She asks, the question immediately followed by another “why” question. The repetition provides an auditory intensity akin to how one would passionately speak about the subject of their attraction when read aloud, lending an idea to how fierce Sappho’s feelings are toward Phaon.

While intense passion is a constant theme throughout the sonnets, it’s also contrasted with harsh reason in the sonnet “Invokes Reason,” in which Sappho calls upon reason to assist her with the wild nature of her attraction. She begs reason to “Lull the fierce tempest of my feverish soul” (86), and while Sappho is speaking to reason, the style of the poem changes. Words such as “wisdom” and “philosophy” gain capitalization, indicating that Sappho is placing value on these two things in contrast to her passion, yet Robinson capitalizes the word “passion” as well, showing that passion has as much a stake in the fight occurring within Sappho’s mind as wisdom and philosophy.


3 thoughts on “What is Love?”

  1. I think you pulled out the main theme of Robinson’s collection: passion/longing and its relationship with reason/wisdom. This dichotomy plagues everything in the best way possible, right down to the structure of the stanzas and the order of the sonnets. The two sonnets you chose to explore are perfect indicators of this, but I worry there’s more to explore about the two rather than just they are completely opposite emotions and thought processes. For instance, most often sonnets lament the stagnant, almost unyielding coldness that the female subject of the poem has towards the speaker. They aren’t given a true autonomous voice or mind–they are forever characterized by the male gaze. I’m thinking of Sydney and Petrarch who exemplify this in their writing. So, to connect to your analysis, how does making Sappho the speaker change this narrative? How can we see the multifacetedness that women have through these sonnets that readers never got to see before? I propose that looking into these questions might help make your well-done argument enhanced into a specific reason, rather than just an observation of these differences.

  2. I liked how you started your response with questions! Perhaps wisdom, philosophy and passion are the three things that speak to her and control her life; however, passion probably usually takes over. Why do wisdom & philosophy come into play? Is it because of how Sappho truly feels or perhaps are these the ideals that society is pushing onto her? Not only this, but it would also be interesting to explore the connotations in the words wisdom and philosophy because they seem to go hand in hand yet are two different words. Is her philosophy different than her wisdom or wisdom she had heard?

  3. Dear Annie’s white cheddar mac n cheese,
    I think it’s so interesting that you focused on that struggle to find reason with what you called “instant attraction.” because that aspect of love and its effects reflects in Keat’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. Keats, like Robinson, focuses on the subject of love. The description of the “wild nature” of love, as you wrote, is not one that can be reasoned with. It’s uncontrollably human. Unlike Robinson’s character, the knight in Keat’s poem doesn’t even attempt to reason with the love he has. But both have repetitions of questions that serve to emphasize the turmoil love causes.

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