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.