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.
What has humankind done to the natural world? What crimes have been committed in the name of man against the flora and fauna of our natural home? The speaker in William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” ponders questions similar to these as they observe the simple pleasures of nature whilst relaxing in a grove of trees. It is here that the speaker ponders the natural landscape, noting budding flowers and birds hopping about. Wordsworth writes about the flowers and flora of the natural scene in front of him as if they have conscious minds, lending a level of personability to the inanimate objects and indicating that every part of nature takes pleasure in its home.
After observing this scene, the speaker then questions on two occasions, “What man has made of man.” (8, 24). The first time, the speaker is enjoying thoughts so pleasant in response to the beautiful grove he is sitting in, that worse thoughts begin to come to mind. These thoughts, in conjunction with the intense connection to nature the speaker experiences whilst sitting in the grove, are those of humankind, particularly how it has destroyed itself and parts of the natural world. The speaker then quickly moves on and begins taking note of the illustrious natural portrait painted before them, and realizes that each living piece of nature they can see is taking pleasure in the simplicity that is their natural environment.
The speaker then begins to wonder again, why couldn’t mankind take pleasure in that simplicity? Why has humanity come to, and how have we put ourselves there? If there is such pleasure found in the natural world, why has mankind destroyed so much of it? The speaker quickly realizes how sad it is that they must ask these questions and begs the reader to understand – “Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?” (23-24). This is the second time the speaker is pondering this idea, this question of what mankind has done to itself and the natural world, emphasizing the concept. This time around, however, the idea is shrouded in sadness, whereas the first time it was more of an observation. After all, the speaker has by then spent quite some time surrounded by the natural world that mankind is hell bent on destroying, and has developed a sense of empathy toward each aspect of the natural scene before them.