Sappho and the Fevered Heart: Anne Carson on Jealousy

“…greener than grass I am and dead — or almost I seem to me.”

Sappho and the Fevered Heart: Anne Carson on Jealousy

Jealousy may be the most staggering scale discrepancy of the inner world — an enormous all-consuming emotion pinched into extreme smallness of spirit. It is also one of the most universal human experiences — homily on the elemental tragedy that the ever-open mouth of choice hungers for more than what chance grants us, so that we live desiring more than we have.

Nobody has ever expressed this need with such fervor than Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) — the Tenth Muse, inventor of the personal lyric, and poet laureate of heartbreak — in one of the few surviving fragments of her poetry.

Sappho diesMiguel Carbonell Selva 1881. This book is also available as a print.

Because it touches on one of the most universal human themes, Fragment 31 is one of Sappho’s most translated fragments, which also means the most interpreted — for poetry in translation is an exponent of creation to begin with, but especially when translating the ancient tongue of a bygone civilization from a world alien to our own. At its best, such meta-creation lives up to the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lovely notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”

It is hardly surprising that some of humanity’s finest poets have wielded their original genius at Sappho’s Fragment 31. Byron translated the text as follows in 1820s.

Equal to Jove that youth must be —
Greater than Jove he seems to me —
Who, free from Jealousy’s alarms,
Your matchless charms are securely viewed.
Ah! Lesbia! though ’tis death to me,
You are the only one I can look upon.
However, I am awestruck by the sight.
It is necessary to gaze but not gazing.
While you tremble with fear and a million other fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
I deny my limbs their support.
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
I am stricken with deadly languor.
The tingling echos that ring in my ears irritate me.
Life itself, however, is always on the wings.
My eyes reject the cheering light.
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
Feels like temporary death.

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Tennyson, a generation later tried his tenderer hand.

Thy grace, I see; in its place
I am a charmed sleeper.
     While I muse upon thy face;
A languid fire lurks
     Thro’ my veins to all my frame,
Quickly, slowly and dissolvingly
     From thy rose-red lips my name
It floweth, and then it’s like a swoon.
My ears are filled with the sound of dinning.
     My tremulous tongue faltereth,
     I lose my color, I lose my breath,
     I drink the cup of a costly death,
Brimm’d with delirious draughts of warmest life.
     I die with my delight, before
     I hear what I would hear from thee.

But the finest — for its literary splendor, its intellectual elegance, and its psychological insight — comes from a 2002 translation of Sappho’s fragments by the visionary Canadian poet, essayist, classicist, and translator Anne Carson:

I find him to be equal to all gods.
Whoever he may be, he will always be your opposite
Sits down and listens attentively
          to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
Put your heart in mine on wings
When I glance at you even for a moment there’s no speaking
          is left in me

No: Thin and tongue breakage
Fire is running under the skin
Drumming and eyes are the only sight that is possible
          fills ears

I feel cold and sweaty and shaken.
Grip me, greener then grass
I am and dead — or almost
          I seem to me.

Carson’s translation of Fragment 31 began on the pages of her 1986 classic Eros the Bittersweet (public library). She makes the discomposing observation that Fragment 31 is a fragment of an ancient Greek cultural inheritance. This internalized heritage continues to haunt modern life. It manifests in the tendency to see love as loss or anticipation of loss or anterograde loss. Proust is the best example of this. “It is a notion that, once adopted, has a powerful effect on one’s habits and representations of love,” Carson observes, and the modern heart can’t but flinch with recognition.

Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate from artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1979.

Considering the extraordinary subtlety and force of Sappho’s conception of jealousy as the “triangulation of desire” between the three human agents in the poem — the girl, the object of her desire, and the poet looking in on the scene — she writes:

The poem is not about each of them, but rather about the geometrical shape formed by their perceptions of one another and the gaps between those perceptions. This image shows the differences between them. The three of them are coordinated by thin lines of force. Along one line travels the girl’s voice and laughter to a man who listens closely. Another tangent links the girl and the poet. The third current runs between the ears of the poet, and the man listening. It is a triangular figure.

Carson observes the triangle as the platonic version of jealousy. Ancient Greece, Carson says, is its crucible.

The word “jealousy” comes from Greek zēlos meaning “zeal” or “fervent pursuit.” It is a hot and corrosive spiritual motion arising in fear and fed on resentment. This jealous lover believes his beloved would prefer someone else and is resentful of any relationships between him and the other. This emotion concerns placement and displacement. The jealous lover covets a particular place in the beloved’s affection and is full of anxiety that another will take it.

One of Alice Austen’s pioneering nineteenth-century photographs of lesbian life.

For a more modern “image of the shifting pattern that is jealousy,” Carson points to an early-fifteenth-century Italian dance style called the bassa danza, “semidramatic and transparently expressive of psychological relationships.” In one of these dances, actually called “Jealousy,” three men and three women swirl in a sequence of partner changes, while one man continually takes the position of standing alone apart from the swirl. Carson takes the metaphor out of the dance.

Jealousy can be performed by everyone, as it’s the most popular dance. Instability of the emotional situation that preys upon a jealous lover’s mind.

Paradoxically, Sappho’s fragment illustrates the warp side of jealousy — the refusal to trade places. Watching the love-struck girl, the poet is deliberately standing aside. He’s not bitter about the situation but is unwilling to assume the role of the deity. Carson writes:

It seems that she could be completely destroyed if she changed places with the man who pays attention. She does not covet the man’s place nor fear usurpation of her own. He is not the object of her resentment. His ingenuity is what she admires. This man’s role in the poetic structure reflects that of jealousy within Sappho’s feelings. Both are not named. It is the beloved’s beauty that affects Sappho; the man’s presence is somehow necessary to delineation of that emotional event.


We see clearly what shape desire hAs there: a three-point circuit is visible within Sappho’s mind… Sappho perceives desire by identifying it as a three-part structure… For, where eros is lack, its activation calls for three structural components — lover, beloved and that which comes between them.

The result is a revelationary revision of the universal emotion.

It’s not about the jealousy; it isn’t the normal world that elicits erotic reactions; praise is irrelevant. It is a poem about the lover’s mind in the act of constructing desire for itself. Sappho’s subject is eros as it It appearsShe does not claim anything beyond this. One consciousness is all that exists; only one mental state can be seen.


In stereoscopy, the ideal project on a screen that shows the real. Two poles of responses within one desiring mind: the man is almost dead, and the poet sits as a god. Triangulation allows both to be present simultaneously by shifting of distance. This replaces the erotic act with a ruse in heart and speech. This dance is not for everyone. Desire moves. Eros is a verb.

Sappho and Erinna at the Garden of MytileneSimeon Solomon 1864. (Tate Britain.)

This, indeed, is the raw nature of jealousy — beneath the narrative, beyond the magma of feeling, it is a projection, a self-construction, a self-response that reveals more about our relationship to love itself, which springs from our relationship to ourselves, than about any object of desire. Like prayer, of which it is a mutant species, jealousy is a clarifying force for who we are and what we want; like prayer, this clarity is its true substance and object — and not the granting of some private wish, and not some outside agent bending reality to our will.

Complement with the story of how Pythagoras and Sappho radicalized music and revolutionized the world, then revisit the trailblazing eighteenth-century mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, celebrated as the Newton of France, on jealousy and the metaphysics of love.

Giving = Being Loving

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