Marianne Moore: Poetry

December 6, 2011

MM Meets Sappho

Filed under: Marianne Moore,Resources — by moore123 @ 3:35 pm
Tags: , ,

Moore writes to her family on 28 February, 1909, that she has attended a Bryn Mawr lecture on Sappho by Kirby Flower Smith (Rosenbach). She

Kirby Flower Smith

adds that she had been a bit “scared” to be introduced to him but that he was “a pansy—looked expectant” (pansy, here, a term of approval).  Smith (1862-1918) was a professor of Latin and Greek at Johns Hopkins, a specialist in the work of Tibullus. According to an obituary by Gordon J. Laing (The Classical Journal , Vol. 14, No. 9 [Jun., 1919], pp. 567-569). Smith was as good a philologist as the best of them but he never lost sight of the “summum bonum of classical studies, the life and literature of Greece and Rome.”

In 1908, Smith had delivered the annual address at the meeting of the Classical Association of Middle States and Maryland on “The Legend of Sappho and Phaon” (Records of the Past Exploration Society, 1908, Vol. 7, p. 164). It is highly likely that he spoke on the same topic at Bryn Mawr ten months later. In his lecture, Smith detailed the various stories attached to Sappho and Phaon, ending with his own version. He probably made reference to Alexander Pope’s rendering of Ovid on Sappho and Phaon, as evidenced from his take on Ovid’s Heroides:

As the name indicates, the Heroides are a collection of letters supposedly written by famous women of poetry or mythology to their husbands or lovers. In three cases (Paris to Helen, Leander to Hero, Acontius to Cydippe) we have the man’s letter to the woman and her reply.

The Heroides fully deserved the enthusiasm with which they were greeted. Here for the first time we meet with one of the most striking features of Ovid’s maturer genius. This is his marvellous ability to analyze, understand, and sympathize with all the subtler phases and cross-currents of feminine character and impulse, and his consummate skill in bringing them home to the reader through the woman herself.

The Heroides have always been popular, and to this day have lost but little of their intrinsic interest. They were a favorite with Boccaccio, the main source of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, the model of Drayton’s Heroical Epistles. The much disputed letter of Sappho to Phaon, which lives for us in the translation of Pope, is—perhaps for that very reason—the best known.

—Kirby Flower Smith. “The Poet Ovid,” in Martial, the Epigrammatist and Other Essays. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1920, pp 60-61.

To what poetic use did Moore put this experience? Hard to tell, except to note that in May, she requested for a graduation present “Wharton’s Sappho” (SL 71). In full, that is  Sappho, Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation by Henry Thornton Wharton (New York; London : J. Lane, 1907).

Blog at