“Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves. . . . I would rather see her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed infantry.”
-Sappho, “The Anactoria Poem”
Adrienne Rich cites Sappho’s “Anactoria Poem,” a love poem referencing Helen of Troy, as the inspiration for this piece describing photographs taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Arguably, this is the most multi-faceted of the works I have selected to feature in this collection, with Rich actually expressing the opposite sentiment of Sappho’s poem. “It should be the most desired sight of all / the person with whom you hope to live and die,” Rich’s poem begins (Rich 366). But then she goes on: “Yet I say / there is something more desirable: the ex-stasis of galaxies / so out from us there’s no vocabulary / but mathematics and optics” (Rich 366).
“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” goes on to detail the beauty found in the images garnered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the “lacerations of light and dust” and the “violet green livid and venous” (Rich 366). Rich showers these images in beautiful, lengthy descriptions that make up most of the poem, and when she does mention the unnamed “lover” (who is the subject of Sappho’s poem), it is briefly and without detail. In this piece, Rich exalts the unexplored galaxies and places them above romantic love, in a complete reversal of the Sappho fragment she imitates.
Even though Rich’s poem is in direct contrast with Sappho’s “Anactoria Poem,” this poem is a testament to the multifaceted nature of Sappho’s legacy. Not all pieces in response to her works reflect the same ideas that she initially intended. A myriad of works like “Hubble Photographs” find their inspiration in her writings, yet go in completely new or opposite directions. Sappho’s influence on the poets of the 1970s and today is rich and complex, and her work lays the foundation for an abundance of artistic work that freely expresses female love and sexuality from a multitude of different perspectives.
Palmer, Amanda. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho.” Vimeo, 2019, https://vimeo.com/332596348.
Rich, Adrienne, et al. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho.” Selected Poems, 1950-2012, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 2018, pp. 366–367.