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Sidney's Sapphics and the Role of Interpretive Communities

Crawford, Julie A.

At one point in Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia), the Amazon Cleophila (the crossdressed hero Pyrocles) "laying fast hold of Philoclea's face with her eyes . . . sang these sapphics, speaking as it were to her own hope." Although the content of the verses Cleophila sings to the woman she loves is somewhat conventional ("If mine eyes can speak to do hearty errand, / Or mine eyes' language she do hap to judge of, / So that eyes' message be of her received, / Hope, we do live yet" [A, 73]), the explicit identification of their form as "sapphics" has, I argue, a different conventional resonance. In her edition of The Old Arcadia, Katherine Duncan-Jones footnotes this moment with the comment that "it is appropriate that the first poem sung by Pyrocles while he is disguised as a woman should be in the verse form associated with the best known Greek poetess," yet mentions no other association with Sappho save her gender and profession. In this essay I discuss what "sapphics," a poetic ode in quatrain stanza form with a complex metrical scheme named after the poet Sappho (7th century BCE), might have connoted to a seventeenth-century writer and audience. I focus on the function and place of Sidney's sapphics in both the narrative context of a crossdressed character who elicits a complicated matrix of desires (Philoclea falls for Cleophila when she hears the sapphics), and in a text explicitly addressed to women. I argue that the dedication to and interpellation of women in The Old Arcadia is not simply titular or conventional but an integral part of its poetics. In addition to examining the specific place of the sapphics in Sidney's romance, I look at the textual means by which Sappho and sapphics circulated in the early modern period. I argue that the sapphics Sidney uses in the First Eclogues and the sapphic variations that appear elsewhere in The Old Arcadia are not merely metrical experiments. Rather, Sidney's sapphics invoke and enact female agency, desire and homoeroticism, and this specific invocation of female desire is part of the "hidden design" of The Old Arcadia. Sidney's sapphics, and the way the text draws reader attention to them, including the detailed record of Philoclea's sexual response to the sapphics, solicit a moment of undeniable female-female desire. Such attention suggests that the invisibility, or what Valerie Traub has called the "(in)significance," of lesbian desire in the early modern period—in both primary texts and secondary criticism—is not absolute, particularly to readers in the know. The sapphics invoke female homoeroticism in the story line of the Arcadia, but they may also have encoded a register of desire which early modern writers employed specifically to appeal to women readers. Sidney's sapphics have historical and literary associations at work which no one—with the important exception of Elizabeth Harvey, who noted that Sidney translated Sappho's "Ode to Aphrodite" into anacreontics in the Second Eclogues of the Arcadia—has addressed. The fact that Sidney's anacreontics (a metrical verse form associated with Sappho) are a translation of Sappho's ode and are, like the First Eclogue's sapphics discussed above, addressed by the Amazon Cleophila to the desirous Philoclea suggests that Sidney was versed in Sappho lore and knew the content as well as the form of her poems (enough so to deploy them in an explicitly homoerotic context). When Jonathan Goldberg asks what Spenser's imitations of Virgil, a classical poet associated with male homoeroticism, might mean to an audience—"Where does the literary allusion place the erotics of Spenser's text?"—he asks a question that should also be asked of Sidney's sapphics: where, if anywhere, do the Arcadia's literary invocations of Sappho place the erotics of Sidney's work, and what does this have to do with interpretive communities?

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English and Comparative Literature
Published Here
April 9, 2015