Posted: May 27th, 2021

Sappho’s vs. Petrarch on the Body

Physical interaction is possibly the most intuitive emotion we have as a species. Sex and body image are absurdly prominent in todays culture, and have been since the beginning of written history. Sexuality is only a surface desire though. What lies beneath the surface is where a person’s true beauty rests. The poets Sappho and Petrarch are two very early writers that often focused on the human body, sexuality, and desire but in different ways. Sapphds body of work is a reaction and praise to the exterior beauty of many individuals.
Petrarch’s sonnets are a repeated effort to unearth the root of divine beauty. Sapphds poems were more direct and in a relatable way. The way the Greek poet discussed was with words of physical feelings and reactions to emotions. She compared an individual named Anactoria that she desired to the famoud Helen of Troy, whose beauty has been expressed throughout literature for a long, long time. “… although far away, / whose long-desired footstep, whose radiant, sparkling face / I would rather see before me than the chariots / of Lydia or the armour of men / who fght wars on foot” (Sappho 21).
In this passage the Greek poet is longing for Anactoria, whom she once knew. In reminiscing about her Sappho recalls the way she walked, how her skin reacted to the light, and how she feels peaceful when she is around. Sappho is suggesting that one’s beauty is partly contained in their body but also partly related to how that body is used. The essence that the woman in her poem 21 exhibits is her true beauty. In one of her poems her feelings for a recently married friend read, “… and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over my whole body… ” (Sappho 20).

In most of, but especially this poem in particular, Sappho s expressing her bestial, sexual urges. She is not always so lascivious. Often, the poet writes about more tragic subjects. In her poem 33 she describes her “tender heart” as “heavy with grief”(Sappho 33). Sappho is suggesting that the absence of one of her ex-lovers is physically weighing her down. She is playing with that feeling of tension in the chest that people tend to have in matters of deep-seated emotions. It is common to read Sappho and notice emphasis on the body in her descriptions of both grief and bliss.
Later in her life, Sappho uses the same analogy of her heart to escribe herself as an old woman, “My heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me, that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns. ” It seems that her heart never grew lighter from her younger years, or even grew into a more intense pain. Having access to so many of her works allows scholars to observe a development in the character Sappho. Her subject matter turns from delight in others, slowly to dismay in their absence.
What does not seem to change much is her approach of the subject matter. She still materializes her emotions in the form of the physical body in her later poems. Petrarch deals with his bodily desires in a different manner. His most famous series of poems are more or less descriptions of a woman Petrarch had much love for and now sne made him teel. This collection is known as the ‘Canzoniere’. Petrarch’s sonnets focus more on the emotional side of his desires, while still using his body as a reference for the reader.
In a selection from one of his sonnets, Petrarch writes, “Love found me all disarmed and found the way / was clear to reach my heart down through the eyes / which have become the halls and doors of tears” (Petrarch 3, 9-11). Once again, the heart is used as a catalyst to connect with the reader by communicating the desire the speaker has for this woman’s form. Her beauty is so amazing that Petrarch is subdued and begins to cry. Her image shocks him to the point his body too is affected by it.
In another passage, “The way she walked was not the way of mortals but of angelic forms, and when she spoke more than an earthly voice was that it sang” (Petrarch 90, 9-11). Petrarch puts the woman into a sacred light, comparing her to an immortal. Petrarch’s generous praise of this woman, hough unrealistic, is an attempt to explain to the reader the divinity of his beloved Laura’s unparalleled beauty. This woman is supposedly the epitome of beauty, or so Petrarch thinks, but what the numerous sonnets written about her are attempt to reveal is that beneath the beauty is only more beauty.
Beauty on a level that cannot simply be written into words. Petrarch is suggesting that contrary to the popular belief at the time, a woman or any person’s value does not lie in their physical beauty but the beauty of their essence and the purity of their soul. He was truly and deeply n love with this Laura woman and has made history in doing so. “Under the lovely peace of her tranquil brows / those two faithful stars of mine so sparkle, / that no other light can inflame and guide / him who consigns himself to love nobly’ (Petrarch 160 5-8).
In this verse, Petrarch begins to talk about the peace he sees in Laura’s eyes, but then refers to those eyes as his own. Is he claiming ownership, or is he suggesting he sees himself? It seems that he is trying to say that following the look of calm he sees in her eyes, and reciprocating that patience, he will eventually be led to a form of pure love. Both writers were making an attempt to get directly to the purest form of their personal infatuations in terms of describing their beauty on paper.
Petrarch by poeticizing and connecting with Laura’s spiritual and emotional purity while striving to avoid the hang-ups of physical distraction, and Sappho by referring to both her sexual and emotional urges towards her lovers, describing them from the obvious exterior, down to the movement of hips whilst walking. The difference is that what Sappho writes is a result of her pure emotions for these other women, while Petrarch is striving to get to the roots of the emotion. He is trying to describe the divine spirit and essence of this lovely woman.
Some would say this is disturbing behavior, while others see it as an eloquently written offering. He reaches to the core, where human desire draws from. He took what Sappho wrote to the next level. She was writing about how she felt in response to the core of feeling Petrarch tried to uncover. Her words often described her weariness and pain as a means to relate to her readers so they too could share in her agony. Other times what she would say connected to anther emotion most people are aware of. Passages describing sexual onvulsions could be related to be readers who have felt the same.
These two early writers either ends of the same problem. Petrarch, trying to find the source of human passion and Sappho describing how that same source of passion excited her, or got the best of her. Either way, these prominent historical fgures were using the body as a way to relate teeling and emotion to the reader. Petrarch, Francesco, and Mark Musa.

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