Sappho and Phaon Essay

Mary Robinson, Sappho and Phaon (1796)

Provide a 1000-word analysis of the extract below in light of approaches to reading discussed on the module.
Love steals unheeded o’er the tranquil mind,
As Summer breezes fan the sleeping main,
Slow through each fibre creeps the subtle pain,
‘Till closely round the yielding bosom twin’d.
Vain is the hope the magic to unbind,
The potent mischief riots in the brain,
Grasps ev’ry thought, and burns in ev’ry vein,
‘Till in the heart the Tyrant lives enshrin’d.
Oh! Victor strong! bending the vanquish’d frame;
Sweet is the thraldom that thou bid’st us prove!
And sacred is the tear thy victims claim,
For blest are those whom sighs of sorrow move!
Then nymphs beware how ye profane my name,
Nor blame my weakness, till like me ye love!

Sonnet XVII comes near the midpoint of Robinson’s ‘Sappho and Phaon‘ sonnet sequence and establishes how Sappho believes that love is a tyrannical force.  It can initially be argued that Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon sonnet sequence is written from and can be entirely analysed from a feminist perspective.  However, by using material from Janowitz’s ‘Women Romantic Poets‘ and Ty’s ‘Empowering the Feminine,’ I will argue how this particular sonnet can also be analysed from a number of approaches, including Marxist and Psychoanalytical.

The subject of ‘Sonnet XVII’ is ‘the Tyranny of Love,’ which relates strongly to a historical/biographical approach of the text.  The quotation ‘till in the heart Tyrant,’[1] could hint to Robinson’s fifteen year affair with Lord Banastre Tarlton who very abruptly left her, upon her mother’s death.  It is widely thought that he provided the character of Phaon in the sonnet sequence.  The fact that ‘Tyrant’ (Sappho and Phaon, l.8) is capitalised, thus turning it into a proper noun, suggests that Robinson wanted to present the concept of love and emotion, as a destructive and harmful force.  It could also be argued that the ‘Tyrant’ (Sappho and Phaon, l.8) may also refer to Robinson’s husband Thomas Robinson who was unfaithful to her and caused her much distress.  As Robinson was a Feminist, it could be considered that she personified her former lovers as ‘Tyrant(s)’ (Sappho and Phaon, l.8) to convey how women can be strong and independent without the influence of men, who are presented as brutal and domineering.  However, this is an idea, which is not supported throughout the sonnet sequence, as Sappho kills herself upon being forsaken by Phaon.

Robinson has written many texts, which have become well-known for their Feminist connotations.  This is present within her social commentary novel, ‘Walsingham, or the Pupil of Nature,’ where Robinson presents the key idea of gender being a social construction.  She emphasises that it is our actions and choices that defines our gender, not our appearance.  The quotation: ‘it is virtually impossible to distinguish between those who are playing a part and those who act according the designs of nature,’[2] conveys gender as a social construction, through exploring how gender can solely be a role that people assume or are socialised into, rather than something that people are just born with.

Sonnet VII can be analysed from a similar approach, through how ‘Victor’ (Sappho and Phaon, l.8) has been capitalised.  This could initially refer to how the concept of love has been personified into a military conquest that holds Sappho captive: her love for Phaon has trapped her.  This suggests that Sappho has allowed her emotion to control her, which was a trait commonly held about women in Georgian times.  This attribute would have been thought of as something that Sappho would have been born with and not socialised into.  However, this sonnet still presents gender as being a social construction, as the gender of ‘Victor’ (Sappho and Phaon, l.8) is left ambiguous.  It could very well refer to Phaon and not Sappho.

It can be argued that Sonnet XVII can be critically examined from a psychoanalytical approach.  Janowitz’s ‘Women Romantic Poets‘ explores this idea.  The source partly focuses on how Robinson related so strongly to ‘a Sappho of great beauty […] abandoned by a Tareltonesque lover.’[3] Janowitz argues that Sappho and Phaon is not a political commentary so much as it is Robinson adopting the persona of Sappho to gain vindication upon those who wronged her.  I would agree with this based upon my aforementioned points about how the idea of ‘Tyrant’ could refer to the male lovers who forsook Robinson.

Within Sonnet XVII, the line ‘sacred is the tear thy victims claim,’ (Sappho and Phaon, l.11) presents Sappho or in this context Robinson as being a victim of her past lovers.  It conveys her feelings of anger and annoyance at being victimised.  In this respect, Sappho and Robinson can be compared, through how they’ve been neglected from inclusion in the Literary Canon, thus becoming victimised by the creators of the Canon, who were mostly men.  Finally, it is effective that Robinson uses the personal pronoun ‘my,’ throughout the sonnet as this alludes strongly to Sappho’s very personal style of writing about love and loss.  (Find a suitable quotation from a translation of Sappho’s work and quote it)

Empowering the Feminine‘ allows Sonnet XVII to be analysed from a sociological/Marxist approach.  The line ‘it is a world wherein natural relations have been perverted but nevertheless sanctioned by society,’[4] could be a political comment on the French revolution that Robinson supported.  The “natural relations” could refer to the French monarchy who were overthrown by the peasantry.  The fact that it was ‘sanctioned by society’[5] implies that society itself could see all of the monstrosities occurring around it and welcomed, as well as governed, any form of change.   A similar theme can be explored in Sonnet XVII, through the line ‘bending the vanquished frame.’ (Sappho and Phaon, l.9) The use of the verb ‘vanquish’ could refer to how Sappho believes her love for Phaon or Phaon himself has conquered her.  Robinson could be using Sappho as an allegory for the monarchy in the French revolution and Phaon for a metaphor of the peasantry.  Finally, Feminists would argue that this point presents the triumph of patriarchy: Phaon, the man, has forced Sappho to submit to his will.

Even though I have explored a number of different approaches within this essay, it has to be considered that Sappho and Phaon is primarily a Feminist text, written by a Feminist author.  This can be seen in Robinson’s sonnet sequence through the character of Phaon, who how particular men, not all of them, can be controlling and possessive.  Robinson could be using these men to comment on what led Robinson’s Sappho to kill herself and ultimately led to Robinson being excluded from the Literary canon and neglected from history.  However, it should be considered that these ideas are subject to change and in the future, Robinson may very well be canonised.

1083 words

Bibliography: –

Janowitz, Anne, Woman Romantic Poets: Anna Barbauld and Mary Robinson, (Devon: Writers and their work, 2004)

Robinson, Mary, Sappho and Phaon, (London: S.Gosnell, 1796)

Ty, Eleanor, Empowering the Feminine, (Toronto: UTP, 1998)

[1] Mary Robinson, Sappho and Phaon, (London: S. Gosnell,1796), l.8

All subsequent references to Robinson’s work are from Sappho and Phaon will be given in parenthesis after quotations in the text.

[2] Eleanor Ty, Empowering the Feminine, (Toronto: UTP, 1998), p. 46

[3] Anne Janowitz, Woman Romantic Poets: Anna Barbauld and Mary Robinson, (Devon: Writers and their work, 2004), p. 75

[4]Ty, p. 78

[5]Ty, p. 78

*author’s notes*

This is the essay I wrote for my Approaches to Reading module, where we learnt about the different literary perspectives you can take to academic writing.  The text that I wrote on was the sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon written by Mary Robinson.  She is regarded as the first “celebrity” and was one of the first female authors to be canonised and thus this is written somewhat from a feminist perspective.  I received a mid 2:1 in this essay.


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