I will love/even unwilling: bell hooks and Sappho on love as an action

Cyperus licensed by Pixabay


by Louie Leyson

June 2018

(UBC Arts One LA1, Dr. Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins)


Sappho’s enshrinement in pop culture “as [a] love goddess,” according to bell hooks, has been essential in suppressing a long-held narrative of love constructed primarily by male poets (hooks, xxi). However, Sappho’s conceptions of love (at least in their fragmentary, translated forms) do not seem to fulfil hooks’ criteria for romantic love. While hooks views love as a verb, the subject[1] of Sappho’s poetry primarily experiences love as a noun—a flame, a hook, a snare. When hooks re-imagines love as an action, she frames consent as a vital component of loving, but Sappho’s poetry doesn’t portray agency as being necessary to love. In this regard, Sappho and hooks’ conceptions of love are incompatible. Love becomes an external force imposed upon Sappho; hooks does the loving. In addition to arguing this, I will present possible explanations for the passiveness portrayed in Sappho’s works by examining other distinctions between the loves presented by hooks and Sappho. Drawing upon articles by Susan Jaratt, Anne Carson, and Joan Dejean, I will examine themes of unrequitedness, heartache, self-annihilation, and memory as they appear in Sappho’s poetry. It’s important to note that I’ll be discussing Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, as her choice of words and sentence structure directly impacts my understanding of Sappho.

hooks turns to language as a way to transform and deconstruct common attitudes surrounding love. These attitudes include the interchangeability of love with sexual attraction (hooks, 174) and the tendency to “settle for lovelessness” (hooks, 175) based on the presumed scarcity and elusiveness of love. hooks’ aim to make love into an action entails the syntactic employment of love as a verb:

How different might things be … if instead of saying “I am in love” we said “I am loving” or “I will love.” Our patterns around romantic love are unlikely to change if we do not change our language. (hooks, 177)

The phrase “I am in love,” which fashions “love” into a noun, is structurally the same as saying “I am in a place,” or “I am in a state of something.” “Love” might then be likened to a room with narrow walls, or a country enclosed with borders. This confines the subject (“I”) by giving perimeters to love: I am in love, I am in peril, I am imprisoned within love’s boundaries. In changing the phrase to “I am loving” or “I will love,” which employs “love” as a verb, hooks erases love’s borders and gives the subject an active role. Even when hooks uses “love” in its noun form—“I’ve connected with someone in a way that makes me think I’m on the way to knowing love” (hooks, 177)—she engages other verbs that maintain the subject’s active role: “connected,” “think,” “knowing”. To “be in” is passive. To “connect” and to “love” requires involvement and animation.

There are moments in Sappho’s fragments—as translated by Carson—where the verb form of “love” seems to be similarly used. A girl “soon…will love” (Sappho, 5). A forlorn speaker “loved…Atthis, once long ago” (Sappho, 103), as another “love[s] delicacy” (Sappho, 121). An unnamed figure—possibly a “ruinous god”—pointedly “did not love” (Sappho, 137), and another “shall love” (Sappho, 177). An accusation is made: “or you love some man more than me” (Sappho, 263). However, many of these instances cannot be seen as “active” forms of loving. The girl described in fragment 1 lacks agency—she is incited by Aphrodite to “pursue” even when she “flees” and to “love” even if “she does not love” (Sappho, 5). The narrators on page 103 (“I loved you, Atthis, once long ago”) and 137 (“did not love”) describe loving only to highlight its absence. More often than a verb, Sappho spins “love” into an adjective, placing attention on recipients of love: “lovely song” (91), “young men…]beloved” (Sappho, 17), “soul beloved” (Sappho, 129), “beloved” or “beloveds” (Sappho, 87, 138, 193), “goddesses in lovely form” (Sappho, 193), “lovely face” (Sappho, 229). These objects and figures collect love passively, without indication of whether they provide love themselves.

In spite of these uses, love seems to appear most frequently and resonantly in Sappho’s fragments in its noun form. Sappho ascribes love to different kinds of nouns, contrary to hooks’ impression of love as an action. As a noun, love is personified, traded, and made into metaphor. Built into metaphors, love in Sappho’s poetry is often paired with prepositions. Prepositions allow love to exist within specific locations, giving it a body: “longing floats around you” (Sappho, 41), “thin fire is racing under skin” (Sappho, 63), “the love between you and the bride” (61), “and her light stretches over salt sea” (Sappho, 191), “as honey: desire is poured upon your lovely face” (Sappho, 229). Love, then, is granted a place to reside. In other fragments, love becomes the location itself, and Sappho finds herself wandering into it: “and in longing” (Sappho, 191), “into desire I shall come” (Sappho, 193). These lines are variations on the phrase “I am in love”, which hooks warns against using.

Love also appears in Sappho’s fragments as a thing possessed and relinquished by people. An unnamed figure, addressed by Sappho in the second person, “would let loose” the “longing” (Sappho, 187) which they own. Sappho speaks of “the love of Penthelids” (Sappho, 145)—which a figure named “Mika” chooses over Sappho’s offered love—and imagines Aphrodite imploring her, “whom should I persuade (now again) / to lead you back into her love?” (Sappho, 3). Love, in these fragments, is an object owned by both the Penthelids and the girl Sappho desires. In both cases, there exists an exterior figure who wants the object for themselves (Mika wanting the Penthelids’ love, or the narrator wanting the girl’s love). Love is then presented as a piece of merchandise, to be traded or bartered between people. Furthermore, love is personified in Sappho’s poetry—love possesses “desire”, longing “burn[s]” Sappho’s mind, desire “allot[s]” (Sappho, 25, 101, 121). This personification of love is deepened when the word “love” is seemingly interchangeable with the names of Greek love deities, Eros and Aphrodite:

Eros comes nowhere near her (Sappho, 93)

Eros shook my / mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees (Sappho, 99)

Aphrodite…]sweetworded desires (Sappho, 147)

I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite (Sappho, 203)

Aphrodite has honored you exceedingly (Sappho, 229)

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me— (Sappho, 265)

both you and my servant Eros (Sappho, 321)


When given names such as Eros and Aphrodite, love is made into a proper noun.

hooks’ usage of love’s verb form is an issue of agency. She wishes to dispel the “destructive” illusion that “we come to love with no will and no capacity to choose,” which she claims is “perpetuated by so much romantic lore” and “[stands] in the way of our learning how to love” (hooks, 170). Under this notion, agency must be returned to those who love, diverging from the societal idea that people have no choice when “falling” into the feeling of love:

To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility. We are often taught we have no control over our “feelings”. Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do. We also accept that our actions have consequences. To think of actions shaping feelings is one way we rid ourselves of conventionally accepted assumptions such as that parents love their children, or that one simply “falls” in love without exercising will or choice… (hooks, 13)

The idea that love must be informed by individual “intention and will” contrasts Sappho’s representations of love, in which the will of the lover is often deemed unimportant or deliberately stripped away. Love doesn’t come to Sappho’s subjects by choice, but rather by chance, by the will of another, or by a god’s intervention.

This is most apparent in fragment 1, where an imagined Aphrodite tells a pining Sappho: “For if she flees, soon she will pursue. / If she refuses gifts, rather she will give them. / If she does not love, soon she will love / even unwilling” (Sappho, 5). Here, the will of the girl is explicitly neglected—her inability to reciprocate Sappho’s affections is condemned by Aphrodite as an act of “wronging” (Sappho, 3). Sappho’s desire is prioritized over the girl’s agency, but Aphrodite’s accusation also negates hooks’ insistence that “we need not blame others for feelings of lack, for we know how to attend to them. We know how to give ourselves love and to recognize the love that is all around us” (hooks, 163). The poem’s narrator fails to recognize the ubiquitous love hooks speaks of, myopic with heartbreak as she describes how she “[has] suffered” (Sappho, 3).

There may be another love deity aside from Aphrodite, named Peitho, whose presence is also felt in fragment 1. Peitho’s name appears near Aphrodite’s toward the end of Fragment 96, translated by Carson to “Persuasion” (Sappho, 193). In the article ‘Sappho’s memory,’ Susan Jarratt provides a verse by the second-century B.C.E. poet Antipater of Sidon, which uses Persuasion’s name in his praise of Sappho:

Aeolian earth, you cover Sappho, who among the immortal Muses is

celebrated as the mortal Muse, whom Cypris[2] and Eros together reared,

with whom Persuasion wove the undying wreath of song, a joy to Hellas

and a glory to you. You Fates twirling the triple thread on your spindle,

why did you not spin an everlasting life for the singer who devised the

deathless gifts of the Muses of Helicon? (Jarratt, 20)


This lyric directly associates Persuasion with Aphrodite and Eros, deities of love and yearning. The influence of Persuasion is felt in the exchange between Sappho and Aphrodite in fragment 1, where she is called upon to “persuade” Sappho’s beloved to return her affections (Sappho, 3). Jarratt explains that “although Peitho is not named as a goddess, her name would sound and thus her force be felt in the verb ‘to persuade.’ Her assistance to Aphrodite often involves tricks or deception, later strongly associated with rhetorical persuasion” (Jarratt, 20). The use of such a deity to win over the girl, who initially rejected Sappho out of her own free will, is a clear violation of agency. Love that is weaved in the hands of deities does not fit under hooks’ description of love as “a participatory emotion” (hooks, 165).

Another forceful suppression of agency seems to materialize in fragment 71. In this fragment, the phrase “but I will not allow you” (Sappho, 145) is used against a figure named Mika, juxtaposing the line found after—“you chose the love of Penthelids” (Sappho, 145). Tension fuels the bracketed space between “will not allow” and the word “chose.” What is not allowed? Is Mika’s restriction related to the narrator’s potential rejection, to Mika’s exercise of will? In both fragments 1 and 71, the narrator is unwilling to forgive those who reject their affections. To hooks, forgiveness following rejection “enables us to experience agency, to know we can be responsible for giving and finding love” (hooks, 163). Following this thought, the narrators’ unwillingness to forgive strips away their own agency in addition to their beloved’s.

In other fragments, the dynamic is switched—it becomes Sappho’s will that loses meaning. Addressing a group of “beautiful ones,” Sappho affirms that for them, “[her] thought is not changeable” (Sappho, 83). Fragment 45 is a single line: “as long as you want” (Sappho, 95). The smallness of these fragments makes them difficult to analyze; it is impossible to know what specific thought is unchangeable, or what exactly is as long as they want. In both fragments, however, Sappho relinquishes agency to an unknown other. If the fragments were once part of love poems, then they depict a mind which instinctively turns to love in the face of beauty, and a beloved’s desire taking priority over Sappho’s own will. Accountability, responsibility, and choice do not emerge from these displays of love. These examples cannot be categorized under hooks’ understanding of love as “an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action” (hooks, 172).

There may be reasons for the passiveness of the love portrayed by Sappho. To present possible explanations, I will examine other ways (aside from activeness or agency) in which hooks’ ideal love and Sappho’s presentation of love are incompatible. One distinction is that Sappho’s love is often portrayed as unrequited and one-sided, whereas hooks’ model of romantic love requires the reciprocal attention and deliberation of more than one person. Fragment 1 might be Sappho’s most transparent portrayal of unrequited love, drawing the interaction between a pining narrator and an answering Aphrodite (Sappho, 3). In Fragment 131, a potential past lover named Atthis departs from Sappho and “[flies] to Andromeda” (Sappho, 167). As Anne Carson suggests in her article ‘Decreation,’ Sappho’s Fragment 31 likely portrays jealousy, a trait which arises with unrequited love:

Common sense suggests [Fragment 31] is a poem about jealousy. “Lovers all show such symptoms as these,” says Longinus. So let’s think about what the jealousy of lovers is. The word comes from ancient Greek zelos meaning “zeal” or “hot pursuit.” A jealous lover covets a certain location at the center of her beloved’s affection only to find it occupied by someone else. (Carson, 189)


Like Sappho, Carson describes desire as a location[3] in her description of jealousy. hooks, however, presents “mutuality” as “the heart of love,” demanding that all sides of a relationship give and receive equal amounts of commitment, trust, and emotional attachment (hooks, 145, 164). This ideal of “mutuality” doesn’t seem to be present in Sappho’s poetry.

The unrequitedness found in Sappho’s poems, contrasted with hooks’ mutuality, creates another disparity: hooks’ ideal love results in liberation and joy, whereas Sappho’s portrayal of love leads to misery and loneliness. hooks claims that when “we act [out of love], we need not feel inadequate or powerless” (hooks, 165). The love rendered in Sappho’s fragments, contrary to this statement, is often the perpetrator of severe grief, heartache, and helplessness. Love provokes Sappho’s subject to “suffer,” to “simply want to be dead,” feel “greener than grass…and dead,” become “crazy,” and break “with longing” (Sappho, 3, 185, 63, 101, 203). In the face of jealous love (Sappho, 63), Sappho’s “perceptual abilities (visual, aural, tactile) [are] reduced to dysfunction one after another; she shows us the objects of outer sense emptying themselves” (Carson, 190). In short, love transforms Sappho into “a person of poverty” (Sappho, 63).

Carson draws a parallel between this description (“a person of poverty”) and the texts of 14th century Christian mystic Marguerite Porete, who twice describes herself as “I who am in the abyss of absolute poverty” (Carson, 192). In The Mirror of Simple Souls, Porete describes her own “annihilation” as the departure of her Will, experienced at the moment of God flowing over her—“And thus the Soul parts herself from this Will and the Will parts itself from such a Soul…without retaining anything of its own” (Carson, 192). Sappho experiences a similar “annihilation” at a moment of what seems to be love—in fragment 31, sight, hearing, and life depart from Sappho’s body just as Will leaves the Soul of Porete (Sappho, 63). Carson considers Sappho’s historical position “not just [as] a poet of love and a worshipper of Aphrodite” but also potentially as “a priestess of Aphrodite’s cult and a teacher of her doctrines”:

Perhaps Sappho’s poem [Fragment 31] wants to teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don’t you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do? Daring enters the poem in the seventeenth verse when Sappho uses the word tolmaton: “is to be dared.”… For when an ecstatic is asked the question What is it that love dares the self to do? she will answer: Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty. (Carson, 190-191)


Perhaps Sappho taught her students that to love is to experience an annihilation of the self. Although hooks believed that love should be guided by spirituality (hooks, 71), Sappho could have perceived love as spirituality itself. Her passiveness in love, then, might be explained as a reverence to love, or to Eros and Aphrodite.

The passiveness of Sappho’s love might also be traced to her poems’ portrayal of time. hooks’ ideal love involves the present and the future, whereas Sappho’s poems discuss memory and the past. When hooks imagines love, she envisions it as a thing that will enhance the future and redeem any ills caused by the past. To her, love awakens the “asleep body” that has been “deadened to the world of senses” (hooks, 219), contrasting Sappho’s lovelorn descriptions of “simply want[ing] to be dead” (Sappho, 185). hooks’ ideal love, coupled with hope, “[opens] up the window of opportunity” and “provides us with a reason to go forward” (hooks, 219). Her love encompasses the hope that joy exists beyond our present selves—somewhere beyond even death, which hooks claims love to be “stronger than” (hooks, 219). hooks’ conception of love is active because it looks ahead.

When Sappho discusses the future, she is more somber: “Dead you will lie and never memory of you / will there be nor desire into the aftertime…but invisible too in Hades’ house / you will go your way among dim shapes” (Sappho, 115). Something unknown brings about “doom” (Sappho, 15). There is one fragment concerning the future, 147, that could be construed as hopeful—“someone will remember us / I say / even in another time” (Sappho, 297). However, even fragment 147 is concerned with remembering, portraying a present that will eventually empty itself and become another person’s past. Where hooks envisions a lively, changeable future, Sappho contemplates a past that is stagnant and unfixable. In her article “Looking Like a Woman,” Joan Dejean comments on the scene in Fragment 31[4] and its implications of timelessness, memory, and a love “that no longer exists:”

The female poet alone turns the gaze on the object of desire, in a use of “see” that has troubled translators for centuries. Sappho’s use of the present stretches the boundaries of that tense: she packs into “I see [I look]” both a present of repetition “each time that I see you [for when I look at you]” —and a present of memorialization—“ the minute I catch a glimpse of you my desire comes back to me in full force. [when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me]” Sappho uses the gaze to evoke not the instant of desire but the recreation of an erotic association that no longer exists, and the duration, the past stability of that relationship. (Dejean, 40)

Various other fragments depict characters who reminisce on things that happened once, in the past, but no longer: “she herself once blamed me,” “I used to weave crowns,” “I loved you, Atthis, once long ago,” “innocent no longer” (Sappho, 41, 255, 103, 139). If hooks’ ideal love demands activity because it involves an active portion of time, Sappho’s love is passive because, like the unnamed figure in fragment 5, she is stuck “grieving for the past” (Sappho, 13).

The theme of unrequitedness intertwines with the theme of remembering—in fragment 129, Sappho laments Atthis’ forgetting of their relationship while she, herself, remembers (Sappho, 263). This description of Atthis “forgetting” contrasts fragment 96, which captures Atthis in a moment of remembering:

But she goes back and forth remembering

gentle Atthis and in longing

she bites her tender mind (Sappho, 191)


One interpretation, which I will explore here, is that fragment 96 was written before a hypothetical separation between Sappho and Atthis, while fragments 129 and 131 were written after. This would explain the romantic, joyous imagery found in fragment 96—“you like a goddess,” “surpasses all the stars,” “and her light stretches over salt sea” (Sappho, 191)—which differs from the wistful melancholy of fragment 129 (Sappho, 263). When “gentle” Atthis remembers, she exists in a state of “longing.” When she forgets, “to [her] it becomes hateful to think” of Sappho (Sappho, 267). Perhaps Sappho associates remembering with love, and forgetting with hatred and indifference. This would support the theory that Sappho’s narrator experiences love as introspection and memory, passively looking inward and backward in time instead of outward and forward.

Sappho and hooks’ interpretations of love do not coincide because hooks perceives love as an action, whereas Sappho’s fragments seem to continually frame love as an external force or divine agent. Although hooks tries to use love in its verb form, love appears most frequently in Sappho’s fragments as a noun. hooks places emphasis on the importance of agency, arguing that people should see themselves as consenting to love, whereas Sappho’s idea of love doesn’t involve active choice. Where hooks’ love is active, Sappho’s love remains passive. Part of this might stem from the idea that hooks’ conception of romantic love requires the attention and deliberation of more than one person. The often-unrequited love described in Sappho’s poetry, however, fuels the inaction and boundaries that exist between figures. Sappho’s presentation of love also results in heartache and poverty of the self, whereas hooks’ ideal of love is meant to bring about fulfilment and joy. hooks sees love as an opening for a hopeful future, whereas Sappho presents love as a product of memory and the past. These distinctions contribute to the passiveness of Sappho’s presented love in relation to hooks, who encourages a more active, participatory view of love. Is it fair to dismiss Sappho as entirely passive? hooks’ version of love is active because she makes it so. She asserts control over love by incorporating it as a part of herself, “loving” only when she decides to do so. hooks would never let love steal from her. In Sappho’s poetry, love “steals in,” the “sweetbitter unmanageable creature” (Sappho, 265). It impoverishes her, emptying her of speech and outer senses (Sappho, 63). Love steals from Sappho, and she lets it.



Works Cited


Carson, Anne. “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil Tell God.” Common Knowledge 8.1 (2002): 188-203. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-8-1-188


DeJean, Joan. “Looking Like a Woman: The Female Gaze in Sappho and Lafayette.” L’esprit createur 28.4 (1988): 34-45. doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/esp.1988.0019


hooks, bell. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow, 2000. Print.


Jarratt, Susan C. “Sappho’s memory.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32.1 (2002): 11-43. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/02773940209391219


Sappho and Anne Carson. If not, winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Print.



[1] In this essay, I will sometimes refer to the narrator of Sappho’s poems as Sappho herself.

[2] Cypris is another name for Aphrodite.

[3] See p. 3 above.

[4] See Sappho, 63. I’ve altered Dejean’s quotation to better align with Carson’s translation (added in brackets), as Dejean used a different translation in her article.