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Prof Barbara Goff: Sappho and the Suffragettes 

Towards the end of the Lent term, The Oratory was delighted to welcome Prof Barbara Goff from the University of Reading to speak to senior boys studying classical subjects, and others with a general interest in history and literature.  Her topic was Sappho and the Suffragettes, exploring the life and work of the poet Sappho, as well as the way in which her poetry and image were adopted for the cause of the women’s suffrage movement. 

Prof Goff began by telling the boys a bit about Sappho, one of the few female voices in the ancient world for whom we have evidence.  She was writing in the 6th Century BC on the Greek island of Lesbos, and her work largely survives in only fragmentary form, not helped by the fact that she wrote in a minority Greek dialect.  Almost nothing is known of her life, except from what might be considered biographical within her poetry, but much has nevertheless been said and thought about her, not least because of how her love poetry, much of which is written to other women, has been interpreted by and had influence upon different readers over time. 

Prof Goff illustrated through a range of pictures of Sappho how differently Sappho has been viewed in different eras, with some artists focussing on the story of her alleged suicide when a man rejected her, others on her role as a poet, others turning her into an object of male erotic gaze, and others still into an icon of feminism or lesbianism.  We started to understand that reading Sappho might tell us more about our own culture and dispositions as readers than it did about the poet or her poems. 

Prof Goff also introduced some of Sappho’s poems, one a famous poem that appears on the A Level syllabus for Classical Civilization, the others less well-known and more recently discovered.  While the first was a poem about desire that has been highly influential on later love poetry, the others dealt with other themes:  old age the theme at the heart of one, Sappho’s brothers the topic of the other.  Contrary to long-held opinions, it seemed that Sappho was interested in more than just love, in these cases aging and family.  In this way, Prof Goff showed us the great variety of Sappho’s surviving work, as well as how we might interpret it. 

The Suffragettes, as Prof Goff showed us in the final part of her talk, also adopted Sappho in their own way.  They were looking to claim women’s place in culture as well as in politics, and to promote women’s voices, so to turn to Sappho both made sense and caused problems, since, in her poetry and the stories about her, feminism went hand in hand with a sexuality that many women of the time found challenging to accept.  The example of the Suffragettes showed how just a century ago Sappho was being reinterpreted and newly valued for a new cause, but that that interpretation was very different from what scholars and readers write about Sappho now, prizing her as a female voice, and as a female voice that prioritises women over men and rejoices in female sexuality.   

At the end of the talk, a number of boys asked interesting and perceptive questions about the poetry and ideas that Prof Goff had raised, and she came away expressing how impressed she had been with their engagement and contributions. 

Prof Goff’s talk was not only a fascinating tour of an important Greek poet and her reception, and an introduction for the boys to the ideas explored in Classics beyond their curriculum or at university, it was an invitation to us all as readers to look with fresh eyes at the texts we read and the cultural lens through which we read them.  We were most grateful to her for coming to speak to us, and for enriching our learning and thinking beyond the classroom.