Desire, Virginity, and Sappho’s Sweetapple

Analyze a literary device–most likely an image or metaphor–or series of devices you find in Plato, Sappho, or Catullus.

as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch / high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot – no, not forgot: were unable to reach

Sappho, Fragment 105A

In this fragmented remnant of one of her lyrical love poems, Sappho employs a simile to compare an unspecified figure to a sweetapple ripening on a difficult-to-reach branch of a tall fruit tree. It can be inferred that the sweetapple represents a virginal young woman, a picture of femininity coming of age (hence the “redden”-ing or ripening imagery), who is beginning to attract the eye of suitors who are watching her maturing beauty unfold. These lines read more of desire and lust than of pure love; the applepickers know that the sweetapple is far from their clutches but nonetheless yearn for it. Still, they are unwilling to strive to reach out for her. Rather, that additional attempt will be made by a romantic hero, the man who truly loves her enough to exert the extra effort necessary to reach the top branches. There is a lack of true sentiment here, as the comparison of a woman to a sweetapple brings to mind images of consumption (or, in this case, consummation) and, inevitably, once the apple is freed from its position at the top of the tree, it is free to be eaten at the whim of the applepicker. Additionally, the “picking” of a fruit off a branch symbolically makes a connection to the concept of being “chosen” or “claimed” by a suitor; a sweetapple is immovable without an outside party acting upon it, just as the reddening, blushing young virgin patiently awaits a fearless, far-reaching suitor to be the catalyst for change in her romantic life.

2 thoughts on “Desire, Virginity, and Sappho’s Sweetapple

  1. The comparison of a young woman to a sweetapple is an interesting and highly conscious connection for Sappho to make. This excerpt demonstrates that regular men would rather take what is easy to reach than what would require some effort, and I think Sappho was frustrated with the fact that so many beautiful women were left alone because men did not want to make the effort to reach them. Instead, they had to wait for the one brave man to claim them, but even then, the women were still not free because now they were at the whim on their savior.

  2. You do well here, Alanna, to marry a personal response with an analytical edge. Some might describe the crux of your critique, which I take to be in that deft reference to the consumption and consummation that are implied in the picking of the apple, as variously Marxist and idealist; I may have my own disagreements with it. On the other hand, it points toward a literary tradition that I admire deeply, partly because the tradition is focused on what a critic whose name is now lost on me once called “a desire to desire forever” (in other words, to always be in this state of desire and never consummate it, to keep dilating the moment), which many critics have located in writers such as Ovid and Proust, among others (it’s a somewhat overlooked strand in the larger Western tradition). I suppose I can only offer a question in closing: some of us perhaps can understand the desire to desire forever, but aren’t some fleeting things worthwhile? Are they more or less worthwhile if they’re fleeting?

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