Presentation / Spoken version. For conference preparation only.
Anna Louisa Karsch as Sappho
The name Sappho has long been associated with scandal, but the scandals associated with Sappho have changed over time. One broad commonality, however, is clear: Sappho is seen as both "the mother goddess of poetry" (1) and the"original poet of female desire,"(2) and her proud and public expression of that desire is the root of the frisson that accompanies the figure.
Anna Louisa Karsch (1722-1791) was assigned the name of "the German Sappho" by her friend and literary advisor Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim in 1761 and she gladly took on this role; Karsch played with the title of Sappho in both her published poems and her unpublished letters, especially in those to Gleim himself. In her first years after moving to Berlin as her fame spread, she was celebrated as a poetic sensation and natural talent, paraded and published, but also criticized, not least because of her adoption of the appellation "Sappho." But Sappho was the only classical model available for a female poet and such usage of her name to provide women writers with cultural authority enjoyed wide-spread currency, for example in France and England as well as in Germany. (3) Gleim, then, was participating in a long tradition of using the honorific "Sappho" to designate a female poet of talent and to express recognition of a womans literary achievements. Yet for Karsch, the name became far more than a superficial title. In what follows, I would like to explore how the figure of Sappho appears in Karschs poetry, one form of her public self-presentation, as she enacts this role in an ongoing improvisation, both responding to and resisting Gleims direction.
Gestern las ich die Griechische Sapho. Eine erstaunliche Ehnlichkeit mit der Deutschen überall! Von gewißen Vorwürfen, die die allzu ernsthaften Kunstrichter Ihr machen, wolte ich sie gänzlich frey sprechen. Auch könte ich beweisen, daß sie nicht vom Felsen gesprungen wäre Allen großen Dichtern gaben die Alten einen nicht natürlichen Todt. Anacreon muste an einer Rosine ersticken, Sapho muste vom Felsen springen, beyde sind in den Armen ihrer Freunde eingeschlaffen, aber man wolte Leute von Genie nicht sterben laßen, wie andere ehrliche Leute. Nur eine freye Woche,/ so wolte ich meiner Freundin von der griechischen Sapho viele schöne Dinge vorsagen Die Kunstrichter, die alle ihre Worte gesamlet haben, haben wenig davon verstanden, sie hatten alle viel Gelehrsamkeit, und so wenig herz als wenig Geschmack; und wer kan eine Sapho ohne Herz verstehen?(4)
In this passage from a letter to Karsch written November 29, 1761, Gleim evokes the image of the Greek poet Sappho in the cultural imagination of the mid-eighteenth century only to suggest that he could and would debunk aspects of it, if only he had the time. Not only is the familiar story of Sappho leaping to her death from the Leucadian cliffs in response to unrequited love a fabrication, he says, but also the philological interpretations of the poets work are lacking in true understanding. Gleim proffers the word "Herz" as the key which will unlock the true Sapphic sensibility that rests on sentiment in opposition to learnedness, on emotion that speaks to good taste but is inaccessible through philological pedantry. Even as Gleim dismisses as legendary the story of Sapphos passion for Phaon leading to her dramatic death, he reinforces the image of Sappho as a poet whose poetry emanates from her emotions and confirms the image of Sappho as the paradigmatic female poet who expresses female desire. The contention that womens writing stands beyond the reach of the critics, as expression of the heart whose essence can in turn only be understood through the heart, is a familiar topos of eighteenth-century representations of female poetic creativity. It is used to define and contain womens texts as something fully other than mens and often used to disparage them as much as to celebrate them or to claim a unique insight into their writing the way Gleim does here as poetic mentor. If masculine learnedness is not adequate to understand the mysteries of female and feminine creativity, then neither is feminine creativity adequate to the rigors of learnedness represented by the men, so the reverse conclusion.
Gleims promise of insights into the true qualities of Sapphos verse and his explanation of the dramatic efficacy of mythic lore in enhancing a poets renown are at once tantalizing and revealing. He reveals his awareness that, by bestowing the title of "the German Sappho" on Karsch, as he did but a short time before writing this letter, in 1761, he has cast her publicly in an overdetermined, invented role for purposes of poetic fame. And Gleim tantalizes his reader by offering and withholding his privileged interpretation of Sappho. He claims a poetic as well as a philological mastery of the Sappho figure and her fragments that Karsch, of course, given her lack of education, her gender, and her class status, cannot approach. Gleim thus emphasizes that Karsch is dependent on him and him alone, as he rejects other current views of Sappho if she is to understand the ramifications of the fabled figure of identity he has held out to her, indeed, if she is to understand her own poetic production.
Gleims conscious staging of Karsch as the German Sappho has had enormous influence on the reception of her work in its own time and beyond, a topic that demands scholarly attention. But I am primarily interested here in how the role of Sappho shapes Karschs public self-presentation, with a focus on the ways her varied use of Sappho as poetic persona points to contradictions in the fictionalized figure and the accompanying conflicts they engender for the female poet. First it is useful to sketch the eighteenth-century cultural images of Sappho that Gleim both uses and rejects. As Joan DeJean explains in her study of the traditions of images and projections of Sappho in France, an analysis of the "fictions of Sappho" in any given period can provide one measure of the cultural discourses on female authorship, female sexuality, and the relationship between passion and writing. By the eighteenth century, the aspect of same-sex erotics in fictions of Sappho had been largely suppressed and the image of Sappho as the tragic lover of Phaon (popularized by Ovid and his reception in early modern culture) had become dominant. The link between Sapphos passion and her writing remains paramount, however, and the ways this link is exploited and interpreted reveal much about the cultural politics of gender in this time.
The confusion over Sapphos biography, the recognition of her poetic achievement, the merged biographical and poetic interpretations, and the fascination of sexual scandal all accrue early to the figure.(5) Contradictory stories of Sapphos life abound since antiquity and are transmitted through lexicons, translations, intertextual commentary, and pure fictions, most influentially in Ovids Heroides, in which the fictional epistle15, "Sappho to Phaon," was long held to be an authentic text by Sappho that shed light on her biography. From early on, Sappho becomes the cipher for female poetic achievement and for female expression of erotic desire, however divergently that desire is described, and her poetic power is said to be lost and gained in conjunction with her amorous affairs. In some stories, Sapphos poetic strength is a signand a consequenceof the strength of her desire, while in others, she is punished for her transgressive passions (either for other women or for the legendary man Phaon) by a loss of her poetic creativity.
The entry on Sappho in Johann Heinrich Zedlers Universal-Lexicon (1742) compiles many notions about the poet that were current in the eighteenth century. It reflects the immense influence of the seventeenth-century French interpreters of Sappho,(6) especially Anne Le Fevre Dacier (1681, Vie de Sapho) and Pierre Bayle (1695, Dictionnaire historique et critique), and it in turn furthers their images of the Greek poet, thus providing a good point of departure for considering the German conception of Sappho of the mid-eighteenth century, just before Karsch became known as the "German Sappho". The Zedler article focuses on Sapphos person rather than her poetry and it weaves biographical information with speculation about Sapphos love affairs from the outset, for example using the statement that she lived around 600 B.C.E. to correct those commentators who mistakenly believe that she was loved by the poet Anacreon (who lived more than a half century later). The article continues:
Wie sie noch gar jung zur Wittwe worden, also hat sie, dem gemeinen Gerücht nach, ziemlich frey und unzüchtig gelebet, sonderlich in einem Laster, welches man sich zu nennen scheuet, und dessen Horaz zu gedencken scheinet (7)
Zedlers takes issue with Anne Dacier, who emphasized Sapphos marriage, widowhood and her unrequited love for Phaon and attempted to defend Sappho against charges of lasciviousness and tribadism by casting her story as one of heterosexual romance:
Sie [Dacier] meint also, daß die gemeine Rede der alten Scribenten von ihrem wollüstigen Leben bloß von dem Neide der Poeten entstanden, so mir ihrer Poesie vor ihr nicht aufkommen können. Allein, wie diese gelehrte Dame nicht läugnen kan, daß die Sappho den Pampho oder Phaon aufs hefftigste geliebet; wie sie denn, als er ihrer satt gehabt, und ihr gram worden, sich aus Zerzweiffelung von dem Leucadischen Vorgebürge in Acarnanien in das Meer gestürzet: Scaliger, Auson Lekt. 2. 12. Barth Adv. 32.14. Also sind die beyden annoch überbliebenen Oden (sonderlich die, so sie an ihre Liebsten gerichtet) mehr auf der Alten als auf der Dacieria Seite. Sie soll ein klein schwarz Frauenzimmer, und gar nicht schön gewesen seyn, ausser daß ihre Augen überaus feurig und lebhafft beschrieben werden. Daher alle ihr Ruhm, der sie unsterblich gemacht, bloß von ihren Poesien herrühret, in welchen sie einen vortreflichen natürlichen Verstand sehen lassen.
The emphasis on Sapphos ugliness, but for her lively eyes, the conclusion that therefore her fame is grounded on her "natural understanding" as demonstrated in her poetry, are qualities that will surface in descriptions of Karsch as well, as will the criticism against poetic hubris. After listing some of the achievements for which Sappho was famous her invention of the verse form named after her, her association with a new musical instrument, the Barbiton, her 9 books of odes and her other poetry which led Plato and others to call her the 10th muse the article opines:
Daß sie sich wegen ihrer Gedichte viel eingebildet, siehet man noch aus einem Stücke, da sie einer der vornehmsten und reichsten Damen in Lesbos, deswegen, weil sie keinen Rosenstrauß von dem Berge der Musen aufzuweisen gehabt, allen Nachruhm ab, sich selbst aber die Unsterblichkeit zuspricht.
The ethical reproaches and the biographical speculation about Sappho or, as Margaret Reynolds puts it, "the struggle here, between women who would like to bear the name of a latterday Sappho and men bent on reproving her and, by implication, them" (102) found another forceful and influential articulation in Pierre Bayles Dictionnaire historique et critique of 1695. Bayles interest in the poets sexual reputation became especially important in shaping the image of Sappho for a wide reading public in the German states through the translation by J.C. Gottsched, published from1741-1744.(8) The audience envisioned by Gottsched extends beyond the learned men who would have no need of a translation and it expressly includes women at the end of a long list of possible readers who might benefit from Bayles compendium:
Ich will also nur so viel sagen, daß alle Arten der Leser, sie mögen nun Gelehrte oder Ungelehrte, Fürsten oder Hofleute, Kriegsbediente oder von Adel, Gottesgelehrte oder Rechtsverständige, Arzneykundige oder Weltweise, Liebhaber der Geschichte oder der freyen Künste, ja endlich auch nur muntre Köpfe oder Frauenzimmer seyn, dennoch in diesem Werke unzählige Artikel antreffen werden, die eigentlich nur für sie gemacht zu seyn scheinen, und ihnen folglich das Leben und den Besitz desselben theils angenehm, theils unentbehrlich machen werden.(9)
The fame of Bayles dictionary, and its marketing as the kind of reference work all literate people should wish to peruse, show Gottscheds desire to underscore its authoritative status, and yet he is also at pains to explain and justify his translation, as even the extended title of the translations makes clear: Herrn Peter Baylens, weyland Professors des Philosophie und Historie zu Rotterdam, Historisches und Critisches Wörterbuch, nach der neuesten Auflag von 1740 ins Deutsche übersetzt; auch mit einer Vorrede und verschiedenen Anmerkungen sonderlich bey anstößigen Stellen versehen, von Johann Christoph Gottscheden. Although not the kind of offensive passages Gottsched, who was concerned with Bayles free-thinking attitudes towards religion, presumably had in mind, the entry on Sappho provides considerable material for scandal. The merging of Sapphos poetry and her amorous affairs is more complete and more explicit in its poetic implications here than in the Zedler article. The entry on Sappho (IV, 145-149) conflates these two aspects of her fame in its opening sentence: "Sappho ist eine von den allerberühmtesten Frauen des ganzen Alterthums gewesen, so wohl wegen ihrer Verse, als wegen ihrer Liebeshändel" (145) and explains further, "Alle ihre Verse gingen auf die Liebe." Bayle/ Gottsched devotes considerable attention to elaborating on Sapphos bad reputation for tribadism and provides that reason for the well-known and much debated description of her (by Horace, Epistolae I .19. 28) as "die Männin" (mascula). The article spins out an extravagant tale of romance based on a promiscuous and uncontrollable passion with psychologizing commentary that justifies DeJeans thesis of the need to humiliate the successful woman writer (6-7).(10) To her leap from the cliffs Bayle writes: "Welch eine Härte!" and adds in a note:
Des Phaons Grausamkeit wird uns nicht so sehr Wunder nehmen, wenn wir betrachten, daß Sappho eine Witwe in den Mitteljahren gewesen, welche niemals schön gewesen war, welche während ihres Witwenstandes sich eine üble Nachrede zugezogen hatte, und nicht die geringste Maaße beobachtete, die Heftigkeit ihrer Liebe zu bezeigen. Ein Mann, der nur ein wenig zärtlich ist, verlanget nicht, daß man ihn mit so wenig Wohlanständigkeit suchet; er ziehet böse Vorbedeutungen daraus. Man füge dazu, daß Sappho die Annehmlichkeiten der Jungferschaft nicht hat haben können.
Perhaps Phaon was exhausted rather than indifferent, Bayle suggests.(11) His telling identification with the mythic Phaon suggests both a fantasy of being pursued by such a passionate and demanding lover as Sappho and a glee in imagining that a woman so transgressive of gender roles, in literature and in life, would receive her comeuppance. Such judgments and elaboration of the myths surrounding Sappho, while not universally accepted, contributed to and influenced the multidimensional associations with the figure and, as part of the common cultural knowledge, did inform the reception of contemporary female poets, and Karsch in particular.
Despite the popularization of these fictions of Sappho, there were also serious philological efforts made in the eighteenth century, especially in Germany, to edit, translate and interpret the Sapphic fragments. An important Greek-Latin edition of Sapphos verse was published by Johann Christian Wolff in 1733, and a first German translation of 29 fragments, by Jacob Stählin, appeared in 1734, followed by Benjamin Neukirchs translated collection in 1744.(12) The discoveries and archaeological excavations in Italy at Pompeii unearthed supposed portraits and busts of Sappho in the 1750s and spurred the hopes of scholars that more poems would also be found (but none were).(13) Nonetheless, eighteenth-century philology contributed to another form of disciplining and domesticizing the female poet Sappho to fit contemporary gender norms and its influence can be seen in Gleims inclusion of Karsch as Sappho into his own poetic circle, where he bears the name "the German Anacreon." The first edition of Sapphos poetry, published in 1554 by Henri Estienne, appeared as part of an edition of Anacreon, and this convention was long followed, thereby reinforcing the image of Sappho as a poet of love and creating an association between the two poets that reduced the attribution of power and sublimity to Sapphos texts and brought them closer to the lighter poems in the Anacreontic mode. Rather than emphasizing an admiration for Sapphos intensity of feeling expressed through her mastery of form, as did the ancients, the scholars who associated Sappho with Anacreon furthered a strand of Sappho interpretation that rendered Sappho as a poet of nature and song, in proximity to folk songs and the folkloristic.(14) This tendency is already present in seventeenth-century Germany, when Sapphos odes began to be translated into German, and would be continued later by Herder, who translates and interprets "die liebe Frau Sappho" and suggests that Karsch is too masculine in her emotion and ought, indeed, to take dear Sappho as a more feminine model. Many of Gleims friends and associates helped to further the image of Sappho in connection with Anacreon. Nikolaus Götz, with assistance from Johann Peter Uz who like Götz was a friend of Gleims from his time as a student in Halle, translated and published Sappho fragments with poems of Anacreon in 1746, with a second edition in 1760; this was the translation on which Karsch relied.(15) Gleim too attempted a translation of one of Sapphos odes and wrote poems in the sapphic verse form, and Ewald von Kleist translated an ode of Sapphos, as did Gleims later protogé Heinse, as well as both Christian Felix Weisse and Karl Ramler.(16) Thus when Gleim requests that Karsch too attempt her translation of Sapphos remaining verse, so he can compare the German and the Greek sapphic sensibility, she enters into an ongoing tradition of masculine intellectual companionship and competition in ventriloquizing Sappho, and she bears the burden of having to live up to or prove her distance from conflicting expectations that are raised in her audience through her identification with this famous precursor.(17)
The first published collection of Karschs poetry, instigated and mentored by Gleim and introduced by Sulzer, eagerly awaited by the reading public in Berlin and elsewhere, includes poems written in those first years of her fame, 1761-1763, that coincide with Gleims cultivation of the Sappho image for Karsch and with her own acceptance of that name for herself, as we see in the letters the two poets exchanged. Many of the poems of this first collection, as well as poems from this period that were published in the collection of 1792, bear witness to Karschs interpretation of the image of Sappho in relation to her own verse. They show her efforts to integrate references to Sappho and to incorporate attributes associated with Sappho in the mid-eighteenth century into her poetry. But they also show Karsch explicitly distancing herself from such identification and asserting the uniqueness of her own poetic voice. The interesting tension between acceptance of the classical figure as a poetic persona and rejection of Sappho as a model through which her poems can be interpreted recurs throughout Karschs lifetime in her poetry and in her letters in various fashions.
References to Sappho occur in the poems from the early 1760's. At times they simply augment an image through recourse to attributes associated culturally with Sappho. In "Eine kranke Braut an ihren Geliebten," for example, the allusion to Sappho is used to emphasize passion and the language of the heart:
Und rednerisch wird unter tausend Küssen
Mein Herz, mit Wollust vollgetränkt,
Dir süsse Nahmen herzustammeln wissen,
Die Sapho selber nicht denkt.(18) (238)
Often, such references play with and strengthen the association between Karsch and Sappho that had become popular in Karschs social circles and was well-known beyond them, most directly by using the name of Sappho to represent the poetic voice in the poems that is identified overtly with Karsch. In "Die Sehnsucht der Freundschaft"(1761) Karsch describes her mood and her creative challenges through the phrase "Wie die Wolke, so schwer ist die Seele der Sapho (*)/ Wenn sie schwingen sich soll" (163) and her identification with Sappho is explained to her readers in a note at the end of the poem: "*Herr Gleim hatte die Dichterin die deutsche Sapho genennet"(166). Karsch signs as "Sapho" in a poem addressed "An die Prinzessin Heinrich" dated 1762, in which she integrates the comparison of herself with the famous poet in a phrase lauding the princess:
So glücklich war die Griechinn nicht,
Die Sapho hieß, sie sang von keinem Angesicht,
Das Deiner Hoheit Strahlen um sich streute.(19)
Another such identification with Sappho through appropriation of her name is found in "An Palemon" (1761), when Karsch writes: "So sieht die Seele der Sapho/ Ihr Bild im sanften Gesang" (Gedichte 1764, 184). She associates her poetic voice here with "des Herzens Sprache," a further reference to poetic expression of emotion linked with Sappho in the eighteenth century.
The identification with Sappho, in the context of "An Palemon," is simultaneously one with nature, through a comparison with the moons reflection in water. The connection of the female poetic voice with natural, unreflected phenomena was one common frame through which to view Karsch and her poetic productivity, and one she herself cultivated as a mode of self-definition, as scholars have clearly shown. The association of Sappho with nature reinforces both aspects of Karschs self-presentation and corresponds to the poetic theories and notions of gender of the time.(20) Such a link is also overt in "An den May" (1761), an anacreontic poem that presents itself as a lighthearted song of nature and love (though one can note Karschs typical theme of "Vergänglichkeit" even in first verse). Here Sappho appears in the fourth strophe as an image of natural poetic talent, a model for and a kindred spirit of the birds who sing of love:
Von der Liebe treulich unterrichtet
Singt ein Vogel, der wie Sapho dichtet,
Ganze Nächte in der Ode Thon. (Gedichte 1764, 40)
Similarly, Karsch identifies herself with Sappho and with a poetic mode that is natural and is produced with but little consciousness or reflection in "Der unnachahmliche Pindar" (1763):
Ich gleich der summenden Biene,
Die saugt an blühendem Klee,
Ich sinnam Ufer der Elbe,
Auf mein zu niedriges Lied.
Ich rühre Saphische Sayten
Mit ungeregeltem Griff;
Mir fehlt zum Heldengesange
Gluth und ein männlicher Schwung (Gedichte 1764, 169)
Karsch uses this reference to Sappho to emphasize a gendered distinction between natural, inferior, feminine song and the heroic poetry of men (a curious and obviously distorted self-representation, as it distances Karsch from her own initial fame as a poet whose verse is inspired by the battle feats of Friedrich II and who powerfully sings his praises). In doing so, she adapts the image of Sappho to fit eighteenth-century topoi of female poetic creativity, and thereby contributes to one transformation in the reception of Sappho already apparent at the time. Indeed, it is surely not coincidental that this poem is addressed to Ramler, whose severe critical assessments and poetic dogma were a source of frustration to his friends and foes alike. Apparently, Ramlers expectations of female authorship are parlayed into Karschs self-presentation as Sappho here, accounting for some of the strange disjunctions. In this poem, Karsch displays a stylized feminine modesty about her poetic talents and subordinates her verse to that of both Ramler and Gleim, but she does recuperate for herself a role in the masculine poetic task of lauding the kings exploits:
Dann werd ich, wo ich noch etwas
Hervor zu bringen vermag,
Mit deiner Stimme vermischen
Mein schwächer thönendes Lied.
Gelehnt am Arme des Sängers
Der Kriegeslieder, will ich
Triumph ausrufen, und Antwort
Giebt die frohlockende Stadt.
Den weyrauchdampfenden Tempeln
Der Spree, dem horchenden Hein,
Dem jubelrufenden Volke.
Dreystimmig singen wir vor! (171)
Karschs use of the figure of Sappho to describe and define herself as poet entails evident ambivalence: the image elevates Karsch by acknowledging her fame and talents and including her in the poetic circle of eighteenth-century men who themselves play with ancient poetic names, as reflected in this poem addressed to Ramler, "the German Pindar", and yet she is at pains here to appear modest and to occupy a lower place in the poetic hierarchy than her male friends and to this end employs Sappho to emphasize her femininity as a sign of inferiority. Interestingly, though, she does not turn to Sappho in this poem to describe herself as a poet of love. Instead, her poem reminds her audience of the fame Karsch has achieved through poetic celebration of Friedrichs battle victories, and, by marking this kind of verse as a highly valued field of masculine poetic production, she indirectly asserts her worth as poet.
That Karsch could and did adapt her self-presentation as Sappho to the expectations of her audiences is also seen clearly through a poem addressed to Uz, in which Sappho appears in her most conventional guise as the poet of love. The fascination that Uz expressed with the passion of Karsch as Sappho is the topic of letter exchanges between Gleim, Uz and Karsch herself. In a letter written to Gleim on January 5, 1762, Karsch makes reference to Uzs letters when she writes, "aber befriedigen Sie doch schon mein Liebster Seine lüsterne Neubegierde lesen Sie die feürigsten Lieder vor Ihn auß und sagen Ihm daß die Grichin Ihrem Phaon nicht so geliebt als die deutsche Sapho Ihrem Thyrsis."(21) She half-playfully, half-seriously takes on this role and responds to the demands Uz makes on her as the new Sappho by identifying with the image of the lovelorn Sappho pining for Phaon:
Mir gab dein liebender Freund, der Felsenspringerin-Laute,
O, ihn nur denken wird süssen Gesang
In der ganz saphischen Brust; der Liebes Götter Vertraute
Ward ich und habe die Herzen in Zwang! (187)
Karsch adopts the tones of Sappho, while pointing to Gleims role in casting her in this performance, and defines them as tones of love that will reflect her affection for Gleim. Both the role-playing and the autobiographical grounding have equal measure in the poem, yet the association of Karsch and Sappho seems more superficial than serious in this verse. And even in the apparent identification, one can argue, Karsch inscribes her individuality subtly, for she accepts the Sapphic lyre as symbol of a link between the two women, and makes of Sappho an adjective to describe her emotions rather than subsuming her own voice under that of the ancient poet. Similarly, in several strophes from a poem from 1764, Karsch sketches the famous image of Sappho singing for Phaon before asserting her inheritance of Sapphos lute, again as a sign of affinity and continuity in a female poetic tradition:
Der Griechinn Kopf, die von Leukadens Klippe
In kalte tiefe Fluthen sprang,
Und noch mit todtenblasser halberstorbner Lippe
Von Liebe sang;
Ein Saytenspiel, von ihr allein erfunden,
Und dir geopfert, daß es sey
Einst nach Jahrtausenden mit Rosen frisch umwunden
Für mich wie neu;
Den Lorber, den ich so wie sie ersungen,
Der über dieser Leyer schwebt;
Dies alles seh ich
("An den Phöbus Apollo" Gedichte, 1792, 34-35)
Karsch relates herself to Sappho here through an analogy in which she maintains the awareness of distinction and resists collapsing her own poetic identity fully into the illustrious earlier poet.
In a poem with the explanatory title "An den Dohmherrn von Rochow, als er gesagt hatte, die Liebe müsse sie gelehret haben, so schöne Verse zu machen" (Gedichte, 1764, 110-112), Karsch expressly counters audience expectations that stem from a facile interpretation of her as "the German Sappho" While she addresses her audience in the first line as "Kenner von dem saphischen Gesänge!" and draws on the name Sappho to describe the emotional valence of her verse, she simultaneously distinguishes herself from Sappho by emphasizing the particularity of her own biography as it affects her poetic production. The idea that she herself has learned to write poetry through the experience of love is one she declares to be a fiction: "ganz erdichtet/ Nennst du sie die Lehrerin von mir!" The following strophes refer directly to the harsh conditions of her youth and the abuse she suffered in marriage. She insists on her lack of the experience of love, only then to assert that this lack itself is an inspiration for her poetic fictions that is all the more powerful for giving rise to a poignant desire:
Sing ich Lieder für der Liebe Kenner:
Dann denk ich den zärtlichsten der Männer,
Den ich immer wünschte, nie erhielt;
Keine Gattin küßte je getreuer,
Als ich in der Sapho sanftem Feuer
Lippen küßte, die ich nie gefühlt!
Was wir heftig lange wünschen müssen,
Und was wir nicht zu erhalten wissen,
Drückt sich tiefer unserm Herzen ein;
Rebensaft verschwendet der Gesunde,
Und erquickend schmeckt des Kranken Munde
Auch im Traum der ungetrunkne Wein. (111-112)
In these poems in which reference to Sappho informs the poetic persona presented to the reader, there is both a play of identity with the Greek poet and an effort to distinguish a unique literary voice. While Karsch willingly and gratefully takes on the honorific, and adopts the name as shorthand signature in her letters and beyond, and while she integrates allusions to many aspects of the mid-eighteenth-century German image of Sappho into her verse, she also maintains a measure of individuality and resists an interpretation of her poetry and of her person that relies too heavily on the Greek model. A letter by Karsch written to Gleim on March 28, 1762, in which she relates her response to Edward Youngs Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) articulates her sense of her independence and the value of her own, original poetic voice:
niemahls würd Ich alle die Lieder gesungen haben um der leßbischen Sängerinn nachzuahmen, um Ihrem Ruhm zu ergeizen, auff die Seitte, zurük hies Ich Sie Tretten, mein Genie sas in der Seele mit den Zepter in der Hand und lenkte den flug der Gedanken, von Ihnen erhoben mein Liebster, war es Eine Königin und viel zu Stollz nachzuahmen gingen nichts als geschaffne Creaturen hervor, Sie gefallen ohne Glanz, ohne den prächtigen schmuk der Kunst, eben deßwegen weill Sie von der Natur hervor gebracht sind, [...] wir müßen unßere Stärke kennen und ein Vertrauen in Sie sezen, wir müßen, Young sagts und ich weis es, Eine Art von Ehrfurcht für unßer Genie haben, große Originale müßen uns anfeuern, aber nicht kleinmütig machen (92).
Here as well as in the public self-presentation of her published poems, Karsch displays a strong sense of self that intersects in many respects with social and literary expectations and, in others, maintains an individual sensibility. As foil to the use of the Sappho figure as poetic self-image, one can examine several poems that Karsch offers her readers explicitly as mirrors of her character. In these, Karsch portrays herself through the virtuous qualities of piety, modesty, loyalty, and truthfulness. She especially values her sense that she is honest and that she will express herself in public and in private with sincerity of belief and emotion. Authenticity and truthfulness, both qualities combine in this self-image, and both describe for her, centrally, her poetic voice. In "An die Frau von Reichmann" (1761) she asks "O du, der mich mein Herz empfohlen,/ Soll ich dir sagen wer ich bin?" (Gedichte 1764, 87) and answers in part:
Der Wahrheit Stimme will ich brauchen,
Und solt ich meinen Bissen Brodt,
Mit Salz bestreut in Eßig tauchen,
So bliebe sie mein größt Geboth. (88)
In a poetic reflection on her portrait which is like a self-portrait in response to the image made of her by the painter, Karsch describes herself as poet and links her poetic feeling with her long search for friendship and recognition, now achieved through her poetry and represented in this portrait made for her friends:
Und sprich: Das singende Weib
War arm an äußerer Reizung
Und reich an süssem Gefühl;
Mit zart geschaffenem Herzen
Ward sie einst Sapho genannt;
Ihr waren Musen gefällig,
Und sie war Freunden getreu ("An Palemon," (1761) Gedichte 1764, 228-230).
Karschs self-presentation as Sappho repeats the image Gleim expressed in the letter cited above of a Sappho of Empfindung whose song is an expression of her inner emotions, but Karsch herself emphasizes her loyal friendship in this context rather than developing the dominant image of Sappho as desparate woman in love with an unresponsive man. Certainly Gleim consciously played out that role of Phaon, as he wrote dismissively to Uz and shared with visitors such as Wieland. But the reception of Karsch that makes of her love for Gleim a modern romance of Sappho and Phaon overlooks the resistances Karsch herself effectively establishes to this interpretation, as well as the many other and more salient dimensions of her verse. Even in jest, Karsch was able to insist on her right to poetic independence as Sappho. The following impromptu, composed with prescribed final rhyming words for social amusement and to demonstrate her talents at spontaneous rhyme, presents a poetic stance that favors nature over rules, sentiment over artifice. And yet, a subtext of individualism and resistance to expectations, beginning with the emphasized "ich" in the first line, is strongly present as well:
Eigenschaften der Sapho (1762)
Nicht immer will ich so, wie andre Leute wollen,
die nicht Gesetze geben sollen
Der Sapho, der Empfindungsvollen,
Die um den schönen Geist nicht trägt ein schönes Kleid,
Der in den Adern ist ein Dichter-Quell gequollen
Zu aller Lieder Möglichkeit,
Der hoch von Zärtlichkeit der Busen aufgeschwollen,
Die aus den Augen oft läßt Thränen nieder rollen,
Dem Himmel ihren Dank zu zollen
Für diesen goldnen Theil in ihrer Lebenszeit. (Gedichte 1792, 316)
Finally, two poems written by Karsch for female friends show her consciousness of the fragile nature of literary fame and her insistence on friendship as the inspiration and motivation for her poetic expression. In "Ueber den Unbestand des Ruhms" (1763) Karsch compares literary fashion to sartorial trends and concludes:
Ob ich ein längeres Lob erstrebet,
Das ist mein Kummer nicht; die Freundschaft sey mein Stolz,
Sie weinet, wenn ich gnug gesungen und gelebet,
Noch Ruhm auf meines Sarges Holz (Gedichte 1792, 81)
Similarly, she constructs a contrast between writing for fame and writing for her friends in a poem in which she appears as Sappho
"Ob Sappho für den Ruhm schreibt" (1762)
Frau, schreib ich für den Ruhm, und für die Ewigkeit?
Nein, zum Vergnügen meiner Freunde!
Homer, Virgil, Horaz und Pindar sind geblieben;
Die Griechin aber nicht, die meine Leyer trug,
So zärtlich war wie ich, nach ihrem Phaon frug
Und nach dem Leben nicht; sie flog zum Tode nieder
Nichts blieb uns als ein Brief und zwey beflammte Lieder. (Gedichte 1792, 268-69)
The poem continues by recalling Sapphos many achievements and the monuments to her poetry, and yet reminds the reader that only fragments of her work remain. In this respect, she identifies with Sappho: "Frau, solch ein Schicksal trift auch meine Lieder einst!" and concludes, as in "Ueber den Unbestand des Ruhms" with an image of her friends mourning her death at her grave, even though the world has forgotten her.
Anna Louisa Karsch is acutely aware of the tenuousness of literary fame. But when she insists in her poetry and in her letters that for her, friendship is a higher value, and that she is not concerned primarily with poetic recognition, the contrast she draws is not completely convincing. For Karsch, the recognition of her poetic talents, her "songs," is the very foundation of the new life instigated for her by her benefactor Baron von Kottwitz. It is the foundation of her new friendships, and of her integration into the intellectual community, as well as of her financial support. It therefore has existential meaning for Karsch, emotionally, socially, and financially. Apostrophizing Karsch as Sappho, the icon of female poetic achievement, demonstrates such literary recognition and it simultaneously defines, in complex and contradictory ways, a social role that assures her a place in a community and supports the friendship through which she defines herself and her poetic expression. There are thus immense motivations for Karsch to adopt the role and to attempt to fulfill expectations that accompany it. She courts her public as Sappho and seeks reassurance that her songs, as images of her affections, will not be rejected; for such rejection must seem to her to be equivalent to a rejection of friendship, a push off the Leucadian cliffs into the waters of deathly isolation.
The power of Karschs poetic voice is associated with the authenticity expressed in her poetry and her "natural" self-expression, a combination also present in the eighteenth-century stories that connect Sapphos amorous passion with her poetic genius. But this authenticity also becomes the grounds for criticizing the literary inferiority of her writing. And the scandal of her more public presentation of her poetic self as Sappho lay in her perceived hubris at adopting this title, even as her own sense of her authentic character seemed to depend on recognition of literary talents that was given through the name of Sappho. The characterization of Karschs poetry as spontaneous corresponds to the image of her as natural genius (underscored by her background of poverty and lowest class status), and raises other issues that can be traced in her use of the figure of Sappho, for example the tension between Sappho as the female poet of lasting fame and Sappho whose writings are largely lost and unknown. And finally, the conflict between the famous image of Sappho as "the tenth muse" and the image of Sappho as a desiring creative poet in her own right is anchored in gendered cultural hierarchies and definitions of femininity as an inspiration to male cultural producers rather than as the direct source of a public, poetic voice. Does the label "Sappho" serve more to authorize or to control female desire and poetic expression? For Karsch, especially in her love letters to Gleim, this was a major and explicit point of contention, and one that is also of interest for her public presentation as female poet. The scandal of Karschs public Sappho-performance was neither her assertion of a public voice or even the explicit expression of desire in her writing. Her transgression lay for Gleim and others in the authenticity of that desire to be loved. Unwilling to separate the artifice of the poetic game from her own emotional experience, Karsch insisted on adopting the role of Sappho to declare and communicate her own passions.
1. Ellen Greene, "Introduction" to Re-reading Sappho. Reception and Transmission, ed. Ellen Greene (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1996), 1. (return)
2. Joan DeJean, Fictions of Sappho, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 6. (return)
3. The most famous French "new Sapphos" were Louise Labé and Madeleine de Scudéry. Among the British "Sapphos" were Mary Robinson (1758-1800), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Katherine Philips see Harriette Andreadis, Sappho in Early Modern England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 38-39 and Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 123. Reynolds also mentions "the Swedish Sappho" Hedwig Charlotte Nordenflycht and Sophia Parnock as the "Russian Sappho," among others (8). Paul Derks, Die sapphische Ode in der deutschen Dichtung des 17. Jahrhunderts Diss: Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, 1969, lists several early modern women known as modern Sapphos in the German context, including Elisabeth Johanna Weston, Eleonore Dorothea von Rosenthal, and Sibylle Schwarz , who appeared as "die pommersche Sappho" (62-63). Katherine R. Goodman, Amazons and Apprentices. Women and the German Parnassus in the Early Enlightenment (Rochester: Camden House 1999) writes that Erdmann Neumeister called Anna Maria Pflaum "die Teutsche Sappho" (118); she also discusses Gottscheds concern to promote a national Sappho, and his efforts to interest Luise Kulmus in that role (151; 221-222; 255. (return)
4. "Mein Bruder in Apoll" Briefwechsel zwischen Anna Louisa Karsch und Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, Vol. I, 1761-1768, ed. Regina Nörtemann (Göttingen: Wallstein, 1996), 50. (return)
5. See Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, 69-78; David Campell, ed. and transl., Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alceaus, (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1982), 2-52. (return)
6. The French scholars of the seventeenth century were instrumental in defining a new modern image of Sappho. Sapphos fragments were first published as her own by Henri Estienne, and a translation into Latin followed by Tanneguy Le Fevre in 1660. A French translation of a collection of poems by Sappho first appeared in 1670, by Du Four de la Crespeliere. Anne Le Fevre Daciers translation and biographical essay appeared in 1681. Joan DeJeans Fictions of Sappho, 29-128, presents the fates of Sappho in France during this time in detail. (return)
7. Johann Heinrich Zedler, "Sappho," Universal-Lexikon, Leipzig und Halle: 1742, vol. 34, 37-39. (return)
8. Already translated into English in 1710, Bayles views were enormously influential in shaping the cultural fantasies about Sappho. (return)
9. Herrn Peter Baylens, weyland Professors des Philosophie und Historie zu Rotterdam, Historisches und Critisches Wörterbuch, nach der neuesten Auflag von 1740 ins Deutsche übersetzt Erster Theil. A. und B. Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1741; Vierter und letzter Theil. O. Bis Z. Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1744. Here I,Vorrede, xx3. (return)
10. Glenn W. Most points to such narrativizing of Sappho
as one strategy used to bring the conflicting fictions of Sappho into the semblance
of a coherent interpretation: "Reflecting Sappho", Re-Reading Sappho,
ed. E. Greene, 11-35, here 17-19. (return)
11. See Harriette Andreadnis, Sappho in Early Modern England, 30-35, on Sapphos rejection by Phaon and subsequent death figured as punishment. (return)
12. Horst Rüdiger, Geschichte der deutschen Sappho-Übersetzungen, Berlin: 1934 (Nendeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967), 10. (return)
13. See Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, 165-171. (return)
14. Paul Derks, Die sapphische Ode in der deutschen Dichtung des 17. Jahrhunderts Diss: Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, 1969, 92: "Damit war Sappho in die Umgebung von Volksliedern und zersungenen volkstümlichen Kunstliedern geraten." See also his quotation of Harsdörffer: Hört die Sappho liebliche Lieder singen/ schaut die holden Nymphe in Aue springen" (154). (return)
15. Johann Nikolaus Götz, Die Gedichte Anakreons und der Sappho Oden aus dem Griechischen übersezt, und mit Anmerkungen begleitet. Carlsruhe: Macklot, 1760 (reprint Stuttgart: Metzler, 1970) (return)
16. See Rüdiger, Sappho-Übersetzungen, 12-33. (return)
17. Elizabeth D. Harveys article "Ventriloquizing Sappho, or the Lesbian Muse,"Re-Reading Sappho, ed. E. Greene, 79-104, theorizes the "politics of gender and the poetics of plagiarism" in this kind of intertextuality through interpretations of John Donne. (return)
18. Anna Louisa Karsch, Gedichte 1764 (Reprint ed. Alfred Anger, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1967) (return)
19. Anna Louisa Karsch, Gedichte. Nach der Dichterin
Tode herausgegeben von ihrer Tochter Caroline Luise von Klencke. Mit einem Vorwort
von Barbara Becker-Cantarino Nachdruck der Ausgabe Berlin von 1792 (Karben:
Petra Wald, 1996), 148 (return)
20. Silvia Bovenschen, Die imaginierte Weiblichkeit (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), 150-157; Kerstin Barndt, ""Mit natürlichem Genie wider die Regel. Anna Louisa Karsch und die Ästhetiktheorie ihrer Zeit"." Anna Louisa Karsch (1722-1791).Dichterin für Liebe, Brot und Vaterland. Ausstellung zum 200. Todestag 10. Oktober bis 16. November 1991, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz. (Ausstellungskataloge/ Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz 39.) (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1991). 14-22; Barbara Becker-Cantarino, ""Belloisens Lebenslauf": Zu Dichtung und Autobiographie bei Anna Luisa Karsch." Gesellige Vernunft. Zur Kultur Der Literarischen Aufklärung. Festschrift Für Wolfram Mauser Zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Ortrud Gutjahr (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1993), 13-22; Sabine Mödersheim, "`"Auch die fruchtbarsten Bäume wollen beschnitten sein" Georg Friedrich Meiers Konzept der Einbildungskraft und Dichtungskraft und die Kritik an Anna Louisa Karsch," Dichtungstheorien Der Deutschen Frühaufklärung, hrsg., in zusammenarbeit mit Hans-Joachim Kertscher, Theodor Verweyen (Hallesche Beiträge zur europäischen Aufklärung 1) (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1995), 37-54. (return)
21. Briefwechsel I, 57-58. (return)