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The poem “Sappho to Philaenis,” by John Donne offered many words to assess, though none offered more imagery or assessment than the word, “quench.” There were many instances wherein it could be analyzed grammatically, it presented repetition, and it allowed for an assessment to be made concerning the content of the poem itself. Found in the fifth line of the poem, it is rife with metaphor. It involves a woman named Sappho, who falls madly in love with another woman named Philaenis. This, of course, characterizes a homosexual, or lesbian relationship between the two. One might also classify it as autoeroticism. Many lines appraise Philaenis’ beauty and make many similes between her and the beauty of the gods. The poem also expresses Sappho’s desires for Philaenis, as she suggests Philaenis not stay with men because they are all up to no good. In the end, Philaenis cries so many tears her eyes turn to glass, because she believes she cannot stay with her one true love. Though “quench” is used very specifically in the fifth line, the word seems to express the overall emotion of the poem, as well as the overwhelming feeling emitted from the poem itself.
“Quench,” was a word used in Olde English in prefixed form as acwencan. In the poem, the word is used as a verb, which can have many different technical definitions. It can mean to extinguish a fire or flame, or to put out a fire. It can also mean to put out something that gives light. “Sapphy and Philaenis,” however, give “quench” a deeper meaning. When it appears on the fifth line of the poem, the line says, “Have my tears quenched my old poetic fire; Why quenched they not as well, that of desire?” It is true, the word speaks directly of fire, but it is not a fire growing in the cracking forest. Rather it is a fire growing in the heart of a poet, as well as the heart of desire itself. In this instance, Sappho’s desire had not been quenched at all, though her poetic fire had been sustained for the time being. It is also possible that she is speaking of the tears she wept because she has already begun to realize she cannot be with Philaenis, and in doing so this has quenched her poetic thirst. Poets are often tortured and sensitive to their emotions; it would make sense if Sappho released her emotions and was able to feel quenched afterwards. Obviously, there is a comparison to be made between Sappho’s desire for Philaenis, and her writing momentum. Writing appears to be a true writer’s entire life, sustaining life in them as they breathe; Sappho admired this ability and allowed writing to nourish her. She allowed her poetic desires to be quenched with beautiful poetry even though the desire for Philaenis’ body remained. Ironically, her quenched thirst for poetry was only satisfied because of her desire for Philaenis. The writer could have repeated “quench” twice to emphasize Sappho’s obsession with Philaenis, or to emphasize her desperate desire for equal satisfaction.
Sappho continues grandiose gestures throughout the poem. In line sixteen, she attempts to compare Philaenis to the god by saying, “As gods, when gods to thee I do compare, Are graced thereby; and to make blind men see, What things gods are, I say they are like to thee.” Sappho literally compares Philaenis’ beauty to immortal gods, stating she is so beautiful blind men are attracted to her profound aesthetics. She believes Philaenis to be so beautiful blind men flock to her, having never seen her before, suggesting Sappho believes she also radiates an inner beauty literally anybody can see. As mentioned, Sappho’s tears are what quench the poetic fire burning within her, but they cannot quench her desire for Philaenis. However, meeting a creature as beautiful as Philaenis may be what allows Sapphos to quench her own inner poet, as well as her desire for the written word, as Philaenis may have become a sort of muse for Sappho. Loving her, and being so attracted to her physical beauty could leave her consistently inspired to write sonnets and embellished comparisons such as these, leaving her with little thirst for writing. In this way, her grand comparison of Philaenis to the gods only server to embellish her desires for Philaenis’ love. They also prove to enhance the enchanting sadness at the end of the poem, as Sappho cries, believing she will never have Philaenis’ love, nor will she ever be able to love her properly.
Finally, in the fifty-sixth line of the poem, the author states, line “When I would kiss, tears dim mine eyes, and glass.” The word, “dim,” appears to be a weakened version of the word, “quench,” as the passage serves to show us kissing momentarily kept those desires at bay. The author uses, “dim” under diction. Rather than use a word such as “fill,” or, “wet,” to show disappointment in Philaenis, they chose, “dim,” because the imagery and feeling are so similar to quench, I believe. I also believe the weakened version of “quench” proved the catalyst for Sappho’s mental breakdown, causing her to snap and demand drastic reciprocation on Philaenis’ behalf. She only desires to be loved by the chosen object of her affections. To not have this feeling reciprocated has left her feeling as if the world is a dim place, wherein nothing is quenched and she is always left feeling unsatisfied, or thirsty. “Dim,” was used in repetition, but also as a slightly off-putting word to remind us of Sappho’s disappointment in being unable to get the only thing she appears to truly want in the world. The word, “dim” could also be used in juxtaposition to each time Sappho makes a hyperbolic declaration of beauty about her love. For example, when she claimed blind men find Philaenis attractive, she could have been speaking about an inner light, of which anybody could find beautiful. The opposite of an inner light so radiant would most likely be the word, “dim,” and would express, perhaps, what the world would feel like without Philaenis’ beauty, as well as how it feels without her love.
In conclusion, “quench,” made for a rather easy but still delightful analysis. Sappho quenched her poetic desires, her love for books and the written word, even her love for the mundane. She quenched all of her passions but one. She could not use her persistence to quench her love for Philaenis. She was unable to quench her thoughts even though she was continuously quenching many of her actions. The use of the word was ultimately confusing the first time I read the poem because I was used to quench being used only when liquid was involved, rather than dreams full of intense passion. The author uses many comparisons to allow Sappho’s poetic desire to thrive, but denies her the satisfaction of the woman she wants. In addition, there is the repetition of quench and dim throughout the poem, used more likely in an effort to express a movement from unbelievable passion, to unbelievable hopelessness. This repetition, coupled with the comparison, as well as the simile of Philaenis’ beauty to the gods show Sappho’s love for Philaenis. Though at the poem’s end, Sappho admits Philaenis cannot be with her, it still appears Sappho still pursued Philaenis. Much of the evidence throughout the poem explains the deep and intense passion Sappho felt for her.
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