World Literature

Sappho

 

BORN: Between 630 and 612 BCE, Lesbos, Greece

DIED: c. 570 BCE, Lesbos, Greece

NATIONALITY: Greek

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Sappho: A Garland; the Poems and Fragments of Sappho (1993)

 

 

Sappho. Sappho, photograph. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

Regarded by ancient commentators as the equal of Homer, the ancient Greek poet Sappho expressed human emotions with honesty, courage, and skill. Sappho has been the subject of controversy, and most of her work has been lost over the centuries or deliberately destroyed. It is clear from the existing verses, however, that she deserved her reputation, and her work warrants continued study and appreciation.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Native of Lesbos. Very few details of Sappho’s life survive, and many classicists note that these accounts have been thoroughly interwoven with legend, myth, and supposition. The only standard—but unreliable—source of information about Sappho is the Suidas, a Greek lexicon compiled at around the end of the tenth century. Based on earlier lexicons, scholarly commentaries, and excerpts from the works of historians, grammarians, and biographers, the Suidas records that Sappho was a native of Lesbos, an island northeast of Athens in the Aegean Sea, and that she was probably born in either the city of Eresus or Mytilene. Her father’s name is given as Scamandronymus and her mother’s as Cleis. Evidence also suggests that Sappho had three brothers and that her family belonged to the upper class. According to traditional accounts, she lived briefly in Sicily around 600 BCE, having been forced into exile by political strife on Lesbos.

After returning to her homeland, Sappho married a wealthy man named Cercylas, had a daughter named Cleis, and spent the rest of her life in Mytilene. There she organized and ran a thiasos, or academy for unmarried young women. The school was devoted to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, where beauty and grace were held as the highest values. Ancient commentary attests that this thiasos ranked as one of the best, and Sappho enjoyed great renown as its dedicated teacher and spiritual leader. Some legends of Sappho’s life indicate that she lived to old age, but others relate that she fell hopelessly in love with Phaon, a young sailor, and, disappointed by their failed love affair, leaped to her death from a high cliff—a story that has been largely discredited by modern scholars.

The Tenth Muse. In antiquity, Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as ‘‘the Poetess,’’ just as Homer was called ‘‘the Poet.’’ Plato hailed her as ‘‘the tenth Muse,’’ and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary. Her principal work consisted of nine books, which the grammarians of Alexandria arranged according to meter. The earliest surviving texts date from the third century BCE Because the first book contained 1,320 lines, it can be surmised that Sappho left approximately 12,000 lines, 700 of which have survived, pieced together from several sources. Only one complete poem remains, quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the rest ranging in completeness from several full lines to one word. Many of the lines lack beginning, middle, or end because they have survived on mummy wrapping in Egyptian tombs, the papyrus having been ripped crosswise of the roll, lengthwise of the poem. The long rolls of papyrus, made from the stalks of a water plant, also survived in battered condition in the dry Egyptian climate in garbage dumps and as stuffing in the mouths of mummified crocodiles.

In 1898 knowledge of Sappho’s works increased dramatically when scholars discovered third-century BCE papyri containing additional verse fragments. In 1914 archaeologists excavating cemeteries in oxyrhynchus, Egypt, unearthed papier-mache coffins composed of scraps of paper containing fragments of literary writings, including some by Sappho. These findings sparked renewed interest in Sappho and inspired new critical studies of her texts.

Scandalous Love Poet. Sappho’s works have been admired for their stylistic merit from her own time onward, and while her literary merit remains secure, Sappho’s personal reputation has been controversial even to the point of sometimes overshadowing her status as a poet. Her passionate verses and attitudes toward love have attracted a great deal of attention and garnered rumors about her sexual preference. In fact, the opinion that Sappho’s sexual orientation was lesbian is so entrenched that the term itself is derived from the name of her homeland.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Sappho's famous contemporaries include:

Nebuchadrezzar II (630-562 BCE): The Babylonian king who plays a significant part in the biblical Book of Daniel, Nebuchadrezzar II is also remembered for the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Solon (638-558 BCE): Credited with laying the foundations of Athenian democracy, Solon's reforms were brought about by a crisis in the Athenian city-state during the 590s. Solon opened up Athenian politics to a wider range of citizens and strengthened the city's economic and social structures.

Zedekiah (sixth century BCE): The last king of Judah, Zedekiah was installed by Nebuchadnezzar II as a puppet ruler but led his country in revolt against Babylon.

Anaximander (610-546 BCE): A Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander was one of the first Greek thinkers to place primary importance on science and mathematics; his teachings would bear fruit in his protege Pythagoras, who would espouse a philosophy that ''all was number.''

 

Works in Literary Context

Lyric Poetry. Sappho wrote poetry at a time when Greek literature was dominated by the influence of Homer and the epic narrative. Yet the tradition of lyric poetry was even older and had played an important part in Greek history. During Sappho’s time, lyric poetry enjoyed a successful revival. Sappho seems to have been not only familiar with Homer but also with the poets Terpander and Alcaeus, both from Mytilene, and Archilochus, a poet from the nearby island of Paros. As was typical of Greek lyric poetry in general, Sappho’s verses were highly personal, conveying deeply felt emotion in a simple, translucent style. Her emphasis was on emotion, on subjective experience, and on the individual.

Sappho’s Love Songs. Music, too, as in all early Greek lyric poetry, served an important function in her works: Most of Sappho’s poems are monodies, songs composed for solo singers and intended to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Much of Sappho’s poetry commemorated a certain event taking place in her thiasos, but she also composed narrative poetry, hymns, and epithalamia, or marriage songs. Sources from antiquity have recorded that Sappho was especially famous for the latter and that she was a frequent guest at weddings where she would sing a song composed especially for the couple. Scholars contend that Sappho’s epithalamia raised this ancient folk tradition to a new level of artistic excellence.

Highly Personal Voice. Most commentators regard her eloquence, the individual voice revealing itself and communicating with the reader, as the hallmark of Sappho’s style. The speaker in the poems, generally assumed to be Sappho herself, displays a wide range of emotion, from tender protectiveness and friendship to erotic longing and jealousy; from playful chiding of her pupils to extreme anger toward those who have proven disloyal; and outright vilification of the headmistress of a rival thiasos. Scholars also praise Sappho’s ability to analyze her feelings even as she is enacting them, sacrificing none of the immediacy and intensity of the moment but demonstrating remarkable insight into her own situation. Commentators emphasize, however, that the spontaneous tone of Sappho’s verse is deliberate rather than accidental.

Sapphic Meter. Although she employed a less refined language, Sappho’s poetry evinces an innate verbal elegance, the result of her writing in the melodic Aeolic dialect and of her development of the graceful Sapphic meter. Consisting of four lines, the Sapphic verse form calls for three lines of eleven syllables each and a fourth line of five syllables. This construction dictates the use of three spondees (a foot composed of two accented syllables) in each line, with variations allowed in the fourth and eleventh syllables of the first three lines, and in the final syllable of the fourth line. It is unknown whether Sappho invented the meter that bears her name, but she probably perfected and popularized it; thus, it clearly came to be connected with her.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Sappho's love poetry was part of a movement in ancient poetry that began in the sixth century BCE in which attention was turned away from heroic epics and focused on images and metaphors of love. Here are some other works with the same theme:

Love's Season (sixth century BCE), a poem by Ibykos. A transitional work, this love poem does not focus on personal experience but rather describes the actions of the god Aphrodite (here called Kypris) and her son Eros, combining erotic and mythical themes.

Eclogue II (42-35 BCE), a poem by Virgil. The Romans carried forward the tradition of Greek love poetry, as in this, one of the famous Roman poet's well-known bucolic poems, the story of unrequited love between two shepherd boys, a not uncommon theme in ancient poetry.

''Negress'' (270 BCE), a poem by Asklepiades. Third-century Alexandria was as cosmopolitan as modern-day Manhattan, with people of many different races and creeds intermingling freely. In this love poem, Asklepiades considers his love for an African woman, rejecting the traditional ancient Greek prejudice against dark skin, turning it into a positive attribute.

 

Works in Critical Context

Many critics consider Sappho the greatest female poet of the classical world and the most accomplished and influential of a group of lyric poets who were active in Greece between 650 BCE and 450BCE—a period often designated the Lyric Age of Greece. Although little remains of her work, Sappho’s poetry has been acclaimed since antiquity for its emotional intensity, directness, simplicity, and revealing personal tone. It has also been the subject of much critical controversy, however, with various scholars debating the precise nature of the eroticism typical of Sappho’s verses.

Influential Muse. Throughout the centuries, Sappho has remained a fascinating subject for poets, novelists, dramatists, and biographers. David M. Robinson claimed, ‘‘[N]early every thought in her fragments... has been borrowed or adapted by some ancient Greek or Roman poet or some modern poet in English, Italian, French, German, or modern Greek.’’ Despite the fact that only a minuscule portion of Sappho’s canon remains, fragments of her verses continue to have a powerful effect on readers and critics alike. Guy Davenport, one of Sappho’s most prominent translators, remarked that ‘‘many of the fragments are mere words and phrases, but they were once a poem and, like broken statuary, are strangely articulate in their ruin.’’

Willis Barnstone, another eminent translator of Sappho’s works, observed that ‘‘there is no veil between poet and reader. ... Sappho makes the lyric poem a refined and precise instrument for revealing her personal and intense experience of life.’’ For example, unlike her literary counterparts, who mainly depict their immediate natural surroundings, Sappho concentrates instead on how such scenes affect her emotionally and on the associations it calls forth in her. She uses the same direct and personal tone in frankly portraying her attraction to some of the young women in her thiasos. While some readers have lauded her passion, eroticism, and lack of self-consciousness, others have faulted it as grossly indelicate.

Modern Reputation. In the nineteenth century, Sappho emerged as the symbol of passion, especially among the Romantics. In 1816 the German classicist Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker published ‘‘Sappho von einem herrschenden Vorurtheil befreit,’’ an essay that laid to rest controversies surrounding Sappho’s personal life and redirected the focus of criticism to her works. During the last two centuries, scholars have concentrated on analyzing the elements of Sappho’s style, and studies by such critics as John Addington Symonds, C. M. Bowra, and Hilda Doolittle, among others, now complement the exegeses of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and Longinus, who, centuries earlier, acknowledged the extraordinary qualities in Sappho’s poetry. Yet all assessments of her work remain intrinsically inconclusive because so few of her poems survive. Addressing this difficulty, Peter Green commented that ‘‘all study of [Sappho’s] work is, must be, a frantic raking over the scrapheap whence some verbal splinter may shine out golden before the darkness closes in once more.’’ As scholarly speculation about the circumstances surrounding Sappho’s poetry continues, so does critical admiration and appreciation. Critics unanimously praise Sappho’s sincerity, intensity, simple yet effective style, and ability to communicate intimately with the reader. Sappho, as Bowra concludes, ‘‘stands in her own right as the most gifted woman who has ever written poetry.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. In small groups, read several of Sappho’s poems aloud. Then discuss the author’s attitudes toward love and intimacy.

2. Express Sappho’s veneration of friendship with other women, particularly her daughter.

3. Comment on Sappho’s influence on Catullus, Ovid, and other Roman poets.

4. Select at least two or three translations of Sappho’s poem ‘‘Hymn to Aphrodite’’ and compare the translations. Note the differences in word choice and discuss the varying connotations that are created with different translations.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bowie, Angus M. The Poetic Dialect of Sappho and Alcaeus. New York: Ayer Co., 1981.

Doolittle, Hilda (H. D.). Notes on Thought and Vision & The Wise Sappho. Ed. Anne Janowitz. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1982.

Duban, Jeffrey M. Ancient and Modern Images of Sappho. Lanham, Mich.: University Press of America, 1983.

Grahn, Judy. The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1985.

‘‘Hymn to Aphrodite.’’ Poetry for Students. Ed. Anne Marie Hacht. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale, 2004.

‘‘Lepidopterology.’’ Poetry for Students. Ed. Anne Marie Hacht. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Snyder, Jane McIntosh. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.