Sappho (Attic Greek Σαπφώ Sapphô, Aeolic Greek Ψάπφα Psappha) was an Ancient Greek lyric poet from the city of Eressos on the island of Lesbos, which was a cultural centre in the 7th century BC. She was born sometime between 630 BC and 612 BC. The bulk of her poetry is now lost, but her reputation in her time was immense, and she was reputedly considered by Plato as the tenth Muse.
Sappho was the daughter of Scamander and Cleïs and had three brothers. She was married (Attic comedy says to a wealthy merchant, but that is apocryphal) and had a daughter also named Cleïs. She became very famous in her day for her poetry – so much so that the city of Syracuse built a statue to honor her when she visited. Her family was politically active, which caused Sappho to travel a great deal. She was also noted during her life as the headmistress of a sort of Greek finishing school for girls. Most likely the objects of her poetry were her students. Sappho was exiled to Syracuse for political reasons, returned in 581 BC, and died of old age.
She was one of the canonical nine lyric poets of archaic Greece. Older critics sometimes alleged that she led an aesthetic movement away from typical themes of gods, to the themes of individual human experiences and emotions, but it is now considered more likely that her work belongs in a long tradition of Lesbian poetry, and is simply among the first to have been recorded in writing.
Some of her love poems were addressed to women. The word lesbian itself is derived from the name of the island of Lesbos from which she came. (Her name is also the origin of its much rarer synonym sapphic).
Because of its eroticism and of the difficulties posed by its dialect, her work was not included in the Byzantine school curriculum. The manuscript tradition therefore broke off, but copies of her work have been discovered in Egyptian papyri of an earlier period.
In ancient and mediaeval times she was famous for (according to legend) throwing herself off a cliff due to unrequited love for a male sailor named Phaon. This legend dates to Ovid and Lucian in Ancient Rome and certainly is not a Christian overlay.
A major new literary discovery, the Milan Papyrus, recovered from a dismantled mummy casing and published in 2001, has revealed the high esteem in which the poet Posidippus of Pella, an important composer of epigrams (3rd century BC), held Sappho's 'divine songs'.
- Some say of nine Muses, how neglected!
- Behold, Sappho, from Lesbos, is the tenth
Horace writes in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics are worthy of sacred admiration.
One of Sappho's poems was famously translated by the 1st century BC Roman poet Catullus in his "Ille mi par esse deo videtur" (Catullus 51).
We have a single complete poem, Fragment 1, Hymn to Aphrodite, and three more virtually complete, besides many shorter fragments.
- These — cavalry, others — infantry
- others yet, navies, upon the black earth
- hold most beautiful. But I, whatever
- you desire.
- To make this clear to anyone
- is most easy.
- Helen, surpassing all men
- in beauty, forsaking
- the best of men
- left and sailed away to Troy.
- not thinking of her child or her dear parents
- led away
- [three missing lines]
- now I think of Anaktoria, who is far away
- I desire to see her lovely gait
- the shining sparkle of her face
- more than the Lydian chariots, and armoured
- foot soldiers.
A virtually complete poem about old age. The line-ends were first published in 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, no. 1787. Most of the rest of the poem was published in 2004 from a 3rd century BC papyrus in the Cologne University collection. The latest reconstruction, by M. L. West, appeared in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 151 (2005), 1-9, and in the Times Literary Supplement on June 21 2005
References in modern literature
Lord Byron wrote the following lines about her in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Stanza XXXIX:
- And onward viewed the mount, not yet forgot,
- The lover's refuge and the Lesbian's grave.
- Dark Sappho! could not verse immortal save
- That breast imbued with such immortal fire?
Charles Baudelaire writes about Sappho in Les Fleurs du Mal.
The Greek poet Odysseas Elytis (20th century AD from Lesbos) admired her in one of his Mikra Epsilon: Such a being, both sensitive and courageous, is not often presented by life. A small-built deep-dark-skinned girl, that did prove to be equally capable of subjugating a rose-flower, interpreting a wave or a nightingale, and saying 'I love you', to fill the globe with emotion.
- Poetarum Lesbiorum fragmenta, E. Lobel, D. L. Page (eds.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, (1955).
- Greek Lyric 1: Sappho and Alcaeus, D. A. Campbell (ed.), Cambridge, Mass., (1982): complete Greek text and English translation, including the references to Sappho in ancient authors. The best starting-point for those new to this poetry.
- "The Poems of Sappho"
- "The Divine Sappho"
- Wiki Classical Dictionary
- The sound of Sappho?
- SAPPHO: The World of Lesbian Poetry
- Sappho from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1867)
- John Ezard, The Guardian, June 24, 2005, "After 2,600 years, the world gains a fourth poem by Sappho"
- Martin West, Times Literary Supplement, 21 June 2005, A new Sappho poem