Sappho of Lesbos

Definition

by
published on 02 August 2014
Sappho (John William Godward)

Sappho of Lesbos (c. 620-570 BCE) was a lyric poet whose work was so popular in ancient Greece, and beyond, that she was  honored in statuary and praised by figures such as Solon and Plato. Very little is known of her life and of the nine volumes of her work which were widely read in antiquity only fragments survive. Contrary to popular opinion on the subject, her works were not destroyed by closed-minded Christians seeking to suppress lesbian love poetry but were lost simply through time and circumstance. Sappho wrote in the Aeolic Greek dialect which was difficult for Latin writers, well versed in Attic and Homeric Greek, to translate. They were aware that once there had existed a highly praised female poet from the works of others, and they preserved those poems of Sappho's which others had copied, but they did not copy others simply because they did not know her dialect. Some kind of written works were composed concerning her during her lifetime or shortly after because the outline of her life was known by later writers but, aside from inscriptions such as the Parian Marble (a history of certain events in Greece between 1582-299 BCE) it is not known what these works were. Her name has leant itself to `lesbian' and `Sapphic', both relating to homosexual women, because of her extant poetry which concerns itself with romantic love between women.

Sappho's Life

Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos, Greece, to an aristocratic family. While scholars regularly claim that her wealth allowed her to live a life of her own choosing, this cannot be supported. Most women of wealthy families married according to the traditions and customs of their city-states and Sappho's wealth would not have made her immune to the expectations of her family and society. Most likely, she was able to live as she pleased because of the high esteem in which women were held on Lesbos and Sappho's own unique personality. The historian Wendy Slatkin writes:

Considering the severe restrictions on women's lives, their inability to move freely in society, conduct business, or acquire any type of non-domestic training, it is not surprising to find that no names of important [female] artists have come down to us from the classical era. Only the poet Sappho received high praise from the Greeks; Plato referred to her as the twelfth Muse. Significantly, she came not from Athens or Sparta but from Lesbos, an island whose culture incorporated a high regard for women (42).

She is said to have operated a school for girls on Lesbos but this seems to be a later invention of the 19th century CE which confused her with her protégée Damophila who ran a girl's school in Pamphylia. All that is known of her life is that she was raised learning to play the lyre and came to compose songs, may have been married to a man at some point who died, may have had a daughter named Cleis (named after Sappho's mother), had three brothers (Erigyius, Charaxus, and Larichus), came from a well-to-do family, was exiled twice to Sicily because of her political views, and was famous enough to have statues raised in her honor and, later, coins minted with her name and image on them. Author Vicki Leon writes:

Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, proudly issued Sappho coins; some have been found that date to the third century A.D. - nine hundred years after the poet's death. Sappho (or, rather, her fame) cornered the ancient equivalent of the T-shirt concession too: her portrait and name appear on vases, bronzes, and, later, much Roman art (151).

She is described in ancient texts as being short in stature and dark in complexion. A romantic interest in women is evident from her poetry but most scholars advise against reading her works biographically. In the same way that poets through the ages have written works expressing a persona not their own, so too could Sappho have composed her poems. The intimacy and depth of feeling would seem to suggest that Sappho was lesbian but that does not mean she was. Homer's description of battle and the dust and blood before Troy does not mean he was a participant; only that he was a good writer. The scholar Sir Richard Livingstone comments on this, writing:

Greek simplicity recalls us to the central interests of the human heart. Greek truthfulness is a challenge to see the world as it is and shun the emptiness of mere music, the falsities of rhetoric or sentiment, the incompleteness of writers who, instead of seeing life as a whole, ignore or emphasize a part of it as their own sympathies dictate (286).

While it is possible, then, that Sappho was a lesbian, it is equally possible that she wrote on many subjects but that her works expressing lesbian love are the ones that have survived most intact.  

Sappho's Poetry

Those works which are extant are deeply personal reflections on romantic love, desire, and loss. Livingstone writes, "In life, human beings return from a distracting variety of interests to a few simple things; or, if they do not return, run the risk of losing their souls. In literature, which is the shadow of life, they need to do the same" (259). Sappho seems to have understood this clearly and focused her work on the most basic and most enduring human emotions. The simplicity of construction in her work concentrates the reader's attention on the emotional moment itself and, like all great poetry, creates an experience which is easily recognizable. One example of this is her poem, "I Have Not Had One Word From Her" (a title given from the first line of the piece. The original title is unknown):

I have not had one word from her

Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept

a great deal; she said to me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."

I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love

"If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared

"all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck

"myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them

"while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song."

The intimacy and honesty of this poem is characteristic of all Sappho's surviving work. She was not only a brilliantly honest poet, however, but also a virtuoso of technique. She invented a completely new meter for poetry, now known as Sapphic Meter or the Sapphic Stanza which consists of three lines of eleven beats and a concluding line of five. The following poem, now known as `Please', is an example of this (although the present translation does not preserve the steady eleven beats of the first three lines of each stanza):

Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.

Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus-born goddess,
Whom I now beseech

Never to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.

Her poetry would have been sung to the accompaniment of the lyre (which is how lyric poetry gets its name) and performed publicly at events and private dinners. A famous story related by Stobaeus (5th century CE), who collected such ancient anecdotes, claims that, "Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho's over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said: `So that I may learn it, then die'." (Florilegium 3.29.58). Whether the story is true is not as important as what it says about Sappho's poetry. Solon was considered one of the wisest men who ever lived and was counted among the Seven Sages of Greece. He was known for teaching the precept "moderation in everything" and so for him to react so emotionally in this anecdote to Sappho's song is significant in that even one so wise and moderate could be so deeply moved that he would desire nothing more after learning the song.

Death & Legacy

The manner of Sappho's death is unknown. The Athenian playwright Menander (c. 341-29 BCE) started the legend that she committed suicide by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs over the unrequited love of a ferryman named Phaon. He writes:

...they say that Sappho was the first,

hunting down the proud Phaon,

to throw herself, in her goading desire, from the rock

that shines from afar.

This seems highly unlikely and has been rejected by historians in the present day and as far back as the Greek writer Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE). The Leucadian cliff (also known as Cape Leukas on the island of Lefkada) was a famous "lover's leap" following a story in which Aphrodite flung herself into the sea while mourning the dead Adonis. Menander could have been simply making fun of romantic love by having a woman known for her lesbian love poetry kill herself over a man. Interestingly, Artemisia I of Caria (c. 480 BCE), another strong woman of note, was also said to have committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea and, according to some sources, from the same spot. Artemisia's suicide story has also been discredited. Sappho seems to have lived into old age and died of natural causes but this, like most of the events of her life, is far from certain.

What is clear is that she was a poet of immense talent whose work made her famous. Her poetry was so popular, according to Leon, that "not only was her work sung, taught, and quoted - but the very phrases she coined, from `love, that loosener of limbs' to `more golden than gold', entered the Greek language and were used so much they eventually became clichés" (150). She was a much sought-after performer and her compositions continued to be sung and admired long after her death. She referred to her poetry as her "immortal daughters" and so they continue to be as readers 2,000 years after their creation continue to respond to them with the same enthusiasm they inspired when they were first written.



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Sappho of Lesbos Books

 

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Timeline

  • c. 620 BCE - c. 570 BCE
    Life of Sappho of Lesbos.

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