Sappho’s poetry is considered by many to be the best, the most exquisite ever written in antiquity
Sappho was an archaic Greek poetess who is renowned for her lyrical poetry which, as the name suggests, is sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. She was born on the island of Lesbos in the year 630-BC and died in 570-BC at the age of 60. Legend has it that she was banished to Sicily. On the other hand, there is inferred evidence to suggest that she committed suicide by taking a “Leucadian Leap” (named after the island of Leucas = modern Lefkada on the west coast of the Greek peninsula) in despair over her unrequited love for Phaon the boatman.
Though there is enough controversy about her sexuality, it is thought by many that she was a homosexual, a lesbian. Hints of this are to be found in fragment-1 “Ode to Aphrodite” but, if the story about her Leucadian Leap is true, then it adds to the confusion. This is not made any easier when we are told that she was married to a man called Kerkylas and had daughter by the name of Cleis.
Thus, her sexuality is still debated among modern scholars but, given the time element of 2.50 millennia, it may never be resolved satisfactorily. However what is for sure is that Sappho’s verses contain homo-erotic feelings and, in the words of S. Boehringer “her works clearly celebrate Eros between women.” But of course that does not necessarily mean that she was a homosexual.
Sappho by Charles Mengin (1877)
A feminist of her time, Sappho ran her own Thiasos — a kind of finishing school for young ladies which was in tune with ancient Greek mythology and religion. Every Thiasos was normally dedicated to a divinity and, in Sappho’s case, the patron saint was unsurprisingly Aphrodite (see next section). Every thiasos taught music, singing, dancing and helped metamorphose uncultured little girls into sophisticated young ladies. But Sappho being Sappho also taught them the grace and the art of seduction of men… and women!
This may sound shocking to us today but, in 6-7th century BC Greek culture, not only relationship but also marriage between two women was accepted as normal; as was same-sex relations between adult men and pubescent boys. It is only the advent of the
Christian morality of the Bible that — holding its tenet on the premise that the sexual act should be used for the purpose of procreation only — made same sex relation a sin to shun. With some justification perhaps?! Just imagine what would happen to God’s eternal plan for us to “Go forth and multiply” if everybody started to opt for same sex coupling.
Sappho’s poetry is considered by many to be the best, the most exquisite ever written in antiquity. So brilliant was it that it earned her recognition and fame in her own lifetime and which continued for long years. Indeed more than a century after her death Plato (427-327 BC) was lavishing praise on her writing nicknaming her “Tenth Muse.”
Her language often contains elements of the Aeolic Greek dialect and is peppered with striking traces of the epic vocabulary to be found in Homeric verse. To do proper justice to her style, I quote from Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Her phrasing is concise, direct, and picturesque. She has the ability to stand aloof and judge critically her own ecstasies and grief, and her emotions lose nothing of their force by being recollected in tranquillity.” Indeed her metering is so unique that the term “Sapphic Verse” was coined to describe her style.
As a taster, I quote the first and last stanza of Ode to Aphrodite.
- Deathless Aphrodite, thronged in flowers,
Daughter of Zeus, O terrible enchantress!
With this sorrow, with this anguish, break my spirit,
Lady, no longer.
- Come again to me! O Now! Release me!
End the great pang! And all my heart desireS
Now of fulfilment, fulfil! O Aphrodite,
Fight by my shoulder
Today, save for Aphrodite (Fragment 1) which survives in its entirety, all of her surviving work only exists in fragmented form of the original, the rest having fallen prey to the destructive hands of Father Time; and perhaps general neglect.
There are three reasons why Sappho may have fallen prey to neglect. First the Church of Rome disapproved of her morals and her poetry was, therefore, destroyed on the orders of Pope Gregory VII in Rome and Constantinople in 1073 AD.
The second reason is thought to be that Sappho’s Aeolic Greek was a relatively obscure dialect. Thus by the Roman period when Attic had become the standard dialect of literary writings, readers found it increasingly difficult to understand her Aeolic Greek.
The third reason follows from the second: All of Sappho’s verses were penned on papyrus which was the existing medium of her time. It is probable that her poems were not later transcribed onto parchment in sufficient numbers because of the dwindling demand for them.
Fragments of the Cologne Papyrus Collection
Of the 10,000 lines that Sappho wrote in her lifetime, a mere 650 survive today thanks to the caring work of individuals/groups. Many are the poets and students of poetry who have toiled assiduously to not only translate her work into modern language but also complete the missing portions of the fragments with what might have been.
All the known fragments have now been translated. The last, because it was only discovered in 2004 at Cologne, was published in 2005. This was Sappho’s famous Tithonus poem. Evenson, due to the complexity of reconstituting the missing portion of the fragmented, work is still in progress at prestigious seats of learning across Europe and America. Consequently future PhD students have their work cut out for many years, perhaps decades to come!
I would like to conclude by reproducing Josephine Balmer’s bitter-sweet reconstruction of Tithonus (Fragment 58), hoping it titillates the poetry-loving (and others) readers’ taste-buds into seeking more of Sappho.
The gifts of the Muses are violet-threaded,
rare: follow their path, my daughters, pursue
the lyre’s clear-voiced, enthralling song.
Once I, too, was in tender bud. Now old age
is wrinkling my skin and my hair is turning
from black to grey; my heart is weighed,
knees buckle where I danced like a deer.
* * *
Yet what else can I do but complain?
To be human is to grow old. They say
Eos, the rosy-fingered dawn, whispered
of love to Tithonus, whirled him away
to the very edge of the world, beguiled
by his youth and beauty. Yet still he aged,
still he withered, despite his immortal wife.
* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018