About the Great Poet Sappho

By Christopher Xenopoulos Janus

Sappho, one of the world's greatest poets whom many scholars compare to Homer, lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesvos in Greece, around 600 BC.

In 1943, I was in Mytilene on United States State Department business and I used the occasion to find what I could about Sappho. I was introduced to a group called the Sappho Society. They came to my hotel with many articles and books about her and at the same time they brought me several samples of the soap which Mytilene is noted for.

Little is known about the life of Sappho, but her work has been acclaimed from her own time to the present day. Her contemporary, Athenian statesman Solon, is said to have expressed a wish to memorize a song of hers and die, and the fifth-century philosopher Plato termed her the tenth Muse. Sappho's poems were composed for singing to the lyre.

In the third century BC, the library at Alexandria contained nine volumes of her verse, but only a few fragments have survived, most of them on papyrus scraps discovered in ancient rubbish heaps in Egypt, or from potsherds and mummy wrappings. Such discoveries continue to be made; a third­century CE manuscript was found in June 2005. A couple of poems were preserved by literary critics, such as Longinus, who, in his first-century treatise On the Sublime, reproduced a Sappho lyric as an example of sublimity.

Sappho is among the first poets to represent emotional inferiority. Her poems powerfully evoke sensations of erotic longing, with woman as not only the object but also the agent of desire.

The first-person speaker in her poems, named "Sappho," celebrates friendship, love, song, motherhood, and the pleasures of sunlight, bathing, dancing, wine, beautiful clothes, flowers, and sexual intimacy. She has a close relationship with Aphrodite, goddess of love. She loves beauty in all things, from the caress of sunlight to a woman's face, and she famously declares that the most beautiful thing on earth is not what most people think is beautiful but rather "whatever one loves." The poems describe relationships between women, several of whom are named, including Gongyla, Atthis, and Anaktoria. Sappho also wrote marriage songs and songs in praise of the gods.

To what extent the first­person female speaker represents the poet's own experiences has been the subject of long and fruitless debate. What is indisputable is that Sappho's poems represent erotic love between women as productive of gamut of emotions, ranging from ecstasy in togetherness to anguish in separation.

Sappho's contemporary, Lesvian poet Alkaios (or Alcaeus), writes of male-male desire with similar ease, as do several Greek male poets thereafter.

Because of her enormous reputation, there was much speculation about Sappho's life in the centuries immediately following her death. Around the third century BC, legends began circulating that she had fallen hopelessly in love with a younger man, and had subsequently, committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea.

There is no historical evidence for this legend, cemented into tradition by first-century Roman poet Ovid, or for speculation over the centuries that she was, variously, a courtesan, a schoolteacher, a priestess, a chaste widow, or a nymphomaniac.

More important is Sappho's abiding influence on European literature, especially on lyric poetry. First-century BC Roman poets Gaius Valerius Catullus and Horace praised her work, and Catullus wrote an imitation of one of her most famous poems turning female-female desire into male-female desire.

Although her poems nearly disappeared during the Middle Ages, her reputation remained. In the fourteenth century, Giovanni Boccaccio included her in his catalog of famous women. In the late Renaissance, her work was rediscovered and translated into modern languages like French and English. Most translators expressed discomfort with the female-female desire her poems represent, and several heterosexualized the poems by changing the female beloved to a male.

(Posting date 11 June 2008)

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