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Sappho has many labels: the muse of thousand poets, the godmother of feminism, the pioneer of sexual freedom. But who was she?
“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness.”
Thus was the ancient poet Sappho dismissed by the Church, according to American writer Daniel Mendelsohn.
Sappho: her very name evokes many a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” response. She’s revered as a gay icon and a feminist trailblazer, but the truth of the matter is that we know very little about her.
Born into an upper-class family around 620BCE on the Greek island of Lesbos (hence “Lesbian”), Sappho is known to have had a few brothers, a husband and a daughter named Cleïs. She was renowned in her own time as “the Poetess” (Plato supposedly called her “the tenth Muse”), but tall poppy syndrome has always been alive and well, and before long her words were being excised or changed to suit the sensibilities of the time(s); but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
What we have of Sappho’s poems are just fragments, the great body of her work lost over the millennia. She’s reported to have written nine goodly-sized volumes of verse that were known across antiquity and were often consulted by scholars in ancient libraries. Over the years, these were lost in fires, floods, wars; and during the fifteenth century, the Church destroyed what manuscripts they owned because they were considered immoral and indecent. Censorship – what treasures have been lost in the name of so-called good taste.
Sappho’s homoerotic verses – poems addressed to women – were the reason for her later vilification, and yet homoeroticism wasn’t anything unusual at the time. Both men and women wrote poetry extolling the virtues of their same sex companions (whether sexual or platonic), and social and religious practices consisted of both single sex and mixed events.
She’s been maligned as decadent and salacious, but this was a poet of rare sensitivity. Before her, poetry was primarily about gods, goddesses, wars and heroes. Sappho brought poetry into the realms of personal experience.
The most famous of her extant poetry is the “phainetai moi”, known as Fragment 31. Often quoted, variously interpreted, it has influenced a huge assortment of poets over thousands of years.
He seems an equal of the gods,
That man who sits across from you
And your sweet speaking, being near,
And that seductive laugh, which sets
the heart to flutter in my chest
For when I glance your way, my words
Silence breaks my tongue and subtle
fire streams beneath my skin,
I can’t see with my eyes, or hear
through buzzing ears.
Sweat runs down, a shiver shakes
Me deep – I feel as pale as grass:
As close to death as that, and green,
Is how I seem.
(Translation by Richard Welland Crowell)
The description of the physical manifestations of love is rather brilliant. The fire under the skin, the sweating and shaking, the rapid heartbeat. You can’t but marvel at the poet’s skill. The words are simple yet passionately compelling, capturing that happy-sad turmoil of love.
Okay, so it appears to be about a woman watching the woman she loves with a man. There seems little doubt that there is a measure of jealousy in her observation – she remains unseen, unheard, indeed she’s rendered speechless; but the poem can also be read in a different light.
Some scholars feel the fragment may have been part of a wedding song, and it’s notable that in her day, Sappho’s poems were sung, usually accompanied by a lyre. The poet was writing an incantation for a public audience – writing a love song, much as songwriters write to this day.
Many of Sappho’s poems concern love. Fragment 1, for instance, Hymn to Aphrodite, is an anguished plea to the goddess of love to help the poet win her beloved. It’s not clear whether the beloved is a man or a woman.
In Fragment 105c, Sappho compares her paramour with a delicate flower easily crushed.
O my mountain hyacinth
What shepherds trod upon you
With clumsy, rustic foot?
Now you are a broken seal:
A scarlet stain upon the earth.
(Translation by Anita George)
It’s a breathtaking work, perhaps made all the more powerful by the forced brevity of fragmentation.
Over the centuries she’s been maligned as decadent and salacious – wowsers really do wield such extraordinary power – but this was a poet of rare sensitivity.
To discover that Sappho may have led a group of women and girls in the worship of Aphrodite muddies the waters. Some think this group was akin to a finishing school where girls were prepared for marriage. So on the one hand, Sappho could be despairing that her beloved is so elusive; on the other hand, perhaps her poems are simply songs written with the religious or ritual purpose of preparing girls for their role as wives.
The whole “lesbian” thing is another vexed issue. As mentioned, homoeroticism in ancient Greece wasn’t really a big deal, and apart from signifying a person from Lesbos, the word “lesbian” apparently had another meaning. Mendelsohn points out that ancient Greeks associated “lesbians” with fellatio and Sappho was vilified as having a rampant sexual appetite for men.
Speculation about her sexuality will no doubt continue, but in the end does it matter? We know Sappho from what remains of her poetry. Is it really important to know whether the subjects of her poems were men or women? The fact that she described the despair of unrequited love, the agony of longing, the sleeplessness and the wretchedness should be enough. Can’t we marvel at the art and leave the private life alone?
Sappho brought poetry into the realms of personal experience. Before her, poetry was primarily about gods, goddesses, wars and heroes. Sappho’s poems are about emotions: they’re reflective; they describe love and yearning. They’re really quite something.
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Her lyrical four-line stanzas are called Sapphic stanzas. There’s a particular metrical form to a Sapphic stanza in the ancient Greek. The first three lines usually contain eleven syllables, the last line just five.
Translations are always challenging, and when you consider that Sappho wrote in Aeolic Greek, essentially an ancient Greek dialect, and that we have only fragments of her work left, you get an idea of the difficulties facing translators. Where do the line breaks go? Which syllables should be stressed? What words best mirror the poet’s original lines? How do you know whether you in fact have the original lines, given transcribing errors and editorial interference over centuries? How do you capture the lyricism without sacrificing the metre and so on? Gives you new respect for translators.
There’s still much we can savour from the ancients. Sappho must have had an inkling of this when she wrote:
You may forget but let me tell you this:
Someone in some future time will think of us.