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Sappho

Sappho

Sappho (ca. 625-570 B.C.), a Greek lyric poet, was the greatest female poet of antiquity. Her vivid, emotional manner of writing influenced poets through the ages, and her special quality of intimacy has great appeal to modern poetic tastes.

The poetry of Sappho epitomizes a style of writing evolved during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. At that time the main thrust of Greek poetry turned away from the epic form, which was concerned mainly with telling the stories of heroes and gods, utilizing the traditional and highly formulaic dactylic hexameter. The poets of the 7th and 6th centuries wrote choral songs, which were sung and danced by a choir, and solo songs, in which the poet was accompanied by a lyre or flutelike instrument. Doubtless these types of composition had existed side by side with the epic tradition, but after 700 B.C. poets refined the techniques of the choral and solo song, employing a variety of meters and a wide range of subject matter. Among the most prominent features of this kind of poetry were the infusion of the poet's personality and a concentration on his own inner feelings and motivations. No poet of this period displays the personal element more than Sappho.

Her Life

Despite the highly personal tone of her poetry, Sappho gives very few details of her life. She was born either in the town of Eresus or in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the northern Aegean Sea and lived her life in Mytilene. She is said to have married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and she herself mentions a daughter, Cleis. Apparently Sappho came from one of the leading noble families in Mytilene, and, although she herself never mentions politics, tradition has it that her family was briefly exiled to Sicily shortly after 600 B.C.

Sappho had three brothers: Larichus, who served as a wine bearer in the town hall of Mytilene (an honor reserved for youths of good family); Charaxus, a merchant, whom Sappho scolds in her poetry for loving a prostitute in Egypt; and Eurygyus. There is some evidence that she lived to a fairly old age. Tradition relates that she was not beautiful but "small and dark." A more charming description is a one-line fragment from another Aeolian poet, Alcaeus: "Violethaired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho." The legend that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian Rock out of love for a young man named Phaon is one of many fictitious stories about her.

Her Works

We can only estimate how much Sappho actually wrote, but her output must have been large because her works were collected in nine books (arranged according to meter) in the 3d century B.C. Although she enjoyed great popularity in antiquity, changes in literary fashion, the general decline of knowledge in the early Middle Ages, and Christian distaste for a poet who was considered vile resulted in the loss of most of her poetry. Book 1 alone contained 1,320 lines; yet a total of fewer than 1,000 lines survive, many of them preserved by ancient grammarians citing peculiarities of the Aeolian dialect. Since the late 19th century many new fragments have been recovered from papyrus finds in Egypt.

Except for a few wedding songs and some narrative poems, most of what remains of Sappho's poetry may be termed "occasional pieces," addressed to some person or to herself, very personal in content and manner. The subject is nearly always love and the attendant emotions—affection, passion, hatred, and jealousy—which Sappho felt toward the young girls who made up her "circle" or her rivals in love. Much scholarly controversy rages over the relationship between Sappho and the women about whom she wrote. On the one hand, it has been maintained that she was a corrupter of girls and instructed them in homosexual practices; on the other hand, it is said that she headed a kind of polite "finishing school" which prepared young ladies for marriage or that she was the leader of a thiasos (religious association), sacred to Aphrodite, in which girls were taught singing and other fine arts, with no hint of sexual irregularity. The precise nature of this circle of young women remains unclear. From the poems themselves it is clear that Sappho associated with girls, some of whom came from long distances, to whom and about whom she wrote poems detailing her frankly erotic feelings toward them.

Sappho's poetry is characterized by its depth of feeling and delicacy and grace of style. She wrote in her native Aeolian dialect, using ordinary vocabulary; her thoughts are expressed simply and unrhetorically but with exquisite care. Her grace and charm together with her technical skill in handling language and meter are most fully realized in the several longer fragments which have survived. One poem, "He appears to me like a god," a masterpiece of erotic lyric poetry, was closely imitated by the Roman poet Catullus over 500 years later and suggests the esteem in which the ancients held Sappho. Plato called her "the tenth Muse."

Further Reading

An excellent modern translation of Sappho with Greek text and notes is Willis Barnstone, Sappho (1965). The best general account in English of Sappho's life and poetry is Sir Cecil M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcam to Simonides (1936; rev. ed. 1961). A more detailed analysis of Sappho's works is Denys L. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (1955; rev. ed. 1959). □

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Sappho

Sappho (săf´ō), fl. early 6th cent. BC, greatest of the early Greek lyric poets (Plato calls her "the tenth Muse" ), b. Mytilene on Lesbos. Facts about her life are scant. She was an aristocrat, who wrote poetry for her circle of friends, mostly but not exclusively women, and like other poets of her era, she was most likely a musician and a performer. She may have had a daughter. The term lesbian (see homosexuality), her presumed sexual orientation, is derived from the name of her island home, Lesbos. The ancients had seven or nine books of her poetry (the first book originally consisted of 330 Sapphic stanzas; named for her, it consists of three long lines followed by one short line). Only fragments of her verse survive; the longest (seven stanzas) is an invocation to Aphrodite asking her to help the poet in her relation with a beloved woman. The most recently discovered, the five-stanza "Brothers Poem," was found in 2012. She wrote in Aeolic dialect in a great many meters. Her verse is a classic example of the love lyric, and is characterized by her passionate love of women, a love of nature, a direct simplicity, and perfect control of meter. She influenced many later poets, e.g., Catullus, Ovid, and Swinburne.

See translations by M. Barnard (1962), W. Barnstone (1965), G. Davenport (1965, 1980, 1995), S. Q. Groden (1967), P. Roche (1999), A. Carson (2002), S. Lombardo (2002), and D. J. Raynor (2014); studies by D. L. Page (1965, repr. 1979) and A. P. Burnett (1955, repr. 1983).

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Sappho

Sappho (early 7th century bc), Greek lyric poet who lived on Lesbos. The centre of a circle of women on her native island of Lesbos, she mainly wrote love poems in her local dialect (the term sapphics is used for verse in a metre associated with her). Many of her poems express her affection and love for women, and have given rise to her association with female homosexuality, from which the words lesbian and sapphic in this sense derive.

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Sappho

Sappho Greek poet who was writing during the early 6th century bc. Her passionate love poetry, written on the island of Lesbos (from which the word ‘lesbian’ derives) was regarded by Plato as the expression of “the tenth Muse”.

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Sappho

Sappho •Sappho • nympho • info • boffo •Castel Gandolfobuffo, Truffaut

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Sappho

Sappho

BORN: Between 630 and 612 bce, Lesbos, Greece

DIED: c. 570 bce, Lesbos, Greece

NATIONALITY: Greek

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:
Sappho: A Garland; the Poems and Fragments of Sappho (1993)

Overview

Regarded by ancient commentators as the equal of Homer, the ancient Greek poet Sappho expressed human emotions with honesty, courage, and skill. Sappho has been the subject of controversy, and most of her work has been lost over the centuries or deliberately destroyed. It is clear from the existing verses, however, that she deserved her reputation, and her work warrants continued study and appreciation.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Native of Lesbos Very few details of Sappho's life survive, and many classicists note that these accounts have

been thoroughly interwoven with legend, myth, and supposition. The only standard—but unreliable—source of information about Sappho is the Suidas, a Greek lexicon compiled at around the end of the tenth century. Based on earlier lexicons, scholarly commentaries, and excerpts from the works of historians, grammarians, and biographers, the Suidas records that Sappho was a native of Lesbos, an island northeast of Athens in the Aegean Sea, and that she was probably born in either the city of Eresus or Mytilene. Her father's name is given as Scamandronymus and her mother's as Cleis. Evidence also suggests that Sappho had three brothers and that her family belonged to the upper class. According to traditional accounts, she lived briefly in Sicily around 600 bce, having been forced into exile by political strife on Lesbos.

After returning to her homeland, Sappho married a wealthy man named Cercylas, had a daughter named Cleis, and spent the rest of her life in Mytilene. There she organized and ran a thiasos, or academy for unmarried young women. The school was devoted to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, where beauty and grace were held as the highest values. Ancient commentary attests that this thiasos ranked as one of the best, and Sappho enjoyed great renown as its dedicated teacher and spiritual leader. Some legends of Sappho's life indicate that she lived to old age, but others relate that she fell hopelessly in love with Phaon, a young sailor, and, disappointed by their failed love affair, leaped to her death from a high cliff—a story that has been largely discredited by modern scholars.

The Tenth Muse In antiquity, Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as “the Poetess,” just as Homer was called “the Poet.” Plato hailed her as “the tenth Muse,” and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary. Her principal work consisted of nine books, which the grammarians of Alexandria arranged according to meter. The earliest surviving texts date from the third century bce Because the first book contained 1,320 lines, it can be surmised that Sappho left approximately 12,000 lines, 700 of which have survived, pieced together from several sources. Only one complete poem remains, quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the rest ranging in completeness from several full lines to one word. Many of the lines lack beginning, middle, or end because they have survived on mummy wrapping in Egyptian tombs, the papyrus having been ripped crosswise of the roll, lengthwise of the poem. The long rolls of papyrus, made from the stalks of a water plant, also survived in battered condition in the dry Egyptian climate in garbage dumps and as stuffing in the mouths of mummified crocodiles.

In 1898 knowledge of Sappho's works increased dramatically when scholars discovered third-century bce papyri containing additional verse fragments. In 1914 archaeologists excavating cemeteries in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, unearthed papier-mache coffins composed of scraps of paper containing fragments of literary writings, including some by Sappho. These findings sparked renewed interest in Sappho and inspired new critical studies of her texts.

Scandalous Love Poet Sappho's works have been admired for their stylistic merit from her own time onward, and while her literary merit remains secure, Sappho's personal reputation has been controversial even to the point of sometimes overshadowing her status as a poet. Her passionate verses and attitudes toward love have attracted a great deal of attention and garnered rumors about her sexual preference. In fact, the opinion that Sappho's sexual orientation was lesbian is so entrenched that the term itself is derived from the name of her homeland.

Works in Literary Context

Lyric Poetry Sappho wrote poetry at a time when Greek literature was dominated by the influence of Homer and the epic narrative. Yet the tradition of lyric poetry was even older and had played an important part in Greek history. During Sappho's time, lyric poetry enjoyed a successful revival. Sappho seems to have been not only familiar with Homer but also with the poets Terpander and Alcaeus, both from Mytilene, and Archilochus, a poet from the nearby island of Paros. As was typical of Greek lyric poetry in general, Sappho's verses were highly personal, conveying deeply felt emotion in a simple, translucent style. Her emphasis was on emotion, on subjective experience, and on the individual.

Sappho's Love Songs Music, too, as in all early Greek lyric poetry, served an important function in her works: Most of Sappho's poems are monodies, songs composed for solo singers and intended to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Much of Sappho's poetry commemorated a certain event taking place in her thiasos, but she also composed narrative poetry, hymns, and epithalamia, or marriage songs. Sources from antiquity have recorded that Sappho was especially famous for the latter and that she was a frequent guest at weddings where she would sing a song composed especially for the couple. Scholars contend that Sappho's epithalamia raised this ancient folk tradition to a new level of artistic excellence.

Highly Personal Voice Most commentators regard her eloquence, the individual voice revealine itself and com-unicating with the reader, as the hallmark of Sappho's style. The speaker in the poems, generally assumed to be Sappho herself, displays a wide range of emotion, from tender protectiveness and friendship to erotic longing and jealousy; from playful chiding of her pupils to extreme anger toward those who have proven disloyal; and outright vilification of the headmistress of a rival thiasos. Scholars also praise Sappho's ability to analyze her feelings even as she is enacting them, sacrificing none of the immediacy and intensity of the moment but demonstrating remarkable insight into her own situation.commentators emphasize, however, that the spontaneous tone of Sappho's verse is deliberate rather than accidental.

Sapphic Meter Although she employed a less refined language, Sappho's poetry evinces an innate verbal elegance, the result of her writing in the melodic Aeolic dialect and of her development of the graceful Sapphic meter. Consisting of four lines, the Sapphic verse form calls for three lines of eleven syllables each and a fourth line of five syllables. This construction dictates the use of three spondees (a foot composed of two accented syllables) in each line, with variations allowed in the fourth and eleventh syllables of the first three lines, and in the final syllable of the fourth line. It is unknown whether Sappho invented the meter that bears her name, but she probably perfected and popularized it; thus, it clearly came to be connected with her.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Sappho's famous contemporaries include:

Nebuchadrezzar II (630–562 bce): The Babylonian king who plays a significant part in the biblical Book of Daniel, Nebuchadrezzar II is also remembered for the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Solon (638–558 bce): Credited with laying the foundations of Athenian democracy, Solon's reforms were brought about by a crisis in the Athenian city-state during the 590s. Solon opened up Athenian politics to a wider range of citizens and strengthened the city's economic and social structures.

Zedekiah (sixth century bce): The last king of Judah, Zedekiah was installed by Nebuchadnezzar II as a puppet ruler but led his country in revolt against Babylon.

Anaximander (610–546 bce): A Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander was one of the first Greek thinkers to place primary importance on science and mathematics; his teachings would bear fruit in his protégé Pythagoras, who would espouse a philosophy that “all was number.”

Works in Critical Context

Many critics consider Sappho the greatest female poet of the classical world and the most accomplished and influential of a group of lyric poets who were active in Greece between 650 bce and 450 bce—a period often designated the Lyric Age of Greece. Although little remains of her work, Sappho's poetry has been acclaimed since antiquity for its emotional intensity, directness, simplicity, and revealing personal tone. It has also been the subject of much critical controversy, however, with various scholars debating the precise nature of the eroticism typical of Sappho's verses.

Influential Muse Throughout the centuries, Sappho has remained a fascinating subject for poets, novelists, dramatists, and biographers. David M. Robinson claimed, “[N]early every thought in her fragments … has been borrowed or adapted by some ancient Greek or Roman poet or some modern poet in English, Italian, French, German, or modern Greek.” Despite the fact that only a minuscule portion of Sappho's canon remains, fragments of her verses continue to have a powerful effect on readers and critics alike. Guy Davenport, one of Sappho's most prominent translators, remarked that “many of the fragments are mere words and phrases, but they were once a poem and, like broken statuary, are strangely articulate in their ruin.”

Willis Barnstone, another eminent translator of Sappho's works, observed that “there is no veil between poet and reader…. Sappho makes the lyric poem a refined and precise instrument for revealing her personal and intense experience of life.” For example, unlike her literary counterparts, who mainly depict their immediate natural surroundings, Sappho concentrates instead on how such scenes affect her emotionally and on the associations it calls forth in her. She uses the same direct and personal tone in frankly portraying her attraction to some of the young women in her thiasos. While some readers have lauded her passion, eroticism, and lack of self-consciousness, others have faulted it as grossly indelicate.

Modern Reputation In the nineteenth century, Sappho emerged as the symbol of passion, especially among the Romantics. In 1816 the German classicist Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker published “Sappho von einem herr-schenden Vorurtheil befreit,” an essay that laid to rest controversies surrounding Sappho's personal life and redirected the focus of criticism to her works. During the last two centuries, scholars have concentrated on analyzing the elements of Sappho's style, and studies by such critics as John Addington Symonds, C. M. Bowra, and Hilda Doolittle, among others, now complement the exegeses of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and Longinus, who, centuries earlier, acknowledged the extraordinary qualities in Sappho's poetry. Yet all assessments of her work remain intrinsically inconclusive because so few of her poems survive. Addressing this difficulty, Peter Green commented that “all study of [Sappho's] work is, must be, a frantic raking over the scrapheap whence some verbal splinter may shine out golden before the darkness closes in once more.” As scholarly speculation about the circumstances surrounding Sappho's poetry continues, so does critical admiration and appreciation. Critics unanimously praise Sappho's sincerity, intensity, simple yet effective style, and ability to communicate intimately with the reader. Sappho, as Bowra concludes, “stands in her own right as the most gifted woman who has ever written poetry.”

Responses to Literature

  1. In small groups, read several of Sappho's poems aloud. Then discuss the author's attitudes toward love and intimacy.
  2. Express Sappho's veneration of friendship with other women, particularly her daughter.
  3. comment on Sappho's influence on Catullus, Ovid, and other Roman poets.
  4. Select at least two or three translations of Sappho's poem “Hymn to Aphrodite” and compare the translations. Note the differences in word choice and discuss the varying connotations that are created with different translations.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Sappho's love poetry was part of a movement in ancient poetry that began in the sixth century bce in which attention was turned away from heroic epics and focused on images and metaphors of love. Here are some other works with the same theme:

Love's Season (sixth century bce), a poem by Ibykos. A transitional work, this love poem does not focus on personal experience but rather describes the actions of the god Aphrodite (here called Kypris) and her son Eros, combining erotic and mythical themes.

Eclogue II (42–35 bce), a poem by Virgil. The Romans carried forward the tradition of Greek love poetry, as in this, one of the famous Roman poet's well-known bucolic poems, the story of unrequited love between two shepherd boys, a not uncommon theme in ancient poetry.

“Negress” (270 bce), a poem by Asklepiades. Third-century Alexandria was as cosmopolitan as modern-day Manhattan, with people of many different races and creeds intermingling freely. In this love poem, Asklepiades considers his love for an African woman, rejecting the traditional ancient Greek prejudice against dark skin, turning it into a positive attribute.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bowie, Angus M. The Poetic Dialect of Sappho andAlcaeus. New York: Ayer Co., 1981.

Doolittle, Hilda (H. D.). Notes on Thought and Vision & The Wise Sappho. Ed. Anne Janowitz. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1982.

Duban, Jeffrey M. Ancient and Modern Images of Sappho. Lanham, Mich.: University Press of America, 1983.

Grahn, Judy. The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1985.

“Hymn to Aphrodite.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Anne Marie Hacht. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale, 2004.

“Lepidopterology.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Anne Marie Hacht. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Snyder, Jane McIntosh. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

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Sappho

Sappho

Circa 620-Circa 550 b.c.e.

Poet

Sources

Relationship . Known as the Tenth Muse, Sappho was the most celebrated woman poet of the ancient world. Born in Mytilene on Lesbos, her early exile in Sicily is evidence of the politically volatile world in which she lived; yet, it is remarkable that politics are almost entirely absent from her surviving work, particularly in view of their importance in the poetry of her contemporary Mytilinean, Alcaeus. Instead, her focus is on her relationships with her brother, daughter (for she was evidently married), and female companions. The nature of her relationship with these last has been the subject of much speculation, so that the term “Lesbian” has acquired (at least in modern times) a more than geographical significance. By any reckoning her expressed feelings towards her young friends was passionate and clearly erotic rather than maternal; and in fact a fragmentary parchment found early in the twentieth century seems to show that sexual relationships with them were celebrated in her poetry. It would, however, be naive to conclude that such poems necessarily recorded the historical truth, or even to assume that the modes of sexuality practiced on Lesbos correspond to modern categories (several of Sappho’s poems were celebratory wedding songs for her companions). One ancient story has her committing suicide for the love of a man.

Extant Work . There is only one complete surviving poem of Sappho, which takes the form of an address to Aphrodite, asking for her help in the pursuit of a girl. A large fragment of another poem describes with unprecedented vividness her feelings of helplessness and panic in the presence of a girl she loves. From this sort of evidence, then, it would seem that much of her poetry was devoted to the expression of feelings. However, mythological scenes also interested her, and one papyrus fragment describes with a rich sensuality the details of the wedding celebration of Hector and Andromache; but even here what some critics have described as the poet’s “feminine qualities” are on display.

Sources

Mary R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

William Seaton, “Sappho,” in Anicent Greek Authors, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 176, edited by Ward W. Briggs (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Detroit: Gale Research, 1997), pp. 347-350.

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Sappho

Sappho

c. 625 b.c.e.–c. 570 b.c.e.

Lyric poet

Leader in Music for Young Women.

Sappho was one of the most important lyric poets of the Archaic Period (sixth century b.c.e.). Little is known about her life, and only a small portion of her large output of work survives. She was born at Mytilene (or Eresus) on the island of Lesbos around 625 b.c.e. The ancient historian Strabo said that she was a contemporary of Alcaeus, another well-respected poet from Lesbos; a vase-painting, dating to about 480, depicts the two poets standing together, both holding the barbitos (low-pitched lyre) in their hands. The names of Sappho's family are known; she was married to wealthy Cercolas of Andros, and had a daughter, Cleis. Her family may have led a dangerously active political life, because Sappho mentioned exile in one of her poems, and a marble inscription reported that she spent her exile in Sicily sometime between 604–596. Over the centuries Sappho has been described as a school leader, chorus organizer, and a leader of a thiasos (a group of young women devoted to Aphrodite and the Muses), but the evidence for these occupations is scant. The most important information about Sappho comes from her poetry. She wrote choral poetry as well as monodic songs, and epithalamia ("wedding songs"). The subject of her poetry was young women; she wrote for them, and about them, in often erotic style, describing women's desires, passions, loves, and anguish. Like many other lyric poets, Sappho composed choruses for young girls, parthenoi, and most likely trained her chorus and accompanied them on the lyre during their public performance. Her work was considered so valuable that the Alexandrians made collection of her poems in nine books, which survived through most of the Hellenistic and Roman periods; parts were still directly known in Byzantium in the twelfth century c.e. In the books, her poems are arranged by meter. She composed in dactylic pentameter, hexameter, mixed meter, and a type of meter that is named for her: the Sapphic stanza. The fragments of her poems reveal language that is witty, passionate, and melodious; "Fragment One," Sappho's only complete poem, was admired by Dionysius of Halicarnassus for her melodic use of vowels and consonants, sense of euphony, and charm. Other readers emphasized the atmosphere of magic and incantation, the exotic settings, and the musicality of her lyrics.

sources

Elaine Fantham, Helene Foley, eds., et al., Women in the Classical World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

André Lardinois, "Subject and Circumstances in Sappho's Poetry," in Transactions of the American Philological Association 124 (1994): 57–84.

Diane Rayor, Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

Jane McIntosh Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989).

Eva Stehle Stigers, "Sappho's Private World," in Reflections of Women in Antiquity. Ed. Helene Foley (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1981): 45–61.

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Sappho

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