Sappho c. 625–570 BCE
c. 625–570 bce
Sappho, one of the world's greatest poets, lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in Greece, around 600 bce. Little is known of her life, 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 then 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 bce, 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 third-century ce manuscript was found in June 2005. A couple of poems were preserved by literary critics, such as Longinus, who, in his first-century ce treatise On the Sublime, reproduced a Sappho lyric as an example of sublimity.
Sappho is among the first poets to represent emotional interiority. 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 first-person 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 a gamut of emotions, ranging from ecstasy in togetherness to anguish in separation. There is a remarkable absence of embarrassment, guilt, or shame with regard to a woman's desire for many different women, and also no sense of social persecution of this desire. Sappho's contemporary, Lesbian 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 bce, 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 speculations 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 bce 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. Others retained the female characters but explained away the desire as friendly affection.
Some poets, however, paid homage to her erotic muse. John Donne (1572–1631), in his poem "Sappho to Philaenis," offers a detailed account and a defense of sexual pleasure between women. Romantic poets, such as Lord Byron (1788–1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), and John Keats (1795–1821), whose work shapes the modern lyric tradition, read Sappho, and were inspired both by their ideas of her unconventional life and by the intensity of her songs. Several poets experimented with the stanza she invented, called the Sapphic stanza.
Sappho served as a model for women writers in particular. In the third century bce, Nossis, an Italian woman poet, wrote an epigram in her honor; in the fourteenth century, proto-feminist writer Christine de Pizan eulogized her as an example of female wisdom and achievement. From the eighteenth century onwards, several women chose the pen name Sappho, and almost every woman writer was praised as a Sappho. Such were "the French Sappho," novelist Madeleine de Scudery (1607–1701), and "the English Sappho," poet Katherine Phillips (1631–1664), whose best poems are romantic effusions addressed to her female friends.
Sappho's name had always been associated with desire between women, and by the eighteenth century the word Lesbian, along with its original meaning of an inhabitant of Lesbos, came also to mean a woman lover of women. By the end of the twentieth century, this secondary meaning had almost entirely eclipsed the primary meaning. During the nineteenth century, words like Sapphist and Sapphic also came to connote lesbianism, and were so used by writers like Virginia Woolf in the early twentieth century. Sappho became a site for poets like Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) and Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) to explore various sexual practices, and, in the twentieth century, for writers to excoriate lesbians as perverts or present them as titillating figures in pulp fiction.
From the mid-nineteenth century onward, women writers who wrote about female-female desire found in Sappho a model, a defense, and a malleable symbol. Thus, Aestheticist poets Katherine Bradley (c. 1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913), who wrote under the joint pen name Michael Field, lived together as lovers, and considered themselves married, wrote a volume of poetic interpretations of Sappho's songs, entitled Long Ago (1889). Following them, almost every major lesbian writer has referred to, imitated, or recreated Sappho; the list includes Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Radclyffe Hall, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marguerite Yourcenar, May Sarton, Adrienne Rich, Rita Mae Brown, Judith L. Grahn, Audre Lorde, Monique Wittig, Olga Broumas, Marilyn Hacker, Suniti Namjoshi, and Jeannette Winterson. The modern lesbian movement threw up a plethora of cultural artifacts named for Sappho. And in the world of classical studies, her reputation has perhaps never been higher than it is in the early twenty-first century.
All in all, Sappho's prophecy, "Prosperity that / the golden Muses / gave me was no / delusion: dead, I / won't be forgotten" (Barnard 1958), has been amply fulfilled.
Barnard, Mary. 1958. Sappho: A New Translation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
DeJean, Joan. 1989. Fictions of Sappho: 1546–1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reynolds, Margaret, ed. 2001. The Sappho Companion. New York: Palgrave for St. Martin's Press.