Many critics consider Sappho the greatest female poet of the classical world and the most accomplished of an influential group of lyric poets who were active in Greece between 650 B.C. and 450 B.C.—a period often designated the Lyric Age of Greece. Though most of her work survives only in fragments, the imagery and phrasing of those fragments have been striking enough to inspire readers from her own time to the present day to deem her one of the greatest poets of all time. Many of her poems discuss the female speaker's feelings for another woman, making Sappho an important figure in homosexual literary history. (Sappho's homeland of Lesbos lent its name to the modern term "lesbian.") Moreover, as one of the first female authors of the West, Sappho has been embraced by many later authors as an icon of the feminine poetic voice.
Very few details of Sappho's biography are known, and even fewer can be considered trustworthy. Accounts of her life have become thoroughly interwoven with legend, myth, and rumor. The only standard—but unreliable—source of information about Sappho's life is the Suidas, a Greek lexicon compiled 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 in the Aegean, and that she was probably born in either 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 tradition, she lived briefly in Sicily around 600 B.C., when political strife on Lesbos forced her into exile. After returning, she probably married a wealthy man named Cercylas, had a daughter named Cleis, and apparently spent the rest of her life in the city of Mytilene. Most of her time there was occupied with organizing and running a thiasos, or an academy for unmarried young women. As was the custom of the age, wealthy families from Lesbos and from the neighboring states would send their daughters to live for a period of time in these informal institutions in order to be instructed in the proper social graces, as well as in composition, singing, and the recitation of poetry. Intended as a transition between their parents' homes and the homes of their future husbands, Sappho's thiasos ranked as one of the best and most prestigious in that part of Greece, and as its dedicated teacher and spiritual leader, she enjoyed great renown for having educated generations of young women for fulfilling their social and marital responsibilities. Some legends of Sappho's life indicate that she lived to old age, but others relate that she fell hopelessly in love with a young boatman, Phaon, and, disappointed by their failed love affair, leaped to her death from a high cliff—a story made famous by the Roman poet Ovid in his Heroides, but one which has been largely discredited by modern scholars.
The textual history of Sappho's poetry is as sketchy as her biography. According to the Suidas, her substantial body of work was collected into a standard nine-volume edition in the third century B.C.; the arrangement of these volumes was based on the type of meter she used—Sapphic, choriambic, Alcaic, and others—with a whole volume devoted to epithalamia, or marriage songs. Nothing is known about the way Sappho's poetry was transmitted or recorded from her lifetime until the printing of the uniform edition in the third century B.C. Until the nineteenth century, the only known texts of her poetry were miscellaneous fragments quoted in the works of several Alexandrian grammarians to illustrate the Lesbian-Aeolic dialect), and two poems: the ode to Aphrodite, reprinted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his treatise on style, and the poem which begins "Peer of the gods he seems to me," presented by Longinus in On the Sublime as an example of polished style. Though composed in approximately the first century B.C., the two treatises, and the two poems by Sappho, were not discovered until the Renaissance, when they came to the attention of Italian scholars. The chief importance of the two poems lay in the fact that they were believed to be preserved in their entirety and therefore constituted the most substantial remains of Sappho's to date. In 1898, scholars discovered third-century B.C. papyri containing additional verse fragments. Then, in 1914, archaeologists excavating cemeteries in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, unearthed coffins made from papier-mâché composed of scraps of paper containing fragments of literary writings, including some by Sappho. These discoveries sparked new interest in Sappho and her poetry, inspiring new critical studies of the text. Though the first English translations of Sappho had appeared in the seventeenth century, it was not until the nineteenth century that translations and commentary on her work began to proliferate, with the first English scholarly edition appearing in 1885. Sappho wrote within the lyric tradition of poetry, influenced by the poets Terpander and Alcaeus, both from Mytilene, and Archilochus, a poet from the nearby island of Paros. Many lyrics, including Sappho's, were intended to be sung accompanied by the lyre and critics have noted the melody and cadence of her poetry. Much of Sappho's poetry was also occasional, or written to commemorate a particular event, but, too, she composed narrative poetry, religious hymns, and epithalamia, for which she was famous. Historians have recorded that Sappho was a frequent and sought-after guest at weddings, where she would sing a marriage song composed especially for the couple. Sappho's lyric verse was personal, emotional, and written in a simple, translucent style which contrasted with the epic poetry of Homer—the dominant mode of composition at the time she was writing. Sappho's poems use a vernacular language which is closer to natural speech and they address feelings of friendship, desire, jealousy, playfulness, and anger.
Sappho's works have met with critical and popular praise since she first wrote them, and other poets in particular have praised her gift for imagery and portraying emotion. Plato called her the tenth muse and Catullus and Horace imitated her openly, as did the English Romantics including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who translated some of her fragments. She became an important poet during the rise of German nationalism and was a key influence on American and English Imagists, including Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (known as H. D.). The literary relationship between H. D. and Sappho in particular has been a frequent subject of scholarly interest. Nevertheless, Sappho's personal reputation has often suffered in public discourse. Two or three centuries after her death, rumors began to circulate about her supposed immorality and licentiousness: she was said to be the lover of Alcaeus, an instructor of homosexual practices at her thiasos, and a seductress. Speculation about these and other rumors was for centuries the focus of writing on Sappho. Not until the early nineteenth century, when the German classicist Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker published the seminal essay "Sappho von einem herrschenden Vorurtheil befreit" ("Sappho freed from a common prejudice"), did critical focus begin to shift again to her poetry, although the issue of her sexual orientation continues to inform modern scholarship. Because Sappho's poems were intended for performance, the identity of the speaker and its relationship to the meaning of the poems has been a crucial question: several critics have pointed out that the "Sappho" in the poems does not necessarily speak for Sappho the woman. Judith Hallett contends that the poems do not reflect homosexual desire, but instead encourage the listeners—whom Hallett imagines as the young women of Sappho's school—toward heterosexual love. Although Hallett's interpretation has not been universally accepted, her notion of a non-autobiographical persona speaking in the poems continues to inform scholarship. Many critics have proposed that the speaker of the poems, whether or not she is Sappho, makes possible a feminine subjectivity, or a place from which a woman could speak in a culture and literary tradition dominated by men and a masculine perspective. One of the central twentieth-century scholars who advanced this view is Eva Stehle Stigers; in several essays on Sappho, Stigers demonstrates how Sappho's use of a speaking persona expands the possibilities of female identity. Another school of Sappho scholarship has focused on Sappho as a symbol for later women writers. This criticism acknowledges how the idea of Sappho, even more than her writings, was influential and inspirational for other women writing in male-centered cultures. As Susan Gubar asserts, even centuries after her death, Sappho as symbol has legitimized the efforts of women authors and has given them a place from which they can speak.