Once upon a time, very long ago, in fact in the
seventh and sixth centuries B.C., there lived a lyric poet named Sappho.
In her world, and in the world of the epic poet Homer who preceded her,
Dawn had rosy fingers and the sea was wine-dark. The stars circling the
moon blushed and hid their bright faces in awe when the moon's brilliance
graced the evening sky. And Aphrodite, the purple-robed goddess of love,
lived in a golden house and rode in a yoked chariot pulled by swift-winged
These are the images created by Sappho, Greece's
exalted lyric poet, the honey-voiced songbird of the ancient world. She is
the most famous person who ever lived on the island of Lesovs.
Sappho was highly esteemed in her day and the homage
continues. Her image appeared on coins minted in Mytilini and a huge
statue of her was in the town's square. The ancient writer Strabo called
Sappho "a marvelous creature and said "In all recorded history I know of
no woman who comes close to rivaling her as a poet." A man called Solon of
Athens begged to be taught one of her poems and said "Let me learn it and
then I can die."
Who was she, exactly, and why has her poetry
endured? Why is she the source of tantalizing legends and speculations?
Actually, very little is known about Sappho's life and what is known is
disputed. Scholars seem to agree that she wrote nine books of poetry, none
of which has survived, and that she lived during a golden time of
extraordinary intellectual richness along the coast of Asia Minor, near
the great cultural centers of Ephesus. Smyrna, and Phocaea. Born in
Mytilene or Eressos on the island of Lesvos she was known in her time as
the Lesbian poet, and in ancient times that meant simply the poet from
Lesvos. The modern word lesbian comes from her birthplace.
Some scholars believe she was married and had a
child; others say there is no evidence of this. Some believe her love
poetry was written to women and that she was the center of a "cult to
Aphrodite," and ran a type of school where women and girls were trained in
the arts of music, dance and poetry to honor the muses. The renowned
classics scholar, C.M. Bowra, speculated that Sappho trained young girls
in the art of love and said she founded "a house that cultivated the
muses." Others dispute this. Professor Denys L. Page, for example, says
her poetry simply represents the everyday loves and jealousies of the poet
and her companions.
Mary Barnard, in her book, Sappho, points out that
in sixth century Greece, young women were encouraged to study poetry and
music, and they sang and danced at festivals in honor of Artemis and
Aphrodite. She adds that the songs in some religious exercises were
performed exclusively for and by women.
Ms. Barnard finds it plausible, therefore, that
mothers would send their daughters to be trained by the most famous
lyricist of the age.
There is not much evidence to support various
speculations which have developed over the centuries. All we have, really,
are fragments of her poetry which survived on papyruses, figures on vase
paintings, and writings of those who came after her. Scholars agree she
was a genius who created a unique meter, called "the Sappic meter," which
is very difficult to reproduce in English. Plato honored her by naming her
"the Tenth Muse" and the Latin poet Horace paid her the supreme compliment
by imitating her meter and the unique structure of her odes.
While it is fascinating to speculate on Sappho's
life, it is a supreme joy to read the poems and fragments that have
survived. The poems are beautiful and it is most interesting to see how
various scholars translate these poems. Two excellent translations are
Mary Barnard's Sappho and Margaret Williamson's Sappho's Immortal