January 10, 2019
Sappho (c. 630-570 BC) was a Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. Little is known about her for certain. She is said to have come from a wealthy family, with several brothers. She is supposed to have been married and to have had a daughter. She is believed to have run a finishing school for young women and to have been exiled to Sicily about 600 BC, though she was later allowed to return to her home.
Sappho wrote poems mainly about her love for other women. She explored this both romantically and erotically. She also wrote verse about family, marriage and old age as well as elegies. Her genre was lyric poetry, verse recited to the accompaniment of a lyre, solo or in a chorus. One of the first poets to use “I”, she adopted a personal tone, and she wrote with simplicity and clarity. Her language was Aeolian Greek. Sappho’s collected works contained around 10,000 lines, though only one complete poem and several fragments survive, numbering about 650 lines. Widely popular and respected for her verse through the centuries, she was known as “The Poetess” and “The Tenth Muse”. One admirer said of her poems, “Are you not astonished?”
Sappho’s erotic poetry was exquisite. Intense emotion was a hallmark. It is a tragedy that so few of her poems still exist. I wish I could listen to her verse as it was meant to be heard: accompanied by the lyre, much as a singer-songwriter performs with a guitar or piano nowadays.
From Fragment 31, as Sappho watches her beloved talk to a man:
That man to me seems equal to the gods,/the man who sits opposite you/and close by listens/to your sweet voice
and your enticing laughter—/that indeed has stirred up the heart in my breast./For whenever I look at you even briefly/I can no longer say a single thing,
but my tongue is frozen in silence;/instantly a delicate flame runs beneath my skin;/with my eyes I see nothing;/my ears make a whirring noise.
A cold sweat covers me,/trembling seizes my body,/and I am greener than grass./Lacking but little of death do I seem.
(Above is a painting of Sappho on pottery created by the Sappho Painter, c. 510 BC)