Isle of Lesbos: Poetry : Historical : Sappho


circa 630 B.C.

One of the great Greek lyrists and few known female poets of the ancient world, Sappho was born some time between 630 and 612 BC. She was an aristocrat who married a prosperous merchant, and she had a daughter named Cleis. Her wealth afforded her with the opportunity to live her life as she chose, and she chose to spend it studying the arts on the isle of Lesbos.

In the seventh century BC, Lesbos was a cultural center. Sappho spent most her time on the island, though she also traveled widely throughout Greece. She was exiled for a time because of political activities in her family, and she spent this time in Sicily. By this time she was known as a poet, and the residents of Syracuse were so honored by her visit that they erected a statue to her.

Sappho was called a lyrist because, as was the custom of the time, she wrote her poems to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre. Sappho composed her own music and refined the prevailing lyric meter to a point that it is now known as sapphic meter. She innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, becoming part of a new wave of Greek lyrists who moved from writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual. She was one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.

Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female, often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts. She nurtured these women, wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and when they eventually left the island to be married, she composed their wedding songs. That Sappho's poetry was not condemned in her time for its homoerotic content (though it was disparaged by scholars in later centuries) suggests that perhaps love between women was not persecuted then as it has been in more recent times. Especially in the last century, Sappho has become so synonymous with woman-love that two of the most popular words to describe female homosexuality--lesbian and sapphic have derived from her.

How well was Sappho honored in ancient times? Plato elevated her from the status of great lyric poet to one of the muses. Upon hearing one of her songs, Solon, an Athenian ruler, lawyer, and a poet himself, asked that he be taught the song "Because I want to learn it and die."

In more modern times, many poets have been inspired by her works. Michael Field, Pierre Louys, Renée Vivien, Marie-Madeleine, Amy Lowell, and H.D. all cited Sappho as a strong influence on their work.

Given the fame that her work has enjoyed, it is somewhat surprising to learn that only one of Sappho's poems is available in its entirety--all of the rest exist as fragments of her original work. At one time, there were perhaps nine complete volumes of her poetry, but over the centuries, from neglect, natural disasters, and possibly some censorship by close-minded scholars, her work was lost. Late in the 19th century, however, manuscripts dating back to the eighth century AD were discovered in the Nile Valley, and some of these manuscripts proved to contained Sappho's work. Excavations that followed in ancient Egyptian refuse heaps unearthed a quantity of papyruses from the first century BC to the 10th century AD. Here, strips of papyrus--some containing her poetry--were found in number. These strips had been used to wrap mummies, stuff sacred animals, and wrap coffins. The work to piece these together and identify them has continued into the twentieth century.

Many translations of these fragments are available today, with each of these translations offering a different approach to her work. Translating Sappho's poetry is challenging, partly because of the fragmented nature of the material. In reconstructing a poem, the translator must either trail off into oblivion periodically, or speculate on the missing pieces and take the risk (for the sake of lyric flow) of introducing elements that Sappho did not intend. Breaks in the poem can affect the intact lines, as well, robbing them of critical context. Even with the complication of fragments aside, a translator still has to decide how to translate the ancient Greek text, where to insert line breaks, how to stress each word, and any number of technical details that affect the meaning and the lyricism of the resulting poem. It makes sense, then, for those who are interested in Sappho's work (and not fluent in ancient Greek) to read multiple translations to obtain several viewpoints. [*]

From ancient times to today, Sappho has remained an important literary and cultural figure. Her works continued to be studied and translated, new poets are inspired by her constantly, and speculation on her life remains popular in the form of fictionalized tales and ardent research. For a woman who has been dead for over two thousand years, this is quite an achievement.

Biography by Alix North

[*] Reading a single poem in different translations can give you an idea of the flavor of each translator's work. Here is an example of one poem in multiple version. [Return to body of text]

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Selected Works

I have not had one word from her

Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept

a great deal; she said to me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."

I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love

"If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared

"all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck

"myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them

"while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song..."

--Translated by Mary Barnard

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Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.

Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus-born goddess,
Whom I now beseech

Never to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.

--Translated by Paul Roche

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On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, weaving wiles--I beg you
not to subdue my spirit, Queen,
with pain or sorrow

but come--if ever before
having heard my voice from far away
you listened, and leaving your father's
golden home you came

in your chariot yoked with swift, lovely
sparrows bringing you over the dark earth
thick-feathered wings swirling down
from the sky through mid-air

arriving quickly--you, Blessed One,
with a smile on your unaging face
asking again what have I suffered
and why am I calling again

and in my wild heart what did I most wish
to happen to me: "Again whom must I persuade
back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?

For if she flees, soon she'll pursue,
she doesn't accept gifts, but she'll give,
if not now loving, soon she'll love
even against her will."

Come to me now again, release me from
this pain, everything my spirit longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally

--Translated by Diane Rayor

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To Andromeda

That country girl has witched your wishes,
all dressed up in her country clothes
and she hasn't got the sense
to hitch her rags above her ankles.

--Translated by Jim Powell

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Some an army of horsemen, some an army on foot
and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight
on this dark earth; but I say it is what-
ever you desire:

and it it possible to make this perfectly clear
to all; for the woman who far surpassed all others
in her beauty, Helen, left her husband --
the best of all men --

behind and sailed far away to Troy; she did not spare
a single thought for her child nor for her dear parents
but [the goddess of love] led her astray
[to desire...]

reminds me now of Anactoria
although far away,

--Translated by Josephine Balmer

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To Atthis

Though in Sardis now,
she things of us constantly

and of the life we shared.
She saw you as a goddess
and above all your dancing gave her deep joy.

Now she shines among Lydian women like
the rose-fingered moon
rising after sundown, erasing all

stars around her, and pouring light equally
across the salt sea
and over densely flowered fields

lucent under dew. Her light spreads
on roses and tender thyme
and the blooming honey-lotus.

Often while she wanders she remem-
bers you, gentle Atthis,
and desire eats away at her heart

for us to come.

--Translated by Willis Barnstone

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Where to

Many, many scholars have studied the life and works of Sappho; this list presents only a sample of recent work. See also Grand Inspiritors: Sappho for many more links and books.

  • The Divine Sappho, containing Sappho's poetry, a first line index, fragments in translation, and great Sappho links.
  • Psappha, A Novel of Sappho by Peggy Ullman Bell (site contains information about the book)
  • Sappho, Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958)
  • Sappho, The Love Songs of Sappho, translated by Paul Roche (New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 1991)
  • Eva Cantarella, Pandora's Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Green and Roman Antiquity (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1987)
  • Judy Grahn, The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition (San Francisco: Spinsters, Ink, 1985)
  • William Harris, Professor Em. Classics, Middlebury College, Sappho: The Greek Poems (133 page PDF file with illustrations). See also his shorter paper in HTML format.
  • Edith Mora, excerpt from Sappho -- The Story of a Poet (Flammarion, 1966)
  • Diane Rayor, Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, translated by Diane Rayor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)
  • Leah Rissman, Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho (Konigstein: Verlag Anton Hain, 1983)
  • David M. Robinson, Sappho and Her Influence (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1924)
  • Jane McIntosh Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989)

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