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Sappho

Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Evidence suggests that she had several brothers, married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and had a daughter named Cleis. She spent most of her adult life in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for unmarried young women. Sappho's school devoted itself to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, and Sappho earned great prominence as a dedicated teacher and poet. A legend from Ovid suggests that she threw herself from a cliff when her heart was broken by Phaon, a young sailor, and died at an early age. Other historians posit that she died of old age around 550 B.C.

The history of her poems is as speculative as that of her biography. She was known in antiquity as a great poet: Plato called her "the tenth Muse" and her likeness appeared on coins. It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as "Sapphic" meter. Her poems were first collected into nine volumes around the third century B.C., but her work was lost almost entirely for many years. Merely one twenty-eight-line poem of hers has survived intact, and she was known principally through quotations found in the works of other authors until the nineteenth century. In 1898 scholars unearthed papyri that contained fragments of her poems. In 1914 in Egypt, archeologists discovered papier-mâché coffins made from scraps of paper that contained more verse fragments attributed to Sappho.

Three centuries after her death the writers of the New Comedy parodied Sappho as both overly promiscuous and lesbian. This characterization held fast, so much so that the very term "lesbian" is derived from the name of her home island. Her reputation for licentiousness would cause Pope Gregory to burn her work in 1073. Because social norms in ancient Greece differed from those of today and because so little is actually known of her life, it is difficult to unequivocally answer such claims. Her poems about Eros, however, speak with equal force to men as well as to women.

Sappho is not only one of the few women poets we know of from antiquity, but also is one of the greatest lyric poets from any age. Most of her poems were meant to be sung by one person to the accompaniment of the lyre (hence the name, "lyric" poetry). Rather than addressing the gods or recounting epic narratives such as those of Homer, Sappho's verses speak from one individual to another. They speak simply and directly to the "bittersweet" difficulties of love. Many critics and readers alike have responded to the personal tone and urgency of her verses, and an abundance of translations of her fragments are available today.

By This Poet

7

The Anactoria Poem

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen 
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
          she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this 
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
          her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy—land across the water. 
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents 
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
          won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded 
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
          who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my 
eyes than Lydia's chariots in all their glory
          armored for battle.

[In my eyes he matches the gods]

In my eyes he matches the gods, that man who 
sits there facing you--any man whatever--
listening from closeby to the sweetness of your 
          voice as you talk, the

sweetness of your laughter: yes, that--I swear it-- 
sets the heart to shaking inside my breast, since 
once I look at you for a moment, I can't
          speak any longer,

but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a
subtle fire races inside my skin, my
eyes can't see a thing and a whirring whistle 
          thrums at my hearing,

cold sweat covers me and a trembling takes 
ahold of me all over: I'm greener than the 
grass is and appear to myself to be little
          short of dying.

But all must be endured, since even a poor [

[Like the very gods]

Like the very gods in my sight is he who 
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
          murmur in love and

laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit; 
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken. 
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
          I can say nothing,

but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
          muted in thunder.

And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
Shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
          death has come near me.