Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho. She was born around 615 BC 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 BC.
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 BC, 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.