The sapphic dates back to ancient Greece and is named for the poet Sappho, who left behind many poem fragments written in an unmistakable meter. Sapphics are made up of any number of four-line stanzas, and many Greek and Roman poets, including Catullus, used the form. It was introduced to Roman and European poets by Horace, who frequently used sapphics in his Odes, and later became popular as a verse form for hymns during the Middle Ages. Modern sapphics have been written by Ezra Pound, John Frederick Nims, and Anne Carson.
The original sapphic form was determined by quantitative meter, based on the nature of the ancient Greek language in which syllables were either long or short, depending on vowel length and ending sound. However, modern sapphics are rendered in accentual meter determined instead by the stress and intensity of a syllable. The accentual meter of the sapphic approximates the original form by equating long syllables with stressed ones, and short syllables with unstressed ones.
The main building blocks of the sapphic are trochees and dactyls. The trochee is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, while the dactyl contains a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones. The first three lines of the sapphic contain two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The shorter fourth, and final, line of the stanza is called an "Adonic" and is composed of one dactyl followed by a trochee. However, there is some flexibility with the form as when two stressed syllables replace both the second and last foot of each line. For example, the following stanzas from Sappho’s "The Anactoria Poem," here translated by Richard Lattimore:
Some there are who say that the fairest thing
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
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.
The strict meter of the sapphic, with its starts and stops, creates a powerful emotion that the language of the poem intensifies. Starting with a stressed syllable, as opposed to the familiar iambic foot that begins on an unstressed syllable, provides a sense of forcefulness and urgency to the sapphic, while the extra unstressed syllable at the core of the first three lines, offers a pause, or caesura, within the driving movement. The short fourth line may offer either a rest or a quick turn to the poem, or even an opportunity for conclusion, as with the final two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet.