Other Literary Forms
Sappho is known only for her poetry.
One of the most admired poets of the ancient world, Sappho was widely popular not only during her lifetime but also for centuries after. Although she wrote nine books of poetry, very little of the corpus remains. Except for a very few phrases on vase paintings or papyri, Sappho’s poetry has been preserved primarily in small bits that happened to be quoted by other writers. There are some 170 of these fragments extant, and although there may be among them one or two complete poems, most of the fragments consist of only a few lines or a few words. For Sappho’s poem fragments, the numerical system of Edgar Lobel and Denys Page, Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, is used.
These fragments indicate that Sappho’s poems were largely lyrical, intended to be sung and accompanied by music and perhaps dance. Although in form her poetry was thus traditional, in content it differed significantly from the larger body of Greek verse, which was written primarily by men. Whereas other Greek poets were mainly concerned with larger and more public issues and with such traditional masculine concerns as war and heroism, Sappho’s poems are personal, concerned with the emotions and individual experiences of herself and her friends. In exploring and describing the world of passion, in particular, Sappho departed from conventional poetic themes. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that her poetry was so popular in the ancient world.
Sappho’s work has continued to be popular, however, not only because of the timelessness of her subject matter but also because of the exactness of her imagery and the intensity of her expression. Although her style is simple, direct, and conversational, her poems are powerful in creating an impression or evoking an emotion. Her world is therefore not the larger world of politics or warfare, but the smaller world of personal feeling; nevertheless, in depicting the outer limits of that world—the extremes of jealousy as well as tenderness, the depths of sorrow as well as the heights of ecstasy—Sappho’s poetry sets a standard to which all later writers of lyrics must aspire.
In addition to being well-known for her subject matter, Sappho has come to be associated with a particular metrical form. Although she was probably not the inventor of Sapphic meter, it has been so named because of her frequent use of it. In Sapphic meter, the stanza consists of three lines, each of which contains five feet—two trochees, a dactyl, and two more trochees—with a concluding fourth line of one dactyl and one trochee. The first line of the “Ode to Aphrodite” in the original Greek illustrates this meter. This ode is thought to have been accompanied by music written in the Mixolydian mode, a musical mode with which Sappho is also associated. Plutarch, in fact, claims that this mode, which is said to arouse the passions more than any other, was invented by Sappho.
Sappho’s enduring reputation is based, however, upon the fragments of her poetry that remain. Although those fragments themselves indicate her poetry’s worth, there is in addition the testimony of other writers regarding the greatness of her accomplishment. She was praised and revered by a long line of ancients, including Solon, Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Catullus, Ovid, and Plutarch. Proving that imitation is the highest form of praise, some later poets actually incorporated her verse into their own compositions; Catullus’s Poem 51, for example, is a slight reworking of a poem by Sappho. Plutarch, who, like Catullus, admired this particular ode, described it as being “mixed with fire,” a metaphor which could accurately be applied to the entire body of Sappho’s poetry which remains.
There are few details about Sappho’s life which can be stated with certainty; the only evidence is what other writers said about her, and there is no way of knowing whether what they said is true. She is thought to have been of an aristocratic family of the island of Lesbos and to have had three brothers and a daughter named Cleis; dates of her birth and death, however, are not known. Athenaeus, writing around 200 c.e., claimed that Sappho was a contemporary of Alyattes, who reigned in Lydia from 610 to 560 b.c.e.; Eusebius of Caesarea, who was writing in the late third and early fourth centuries c.e., refers to Sappho (also known as Psappho) in his chronicle for the year 604 b.c.e. Other writers indicate that Sappho lived at the time of another poet Alcaeus of Lesbos, who seems to have been born around 620 b.c.e. It seems safe, therefore, to conclude that Sappho was born sometime during the last quarter of the seventh century and lived into the first half of the sixth century b.c.e.
Sometime between 604 and 592 b.c.e., Sappho seems to have been sent into exile in Sicily by Pittacus, who was then a democratic ruler of Mytilene on Lesbos; an inscription on the Parian marbles of the third century b.c.e. provides confirmation. Although it seems likely that such an exile would have been for political reasons, there are no clear references in any of the fragments of Sappho’s poems to indicate that she was specifically concerned with political matters; in fact, based upon those fragments, her poetry appears to have been very much apolitical.
Whether Sappho was married is also uncertain; some say that she had a husband named Cercylas, but others believe this report to be a creation of the Greek comic poets. More suspect is the story that Sappho committed suicide by leaping from the Leucadian Cliff when rejected by a sailor named Phaon. To begin with, this story did not surface until more than two hundred years after her death, but more significant is the fact that Phaon has been found to be a vegetable deity associated with Aphrodite, and a god to whom Sappho wrote hymns. These hymns are thought to have provided the basis for this apocryphal account of her death.
There are, however, some assumptions which can be drawn from Sappho’s own words. Her poetry indicates that she was the leader of a group of young women who appear to have studied music, poetry, and dance and who seem to have worshiped Aphrodite and the Muses. As the daughter of an aristocratic family, Sappho would probably not have conducted a formal school, but was more likely the informal leader of a circle of girls and young women. Scholars know from other references in her poetry that there were several such groups on Lesbos, with leaders who were rivals of Sappho.
Many of Sappho’s poems also concern her romantic relationships with various women of her group, a fact which has evoked various responses throughout history, ranging from vilification to denial. Her reputation seems to have been first darkened in the fourth century b.c.e., long after her death, when she was the subject of a number of comic and burlesque plays; it is believed that many of the unsavory stories that came to be associated with Sappho were generated during this period. A serious and most unfortunate effect of this created and perhaps inaccurate reputation was that much of Sappho’s work was later deliberately destroyed, particularly by Christians whose moral sensibilities were offended by some of the stories which circulated in the second, fourth, and eleventh centuries c.e. Sappho’s reputation was also reworked by later scholars who admired her poetry but who were discomfited by her love for women; among their efforts to dissociate Sappho from her sexuality was the widely circulated story that there were in fact two Sapphos, one the licentious and immoral woman to whom all the unsavory tales applied, and the other a faultless and asexual woman who wrote sublime poetry. Most scholars today believe that there was only one Sappho, but they also believe that most of the stories told about her were untrue.
Thus, because of the legendary tales that have come to be associated with Sappho, and because of the lack of reliable historical evidence, there is little knowledge about her life which is certain. It seems reasonable to assume that she lived on Lesbos, that she was a poet, and that she valued personal relationships, about which she wrote. Both during her lifetime and after, she was much admired; statues were erected in her honor, coins were minted bearing her likeness, and she is said to have been given a heroine’s funeral. Beyond these small pieces of information, scholars must turn to the fragments of her poetry for knowledge and understanding.
Since Sappho’s poetry is largely personal, it concerns her immediate world: her dedication to Aphrodite, her love of nature and art, and her relationships with lovers, friends, and family. Her poetry reflects her enjoyment of beauty in the natural world and the close connection that existed between that world and the lives of herself and her friends. Their worship of Aphrodite, their festive songs and dances, are all celebrated with flowers from the fields and with branches from the trees. Her poetry also reflects her love of art, whether in the form of poetry, the music of the lyre, or the graceful movement of a maiden in a dance. Since these interests are, however, always presented through the perspective of a personal response, a chief defining characteristic of Sappho’s poetry is that it is highly emotional.
“Ode to Aphrodite”
Most of the extant fragments of Sappho’s poetry were quoted by later writers to illustrate some point of dialect, rhetoric, grammar, or poetic style, and those writers usually quoted only that portion of Sappho’s poem which was pertinent to their point. It is fortunate, then, that Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek writer of treatises who lived in Rome around 30 b.c.e., quoted in its entirety Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite,” to illustrate “the smooth mode of composition.” This poem, the longest of several by Sappho honoring Aphrodite, appears to be the most substantial complete work of Sappho which remains.
The ode contains the usual components of a celebration prayer to Aphrodite: the Invocation, the Sanction, and the Entreaty. The Invocation to the goddess consists of a series of epithets, “Dapple-throned Aphrodite,/ eternal daughter of God,/ snare-knitter”; the Sanction asks the goddess’s generosity and assistance and reminds her of past favors she has granted; and the Entreaty urgently appeals to the goddess for aid in the present situation. Sappho employs this traditional form in a fresh way, however, not only by her use of vivid metaphors and lyrical language, but also by using the Sanction to reveal something of the goddess’s character as well as something of Sappho’s own psychology.
As Sappho employs it, the Sanction is a narrative passage within which both she and the goddess move back and forth in time. After describing a past occasion when the goddess came to Earth in a carriage pulled by sparrows, Sappho then recounts the goddess’s questioning of her at that time. Using in her narrative the past tense and the indirect question, Sappho recalls the goddess’s remarks: “You asked, What ailed me now that/ made me call you again?” Abruptly, then, Sappho places the goddess’s gentle chiding within the present context; the poem shifts to direct discourse as the goddess questions Sappho directly: “Whom has/ Persuasion to bring round now/ to your love? Who, Sappho, is/ unfair to you?” This mix of the two temporal perspectives links and blends the present with the past, emphasizing not only Sappho’s recurring states of anxiety over new love, but also illuminating the special and friendly relationship between the poet and the goddess: Aphrodite has obviously assisted Sappho before in similar matters of the heart. Continuing to reveal Sappho’s character, the goddess reminds her that they are beginning a now-familiar pattern: A bemused Aphrodite recalls, “If she [the desired lover] won’t accept gifts, she/ will one day give them; and if/ she won’t love you—she soon will/love.” Sappho, manipulating the tradition of the Sanction for new purposes of self-mockery and character revelation, thus discloses her love for the courting period, as well as the shift in attitudes which will inevitably occur between her and her new lover. After...