Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

There is a surprising amount of information about how Sappho’s work was received in ancient Greece. This is surprising because she never wrote down any of her work. She performed her compositions to music, and so they were memorized and later sung. Sappho lived at the cusp between the ending of the oral tradition and the beginning of the written word. Shortly after her death, a Greek alphabet was devised, and her poems were written down, gathered together, and collected into nine papyrus books. For the next three hundred years, Sappho’s work was studied and copied and passed around on papyrus, and it continued to inspire other poets, who both quoted from her and imitated her work. By the third century B.C., Sappho was recognized as a great lyric poet. Then her work virtually disappeared. Sappho herself continued to be well known because she became the object of Greek comedy and satire, but her poems were no longer being read.

What happened to her work became the source of several literary legends. Some stories blame the destruction of the great library at Alexandria for the loss of Sappho’s work, whereas other stories blame the loss of her work on the spread of Christianity and the church’s disapproval of Sappho’s celebration of female love. In The Sappho Companion, editor Margaret Reynolds attributes the loss of Sappho’s work to more ordinary events than deliberate largescale destruction. Reynolds argues that Sappho was merely a victim of changing fashions. The language of Athens became the classical Greek, with which scholars are familiar, while the language of Sappho, the Aeolic dialect, was regarded as provincial and no longer the language of art. Another change Reynolds notes is the change in writing materials. Papyrus was replaced by...

(The entire section is 725 words.)