Poems and Fragments Analysis


Form and Content

In classical antiquity, the standard edition of Sappho appears to have been arranged into nine books. The first book included 330 Sapphic stanzas, a total of 1,320 lines in the meter invented by her and named for her. The length of a book averaged 1,000 to 1,500 lines; the extent of Sappho’s lost works can be gauged by the fact that only about 1,700 lines have survived, most of which are fragmentary and some amounting to no more than a letter. Books 2 and 3 consisted, respectively, of poems in dactylic hexameters and poems in the Asclepiadean meter. The fourth book seems also to have been metrically consistent. Books 4 through 8 were apparently compiled on bases other than meter, although there is scant mention of any of them by ancient commentators, and on the sixth book there is no information of any kind. The ninth book, the only one given a title instead of a number, was called “Epithalamia” (wedding songs). The classical scholar Denys Page summarizes this editorial information and elucidates the contents of Sappho’s poetry as “Epithalamians,” “Aphrodite,” “Divine and Heroic Legend,” and “Political and Domestic Allusions.”

Some translators arrange Sappho’s poems and fragments in thematic groups. Paul Roche, for example, entitles his groupings “Overtures of Loving,” “Petitions and Observations,” “Converse,” “Epithalamia,” “The Taut Tongue,” and “Memory-and-Malediction.” Josephine Balmer has nine...

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The opening lines of the poem preserved by Longinus achieved key status in one area of twentieth century feminist criticism. In literal translation they read: “He seems to me to be on a par with the gods, that man who sits facing you.” A feminist preference is to eliminate an actual male presence in favor of a hypothetical one; this is done by changing “that man who” to “whatever man” or “whoever.” Although K. J. Dover rightly pointed out, in Greek Homosexuality (1978), that Greek grammar precludes such a reading, the change was effected in many later twentieth century English translations, attesting the success with which Sappho’s canon was enlisted in the support of women’s issues.

Two factors in Sappho’s verse that gained new emphasis during the twentieth century, and in turn helped to determine the direction of modern feminism, are Sappho’s independence as an artistic genius and the frank sexuality to which her art gives unabashed expression. As the feminist movement gained momentum, Sappho received proportionately more attention. Every decade of the twentieth century had its Sappho publications: translations, editions, or articles. The preoccupation with Sappho’s “moral purity” or with the minimalizing of her homoeroticism, carried over from the nineteenth century into the beginning of the twentieth, gradually gave way to the picture of Sappho as a consummate lyricist forthright in her projection of sexuality, whatever its turn; Sappho became a picture of a feminist for feminists.

It is significant that in the twentieth century Sappho received attention from more women translators, scholars, editors, and hermeneucists than in virtually all previous centuries combined. Eva-Maria Voigt’s masterly edition of Sappho and Alcaeus in 1971 superseded the standard edition by Edgar Lobel and Denys Page in 1955. Translations by women became commonplace: Olga Marx in 1945, Mary Barnard in 1958, Suzy Q. Groden in 1966, Anne Pippin Burnett in 1983, Sherri Williams in 1990, Diane Rayor in 1991, Josephine Balmer in 1992, and Sasha Newborn in 1993. The renditions by Barnard, Groden, Burnett, and Balmer set new standards for reliability. In addition, the feminist scholar Mary R. Lefkowitz reeducated the modern reader by repudiating the tradition that Sappho’s erotic lyrics were self-referential and by cautioning against deriving from the poetry autobiographical elements that would then become the means of interpreting it.


Bowra, C. M. Greek Lyric Poetry: From Alcman to Simonides. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. Chapter 5 remains the prime introduction to the poetry of Sappho in its temporal setting. All but a few quotations in the original Greek are translated or paraphrased.

Burnett, Anne Pippin. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. “Part Three: Sappho” is a searching and informative essay on the poet and includes accurate translations of the poems and fragments, with occasional rhyme that is both efficacious and unobtrusive.

Campbell, David A. ed and trans. Sappho, Alcaeus. Vol. 1 in Greek Lyric. Loeb Classical Library 142. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Superbly supersedes the 1928 Loeb Library edition by J. M. Edmonds; incorporates a half century of valuable scholarship. Campbell’s prose translations adhere meticulously to the Greek text, which is included on facing pages.

DeJean, Joan. Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Exceptionally informative scholarship. DeJean makes it clear that translations of Sappho and speculation regarding her sexuality reflect the mores of the times and countries in which her work is published.

Duban, Jeffrey M., ed. Ancient and Modern Images of Sappho: Translations and Studies in Archaic Greek Love Lyric. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. Contains the first-rate summary “Sappho in Recent Criticism,” as well as a less satisfactory comparison of various translations of Sappho’s poems and fragments favoring Duban’s own thirty-eight rhymed translations.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. “Critical Stereotypes and the Poetry of Sappho.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 14 (1973): 113-123. Cogently questions the validity of Sappho’s work as inherently self-referential.

Page, Denys. Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. London: Oxford University Press, 1955. Staid but requisite orientation in the study of Sappho. Page claims that while Sappho was not averse to homoeroticism, there is no evidence in her extant work of her taking part in it.

Rayor, Diane. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Information about and translations of seven male lyric poets and (including Sappho) ten female lyric poets. With helpful notes and bibliographical references.