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Biography

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Life

Little is known of Sappho’s (SAF-oh) life. The earliest historical documents—of doubtful authority—claim that she married a wealthy trader from Andros, and she speaks of a daughter in her poetry. Most of her life was spent at Mytilene, the principal city on the island of Lesbos. The popular tradition that she was not just a Lesbian (a person from Lesbos) but a lesbian (homosexual) appears to have developed much later; she was not linked with homoeroticism in the Hellenistic period. Sappho is one of the originators of the genre of monody, or solo song, short stanzaic poems sung by the poet to her own accompaniment on the lyre, apparently in her case to a small circle of women and girls, perhaps her students. Ancient authorities credit her with nine volumes of poetry, but only one complete poem and fragments of about a dozen others have survived. Her poems included several epithalamia, written to be performed at weddings, but most of her work appears to have been love poetry.

Influence

Sappho’s importance in her own era was as one of the earliest and most accomplished performers of monody, and even the few lines that have survived establish her profound poetic skill beyond any doubt. In modern times, her name serves as the symbol of a specifically female literary tradition.

Further Reading:

Bowra, C. Maurice. Greek Lyric Poetry: From Alcman to Simonides. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. A classic review of seven Greek lyric poets stressing their historical development and critiquing important works. Offers groundbreaking theories of the poets as a group and as individual writers. Views Sappho as the leader of a society of girls that excluded men and worshipped the Muses and Aphrodite.

Burnett, Anne Pippin. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Rejects theories of ancient Greek lyrics as either passionate outpourings or occasional verse. Describes Sappho’s aristocratic circle and critiques six major poems.

DuBois, Page. Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. The title is taken from part of David A. Campbell’s translation of Sappho’s fragment 48, in which the poet’s “heart” is “burning with desire.” DuBois assumes and examines an aesthetics of fragmentation and veers to a strained “postmodern” appreciation of the poet.

Greene, Ellen, ed. Reading Sappho and Re-reading Sappho. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. A two-volume collection of essays and articles (by writers such as Mary Lefkowitz, Holt N. Parker, and Jack Winkler) important in elucidation of Sappho’s poetry.

Jenkyns, Richard. Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus, and Juvenal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Stresses the relativistic view that no one theory can elucidate ancient poetry. Detailed analysis of Sappho’s principal poems and fragments, concluding that she is a major poet.

Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Superb study of the presentations of Sappho in nineteenth century English literature. Exposes the imperfections of editions by Dr. Henry Wharton and “Michael Field” (pseudonym of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper). Cogent chapter on Sappho and Swinburne in “Swinburne’s Sapphic Sublime.”

Rayor, Diane. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. In most respects, this is the best available translation of Sappho. Includes fragments of nine women poets besides Sappho, along with poems and fragments of seven male lyric poets.

Reynolds, Margaret, ed. The Sappho Companion. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Analogy contains narratives of the way societies in different times have accepted or rejected Sappho’s works. Includes an introduction as well as translations of the fragments of the poems, a bibliography, and an index.

Sappho. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho . Translated by Anne Carson. New York:...

(The entire section is 1,232 words.)