Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055
Sappho, beloved by all and treated as if she were the queen of her native island of Lesbos, goes to Olympia to compete for the prize to be awarded for poetry and song. As the result of her genius, she wins the laurel wreath accorded the victor and returns in triumph to her island home. To the surprise of those on Lesbos, she brings back with her a handsome, pleasant, but very young man named Phaon, with whom she fell deeply in love. Phaon, having heard the poems of Sappho read in his father’s home, had great admiration for the poet before he journeyed to Olympia to compete in the games as a charioteer. There he and Sappho met and fell in love.
Phaon, a young man of simple tastes, is almost overwhelmed by Sappho’s home, her way of life, and her place of importance on the island. Sappho, deeply in love with Phaon, tries to make him comfortable and at ease in his new environment by constantly expressing her love for him and telling him how much he means to her happiness.
In Sappho’s household is a beautiful young female slave named Melitta, who was taken into Sappho’s home as a small child. For some years, the girl is very close to her mistress. When Sappho returns from Olympia, she suddenly realizes that the child is a woman. This realization causes Sappho some pangs, for it brings home the fact that Sappho herself is no longer young. For the first time, the poet wishes she were younger again, for the sake of Phaon.
One day, Phaon, who still is ill at ease in the luxurious household of his mistress, finds refuge in a grotto from the noisy merrymaking of Sappho’s guests. While he is enjoying the silence of the place, Melitta wanders nearby, having been sent to the gardens to pick some flowers. As she walks along, she voices her grief at being a slave in a foreign land, lonely for a home and family. Phaon, hearing Melitta’s lamentations, is greatly moved, for he, too, is lonesome in a strange land. He goes to the slave and tries to cheer her. This leads to a kiss, which is observed by Sappho as she comes looking for Phaon. Upset, she does not reveal her presence and leaves Phaon to himself for a time. Later, she finds him asleep in the grotto and awakens him with a kiss. As he awakens, Phaon murmurs Melitta’s name. Fully awake, he tells Sappho of a dream in which he saw himself in love with Melitta, who usurped the place of Sappho. Sappho tells him not to believe in lying dreams.
Although she conceals the fact from him, Sappho’s pride is badly hurt by his account of the dream and by the kiss she saw him bestow upon Melitta. Coming upon Melitta, Sappho accuses the slave of maliciously trying to steal Phaon’s love. After heated words pass between the mistress and Melitta, Sappho draws a dagger and threatens Melitta’s life. Phaon’s appearance saves the woman from injury at Sappho’s hands. Phaon then announces his love for the slave and accuses Sappho of trying to weave magic spells with her poetry to make him believe he loves her.
Later that day, Sappho calls her most trusted slave, Rhamnes, to her and commanded him to take Melitta away from Lesbos to Chios, across the sea, to be placed in the household of one of Sappho’s friends. That night, Rhamnes tries to lure the woman from her quarters to a boat on the beach. Melitta, suspecting a trap,...
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protests. Phaon, fearful for Melitta’s safety, remains awake and hears Rhamnes enter Melitta’s quarters. When he discovers Rhamnes’ trickery, he makes him relinquish Melitta.
Alarmed by what happens, Phaon decides to flee Lesbos and Sappho’s household. Taking Melitta with him, he embarks in the boat Rhamnes planned to use in spiriting the young beauty away.
As soon as he is free of the threat of Phaon’s dagger, Rhamnes sounds the alarm and tells of Phaon’s flight with Melitta. Planning revenge, Sappho calls the people of the island to her and promises a handsome reward of gold for the return of the fugitives. Spurred by the reward and their love for Sappho, the islanders hurry after Phaon and Melitta. When they come up with the fugitives upon the sea, Melitta is struck on the head by an oar during the struggle. Phaon then yields to their captors.
Back in Sappho’s house, Phaon demands to know why she should be given the privilege of judging him, as if she were a queen. The islanders tell him that they regard her as their queen. When Sappho demands the return of Melitta, Phaon said that, in threatening the slave’s life, Sappho relinquished all her rights to the girl. Sappho then accuses Phaon of being a deceiver in love. Phaon defends himself by saying that he was mistaken in his love, that the love he feels for Sappho is the love of her genius. He adds that he really loves her as a goddess, not as a woman, not knowing the difference until after he met and fell in love with Melitta.
Sappho is disturbed by what happened and by what Phaon said. At first, thinking that she is being asked too great a price for having poetic gifts, she wishes to disown her genius in order to live and to love as an ordinary woman. She leaves the company to think in solitude. As she looks out across the sea, her lyre suddenly clangs loudly, as if warning her, and she decides not to try to escape the genius given her by the gods. She asks the gods only to keep her from being an object of men’s derision. Returning, she forgives the young lovers with a kiss and then walks to an altar of Aphrodite that stands on a cliff overlooking the sea. Calling upon the gods to take her to them, Sappho hurls herself over the brink into the water below. Phaon and Sappho’s people run to rescue her, but they are too late. The ocean currents dash her to her death against the rocks.