(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Characteristic features of Sappho’s poetry show themselves in what remains of her work. First, her poems are lyrics—brief, deeply felt, personal verses to be sung or chanted to the strumming of a lyre. Sappho’s persona always represents the poet in some aspect, but without conveying any certain biographical truth. Even when the poet has another character in a poem call her “Sappho,” that may be merely a rhetorical device. Still, Sappho’s poems use “I” recurrently in ways that seem to depict the poet’s own intense emotions.

All ancient Greek poets wrote in meter. Greek meter was not accentual but depended, rather, upon the lengths of syllables—some long, some short—as sung texts still do. Sappho’s writings feature recurring stanzas, similarly shaped but with varying line lengths. The poet often uses a four-line stanza, employing a meter named after her. Its first three lines have eleven syllables each, and the last line has five. Modern English editions often translate Sappho stanzaically but not metrically.

Most longer poems by Sappho imply a lyric speaker/singer and, often, a listener. A dramatic situation—a past or present action or relationship—can usually be reconstructed; this often gives the poem an implicit subtext. Sappho’s lyrics, nonetheless, seem frank and simple. They use vivid imagery, a logical and often argumentative structure, and sensual subject matter that is treated discreetly and with quiet reserve. Sappho is never bawdy. Though some critics contend that Sappho uses no true metaphors, she often employs surprising comparisons. Her writings are not heavy with allusions, though she mentions Hera and Aphrodite in her works.

Sappho writes in the vernacular of Lesbos, generally without foreign or artificial words or topical content. Hers is not a literary dialect. Sappho’s poetry is similar to everyday speech, raised to great expressiveness.

One feature of Sappho’s lyrics is the anxiety of her persona, who typically displays some heightened emotional state. Her lyrics are not the calm, pretty ones that belong to the stereotype of the classical. Their emotional intensity, in fact, shares much with Romantic writers.

Sappho’s body of writings has grown over the years as new fragments have been found and editorial sleuths have deciphered them. In the process, her editors and translators have created divergent renderings. The Volger edition (1810) lists 120 poems or fragments; the Edmonds edition (1958) lists 191; and the Lobel and Page edition (1963) includes 192. Translator Suzy Q. Groden reduced the number to 133 in 1966, arguing that in some cases too little exists to make sense, that some lines are really editors’ interpolations, and that other elements come from sources that state: “Sappho said that . . . ” but do not record her exact words.

Another problem is that any translated lyric loses its particularity—its connotations and nuances of meaning—and much of its form and style. Sometimes different translations become almost like different poems.

In addition to love lyrics addressing women, Sappho wrote various other poems in which she describes the beauties of nature, chides her brother for his involvement with an Egyptian courtesan, sympathizes with her daughter because of restrictive laws forbidding excessive adornments, and represents bridesmaids ridiculing a male wedding attendant. Even Sappho’s smaller verse fragments are interestingly provocative, like bits of songs heard fleetingly.

“Ode to Aphrodite”

First published: First century c.e., copying older sources (collected in Poems of Sappho, with Historical and Critical Notes, Translations, and a Bibliography, 1925)

Type of work: Poem

The poet prays to Aphrodite, goddess of love, for divine help in gaining the affection of a woman who might be unresponsive.

The only surviving full text of any of Sappho’s lyrics, the “Ode to Aphrodite” is a prayer, an apostrophe written in seven Sapphic stanzas of idiomatic Greek. The poem’s subject is a driving passion, bordering on physical and mental illness, that the poet feels for an unnamed woman.

Most stanzas are parts of the poet’s address to Aphrodite, pleading for help. The poem reviews present and past experiences involving the goddess and the supplicant. Finally, in stanza 6, a vaguely drawn female who might resist Sappho’s advances comes hazily into...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)