Sappho (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism) - Essay


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Sappho fl. c. 6th century b.c.-

Greek poet.

The following entry contains recent criticism on Sappho's poetry. For additional information on Sappho's life and works, see CMLC, Vol. 3.

Acknowledged as the greatest female poet of the classical world, Sappho is renowned for her intensely personal verse, only a fragmentary portion of which has survived into the contemporary era. Considered the most accomplished and influential lyric poet of antique Greece, she composed poems that continue to be admired and respected for their characteristic passion, lucid simplicity, and evocative imagery. As a literary figure surrounded by legend, Sappho has also been the subject of much critical controversy and speculation and has been linked with both female homoeroticism and the grounding myths of poetic discourse. A fascinating subject for successive generations of poets, novelists, playwrights, and biographers, Sappho of Lesbos remains a figure whose elusive thoughts writers have attempted to reconstruct. In addition to her lyric works, Sappho also wrote a variety of occasional poems, in particular a number of epithalamia, or marriage songs, for which she became famous during her own lifetime. Her compositions in other poetic forms, including narrative and elegiac verse, have largely been lost.

Textual History

While tradition holds that Sappho composed enough poetry to fill nine volumes, collected in Alexandria during the third century b.c., only a minute portion of her poetry survives. Her writings are thought to have endured into the early medieval period before being lost or destroyed by about the ninth century. Since that time, her poetry has, for the most part, only been accessible through quotations in a variety of secondary sources. An 1898 discovery of several Egyptian papyri containing additional verse fragments added somewhat to the Sapphic manuscript tradition, which includes only one poem in its entirety. Beginning in the eighteenth century efforts were made by German classicists to translate her literary remains into Latin, an important source for later translators. This process continued into the twentieth century as new texts containing bits of Sapphic verse were unearthed. Though English translations of individual poems by Sappho appeared in the seventeenth century, the first complete English translation of the Sapphic fragments was not completed until 1885 and the publication of Henry Thornton Wharton's Sappho: Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation, which made extensive use of German scholar Theodor Bergk's 1882 Latin edition. In the contemporary era the most well-regarded version of Sapphic verse in English has been Mary Barnard's Sappho: A New Translation (1958). Edgar Lobel and Denys Page's Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta ranks as the definitive Greek edition of Sappho's work.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Sappho's life and the information that is available cannot be viewed as trustworthy because accounts of the poet's life have become thoroughly interwoven with legend and myth. The only standard, but unreliable, source of information about Sappho's life is the Suda, a Greek lexicon compiled about the end of the tenth century. It records that Sappho was a native of Lesbos, an island in Asia Minor, and that she was probably born in either Eresus or Mytilene. Her father's name is given as Scamandronymus, and her mother's as Cleis. Evidence also suggests that Sappho had three brothers, and that her family belonged to the upper class. She is believed to have married a wealthy man named Cercylas—they had a daughter named Cleis together. Sappho apparently spent the majority of her life in the city of Mytilene, and most of her time there was occupied in organizing and running a thiasos, or academy for unmarried young women. As was the custom of the age, wealthy families from Lesbos and neighboring states would send their daughters to live for a period of time in these informal institutions in order to be instructed in the proper social graces, as well as in composition, singing, and the recitation of poetry. Ancient commentary attests to the fact that Sappho's thiasos ranked as one of the best and most prestigious in that part of Greece, and as its dedicated teacher and spiritual leader, she enjoyed great renown. Some legends of Sappho's life indicate that she lived to old age, but several others contend that she fell hopelessly in love with a young boatman, Phaon, and, disappointed by their failed love affair, leaped to her death from a high cliff—a story made famous by the Roman poet Ovid in his Heroides, but one which has been largely discredited by scholars.

Major Works

Sappho wrote her poetry in the Lesbian-Aeolic dialect, her native Greek vernacular. Though she used a less refined language than that of the formal Ionian literary mode employed in Homeric epic, Sappho's poetry is said to demonstrate an innate verbal elegance that closely mirrors the rhythms of natural speech. Her standard metrical form, designated as the Sapphic meter by scholars, consists of four lines: three with eleven syllables each and a fourth line of five syllables. Characteristically mellifluous, Sappho's verse also exhibits her trademark directness, whether she is writing about nature, the gods, or the voluptuous physique of one of her pupils. Most of Sappho's poems are monodies, songs composed for the single voice and intended to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Much of her verse was also occasional, usually meant to commemorate some event taking place in her thiasos, but she also composed narrative poetry, religious hymns, and epithalamia, or wedding songs. Sappho's lyrics are first and foremost personal, conveying deeply felt emotion in a simple, lucid style. The speaker in her poems (generally assumed to be Sappho herself) spontaneously exhibits an unusually wide range of emotional responses: tender protectiveness and friendship; erotic longing and jealousy; playful chiding of her pupils; extreme anger toward those who have proven disloyal; and outright vilification of the headmistress of a rival thiasos. Probably her most famous piece (the only poem she composed to have survived intact), the “Hymn to Aphrodite” is something of an incantation or a prayer to the Greek goddess of love, patron of Sappho's circle. Twenty-eight lines in its entirety, the “Hymn” calls on Aphrodite to soothe the speaker, possibly in her suffering from unrequited love. Internal anguish also figures prominently in the epithalamion referred to as “Phainetai moi,” which captures Sappho's jealousy and distress upon seeing a young woman she loves with her new husband. Other works features folk or mythological motifs, such as that of “The Wedding Reception of Hektor and Andromache.”

Critical Reception

Sappho's works have been admired for their stylistic brilliance since antiquity. In a famous epigram, Plato named her the tenth Muse, and praise of such a superlative nature has been common through the centuries. Scholars believe that Sappho's epithalamia raised the ancient folk tradition of the marriage song to a new level of artistic excellence, and her lyrics, fragmentary as they are, have been nearly universally considered outstanding poetic achievements. However, while her literary reputation has remained high into the contemporary period, Sappho's personal reputation has been controversial, sometimes even to the point of overshadowing her status as a poet. The dispute over her reputation seems to have begun two or three centuries after her death, and consists of mostly unfounded accusations of immorality, including contentions that she was the lover of Alcaeus, and that she instructed her pupils in homosexual practices. By the twentieth century Sappho's name had become synonymous with lesbianism in both popular and scholarly parlance. Though many contemporary critics have emphasized Sappho's skilled versification, exploring her themes, imagery, and influence, discussion of her school and sexual preference has been renewed in the era of feminist literary studies and academic interest in the dynamics of erotic desire. The true purpose of Sappho's thiasos also remains something of a mystery: was it mainly a religious association dedicated to the worship of Aphrodite; was it primarily a sort of finishing school intended to prepare young women for marriage; or was it a female retreat where maidens were instructed in lesbian practices? Scholars have posited theories across the spectrum. As the critical speculation surrounding Sappho's poetry continues, so does the admiration and appreciation of it. Commentators have unanimously praised her sincerity and intensity, as well as her remarkably simple, yet effective style. She has also been lauded for her ability to establish an intimate relationship with the reader. Contemporary critics, meanwhile, have continued in the established traditions associated with this powerfully enigmatic figure, endeavoring to unveil the poetic subtleties and intensities of her fragmentary work, drawn from aged and corrupted texts. Her influence on various poets, from her contemporary Alcaeus to writers as diverse as Catullus, John Donne, Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Hilda Doolittle, has been studied. Above all, in the late modern period scholars have sought to redefine Sappho as the overarching symbol of feminine discourse, portraying her as the original, finest, and most defiantly personal female poet of all time.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (edited by Edgar Lobel and Denys Page) 1955

The Odes, Fragments, and Epigrams of Sappho; With the Original Greek Plac'd Opposite to the Translation (translated by John Addison in his The Works of Anacreon) 1735

”Sapphic Fragments” (translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his Poems) 1870

Sappho: Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation (translated by Henry Thornton Wharton) 1885

Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (translated by Bliss Carman) 1907

The Poems of Sappho (translated by Edwin Marion Cox) 1924

The Songs of Sappho (translated by Marion Mills Miller and David M. Robinson) 1925

Sappho: The Poems and Fragments (translated by C. R. Haines) 1926

Sappho: A New Translation (translated by Mary Barnard) 1958

Sappho: Lyrics in the Original Greek with Translations (translated by Willis Barnstone) 1965

Sappho: Poems and Fragments (translated by Guy Davenport) 1965

Sappho: Love Songs (translated by Paul Roche) 1966

The Poems of Sappho (translated by Suzy Q. Groden) 1967

”Sappho” (translated by Guy Davenport in his Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman: Three Lyric Poets of the Late Greek Bronze Age) 1980

Sappho: Poems and Fragments (translated by Josephine Balmer) 1992

Sappho: A Garland, the Poems and Fragments of Sappho (translated by Jim Powell) 1993

Sappho: Poems (translated by Sasha Newborn) 1993

Love Songs of Sappho (translated by Paul Roche) 1998

Eileen Gregory (essay date winter 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gregory, Eileen. “Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H. D.'s Sea Garden.Contemporary Literature 27, no. 4 (winter 1986): 525-52.

[In the following essay, Gregory explores the poetry of Sappho in terms of its influence on Hilda Doolittle, characterizing the Greek poet's work as “the timeless matter of ephemeral feeling.”]

If we accept Sappho as a great erotic poet, Paul Friedrich suggests, “then her body becomes an icon for a myth of the inner life” (113). What are the contours of the myth seen through this female “body” of language? What is that interior landscape of Lesbos, and how is it present in H.D.'s Sea Garden? I would like to...

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David Sider (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Sider, David. “Sappho 168B Voight: Δέbχε μεν α Σελαννα.” Eranos 84 (1986): 57-68.

[In the following essay, Sider discusses multiple poetic meanings of the term “ôra” in the Sapphic fragment designated as 168B Voight.]

Δέδυχε μὲν ἀ Σελάννα
χαὶ Πληiαδεs· μέσαι δὲ
νύχτεs, παϱὰ δ' ἔϱχετ' Ὤϱα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα χατεύδω.(1)

Recent discussion of this poem has concentrated on the meaning of ôra, scholars as usual arguing for only one of the possible meanings the word may have: (i) hour of the night, i.e., the night itself...

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Joan DeJean (essay date summer 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: DeJean, Joan. “Fictions of Sappho.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 4 (summer 1987): 787-805.

[In the following essay, DeJean probes Ovid's fictionalization of Sappho in his Heroides as an abandoned woman who kills herself because of unrequited love.]

… [In] the Heroides, … Ovid recounts tale after tale of women abandoned by unfaithful lovers. Ovid's fiction is a prime example of the complicity between female humiliation and canonical positioning … for the Heroides concludes with a vignette that makes plain the bond between physical abandonment and critical appropriation. Ovid transfigures the original woman writer, Sappho, into the...

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Joan DeJean (essay date September 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: DeJean, Joan. “Female Voyeurism: Sappho and Lafayette.” Rivista di Letterature moderne e comparate 40, no. 3 (September 1987): 201-15.

[In the following essay, DeJean concentrates on Sappho's resistance to the objectifying male erotic gaze in favor of a poetic vision that reflects feminine desire.]

«Within [the logic that has dominated the West since the time of the Greeks], the gaze is particularly foreign to female eroticism […]. [Womans] entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies […] her consignment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contemplation» (25-6). In This Sex Which is Not One, Luce Irigaray offers this...

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Rosanna Warren (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Warren, Rosanna. “Sappho: Translation as Elegy.” In The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field, edited by Rosanna Warren, pp. 199-216. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Warren details the influence of translated Sapphic poetry on such writers as Catullus, Charles Baudelaire, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, with a principal focus on Sappho's poem known as “Phainetai moi.”]

Our dreams pursue our dead.

Swinburne, Ave atque Vale


He's like a god, that man; he seems
(if this can be) to shine beyond
the gods, who nestling near you sees...

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Joyce Zonana (essay date spring 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Zonana, Joyce. “Swinburne's Sappho: The Muse as Sister-Goddess.” Victorian Poetry 28, no. 1 (spring 1990): 39-50.

[In the following essay, Zonana highlights poet Algernon Charles Swinburne's identification with Sappho and her apotheosis as the “Tenth Muse.”]

In an important early poem, “Sapphics” (1:333-335),1 Swinburne introduces a theme that was to dominate both his poetry and prose: Sappho's apotheosis as the tenth Muse, a poet whose “visible song” soars as “a bird soars.” By identifying Sappho as a Muse—and ultimately, as we shall see, as the Muse, not only for him, but for all poets—Swinburne radically redefines the...

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Dolores O'Higgins (essay date 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Higgins, Dolores. “Sappho's Splintered Tongue: Silence in Sappho 31 and Catullus 51.” American Journal of Philology 111 (1990): 156-67.

[In the following essay, O'Higgins explicates the Sappho poem referred to as “Phainetai moi” (fragment no. “31”) in the context of a verse response by Catullus.]

Sappho1 “31” concerns poetry as much as love or jealousy, like Catullus' “response” in 51, a poem which addresses Sappho's poetic claims and poetic stance at least as much as Lesbia's beauty.2 This study considers the impact of the beloved on each of the two poets, focusing especially on the disturbing and memorable image of...

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Diane J. Rayor (essay date 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Rayor, Diane J. “Translating Fragments.” Translation Review, no. 32-33 (1990): 15-18.

[In the following essay, Rayor explores some of the difficulties associated with translating Sappho's fragmentary poetic texts.]

Since ancient poetry so often survives only in fragments, it would seem to present the translator with special problems not shared by those who translate complete texts. But although some of the problems are unique, the methods used to “solve” them are much the same. Yet focusing on the translation of fragments makes it easier to see the additions, subtractions, and changes that occur in all translations. The awkward loss of text exaggerates...

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David Bevington (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Bevington, David. “Introduction to Sappho and Phao.” In John Lyly: Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, edited by G. K. Hunter and David Bevington, pp. 141-96. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Bevington explores Elizabethan dramatist John Lyly's version of the Sappho myth—derived from Ovid—in his 1584 play Sappho and Phao.]

[John Lyly, in his drama Sappho and Phao,] seems unaware of, or uninterested in, much of the historical information that we possess today about Sappho. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature and the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and...

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Kai Heikkilä (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Heikkilä, Kai. “Sappho Fragment 2 L.-P: Some Homeric Readings.” Arctos 26 (1992): 39-53.

[In the following essay, Heikkilä traces Homeric parallels—sometimes recast in erotic contexts—in Sappho's second fragment.]


The relationship of Sappho's poems to Homer has been studied several times.1 Fairly recently four fragments of Sappho, namely frs. “1,” “16,” “31,” and “44” L.-P. have been studied by Leah Rissman as to their Homeric allusions.2 Rissman's methodological approach to Homeric allusions in Sappho deserves attention as a model with which to highlight the purposes and...

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Paul Allen Miller (essay date spring 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Paul Allen. “Sappho 31 and Catullus 51: The Dialogism of Lyric.” Arethusa, 26, no. 2 (spring 1993): 183-99.

[In the following essay, Miller applies a Bakhtinian theory of lyric dialogism to Sappho's fragment number “31” and Catullus's translation of this poem, in order to suggest that the two works reflect radically different genres of composition.]

Mikhail Bakhtin, in “Discourse in the Novel,” formulates what seems an ironclad distinction between poetic and novelistic discourse. Poetry, he argues, is essentially “monologic” and strives for a unity of discourse, “so that the finished work may rise as unitary speech, one co-extensive...

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Linda H. Peterson (essay date spring 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Peterson, Linda H. “Sappho and the Making of Tennysonian Lyric.” ELH 61, no. 1 (spring 1994): 121-37.

[In the following essay, Peterson notes the literary influence of Sappho's poetry on Alfred, Lord Tennyson and, more broadly, on the “feminine” tradition in nineteenth-century English lyric verse.]

In 1830, on a summer tour in southern France and the Pyrenees, Alfred Tennyson wrote the poem now known as “Mariana in the South.” When Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson's travelling companion on that tour, sent a copy of the poem to their mutual friend W. B. Donne, he included a paragraph of critical commentary that has since become part of Tennyson...

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André Lardinois (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Lardinois, André. “Subject and Circumstance in Sappho's Poetry.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 124 (1994): 57-84.

[In the following essay, Lardinois questions modern historical reconstructions of Sappho as either a school-mistress or a symposiast, claiming instead that the historical evidence is most consistent with her occupation as an “instructor of young women's choruses.”]

Holt Parker, in a provocative article in [Transactions of the American Philological Association] 123 (1993) 309-51, has questioned one hundred eighty years of classical scholarship on the relationship of Sappho to her addressees, if we take...

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Page Dubois (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Dubois, Page. “Sappho's Body-in-Pieces.” In Sappho Is Burning, pp. 55-76. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt from her monograph containing feminist, materialist, and historicist approaches to Sappho, Dubois uses the example of Sappho's fragmentary poem no. “31” to suggest the central importance of fragmentation and dismemberment to our modern, theoretical understanding and reconstruction of the antique past.]

One of Walter Benjamin's theses on the philosophy of history expresses scorn for a certain view of historicism. He wrote: “Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a...

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Jane McIntosh Snyder (essay date 1997)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Snyder, Jane McIntosh. “Sappho's Challenge to the Homeric Inheritance” and “Sappho's Other Lyric Themes.” In Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho, pp. 63-77, 97-121. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpts, Snyder examines how Sappho's lyric poetry recontextualizes the patriarchal and heterosexual world of the Homeric epic, also surveying several of her lesser-known poetic fragments.]

Despite obvious differences in scope, purpose, and tone, scholars have frequently noted the similarities between Homer's epics and Sappho's lyrics. Remarking on echoes in diction, phraseology, and themes, one critic inquires, “Why does...

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Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Andreadis, Harriette. Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, 254 p.

Invokes the status of Sappho as an icon of female same-sex eroticism to study aspects of this phenomena in sixteenth- through eighteenth-century England.

Bergmann, Emilie L. “Fictions of Sor Juana/Fictions of Sappho.” Confluencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura 9, no. 2 (spring 1994): 9-15.

Applies Joan DeJean's theories of the role of the feminine in male poetic discourse outlined in her Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937 to a study of works...

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