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