Many ancient sources mention Sappho, the Greek lyric poet who flourished around 600 B.C.E. Herodotus, Plato, and Ovid have transmitted stories that purport to describe the incidents of her life. As a result, the popular imagination has envisioned Sappho primarily as the founder of a community of women on her native island of Lesbos. She has therefore become, through this and her homosexual love poems, a symbol of women’s love for women.
Erica Jong, like those who have seriously studied Sappho’s extant lyrics, understands that there is far more to Sappho’s work than an apologia for Lesbian homosexuality. Beginning with the ancient sources, Sappho’s Leap is, in effect, a prose odyssey that parallels the life of anyone, female or male, who has ever recognized that love and work are the only reasons for continuing to live. The wonderful paradox of Sappho’s Leap is that it is an epic life of a lyric poet. The story it creates is just as valid as the ancient testimonies, and it is the story of Jong’s own life as much as it is that of her heroine.
Jong uses all the fundamentals of the ancient Sappho testimonies: early death of the poet’s warrior father; Sappho’s love for the dashing lyric poet Alcaeus; the birth of their daughter Cleis; Sappho’s hatred for Pittacus, tyrant of Lesbos; her exile to Sicily and marriage to the repulsive Cercylas; her suicidal leap. Jong makes Alcaeus Sappho’s Penelope; Cleis becomes her Telemachus. Most importantly, Aphrodite becomes a mentor who parallels Odysseus’ Artemis, the virgin goddess, though the character that provides a resolution for Jong’s Sappho bears the name Artemisia and is ironically a midwife. Jong’s Sappho, like her historical counterpart, learns that love has many valid aspects. The lyric poems Jong has written in Sapphic stanza to conclude her novel prove how timeless this lesson is.