Sappho (ca. 625-570 B.C.), a Greek lyric poet, was the greatest female poet of antiquity. Her vivid, emotional manner of writing influenced poets through the ages, and her special quality of intimacy has great appeal to modern poetic tastes.
The poetry of Sappho epitomizes a style of writing evolved during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. At that time the main thrust of Greek poetry turned away from the epic form, which was concerned mainly with telling the stories of heroes and gods, utilizing the traditional and highly formulaic dactylic hexameter. The poets of the 7th and 6th centuries wrote choral songs, which were sung and danced by a choir, and solo songs, in which the poet was accompanied by a lyre or flutelike instrument. Doubtless these types of composition had existed side by side with the epic tradition, but after 700 B.C. poets refined the techniques of the choral and solo song, employing a variety of meters and a wide range of subject matter. Among the most prominent features of this kind of poetry were the infusion of the poet's personality and a concentration on his own inner feelings and motivations. No poet of this period displays the personal element more than Sappho.
Despite the highly personal tone of her poetry, Sappho gives very few details of her life. She was born either in the town of Eresus or in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the northern Aegean Sea and lived her life in Mytilene. She is said to have married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and she herself mentions a daughter, Cleis. Apparently Sappho came from one of the leading noble families in Mytilene, and, although she herself never mentions politics, tradition has it that her family was briefly exiled to Sicily shortly after 600 B.C.
Sappho had three brothers: Larichus, who served as a wine bearer in the town hall of Mytilene (an honor reserved for youths of good family); Charaxus, a merchant, whom Sappho scolds in her poetry for loving a prostitute in Egypt; and Eurygyus. There is some evidence that she lived to a fairly old age. Tradition relates that she was not beautiful but "small and dark." A more charming description is a one-line fragment from another Aeolian poet, Alcaeus: "Violethaired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho." The legend that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian Rock out of love for a young man named Phaon is one of many fictitious stories about her.
We can only estimate how much Sappho actually wrote, but her output must have been large because her works were collected in nine books (arranged according to meter) in the 3d century B.C. Although she enjoyed great popularity in antiquity, changes in literary fashion, the general decline of knowledge in the early Middle Ages, and Christian distaste for a poet who was considered vile resulted in the loss of most of her poetry. Book 1 alone contained 1,320 lines; yet a total of fewer than 1,000 lines survive, many of them preserved by ancient grammarians citing peculiarities of the Aeolian dialect. Since the late 19th century many new fragments have been recovered from papyrus finds in Egypt.
Except for a few wedding songs and some narrative poems, most of what remains of Sappho's poetry may be termed "occasional pieces," addressed to some person or to herself, very personal in content and manner. The subject is nearly always love and the attendant emotions—affection, passion, hatred, and jealousy—which Sappho felt toward the young girls who made up her "circle" or her rivals in love. Much scholarly controversy rages over the relationship between Sappho and the women about whom she wrote. On the one hand, it has been maintained that she was a corrupter of girls and instructed them in homosexual practices; on the other hand, it is said that she headed a kind of polite "finishing school" which prepared young ladies for marriage or that she was the leader of a thiasos (religious association), sacred to Aphrodite, in which girls were taught singing and other fine arts, with no hint of sexual irregularity. The precise nature of this circle of young women remains unclear. From the poems themselves it is clear that Sappho associated with girls, some of whom came from long distances, to whom and about whom she wrote poems detailing her frankly erotic feelings toward them.
Sappho's poetry is characterized by its depth of feeling and delicacy and grace of style. She wrote in her native Aeolian dialect, using ordinary vocabulary; her thoughts are expressed simply and unrhetorically but with exquisite care. Her grace and charm together with her technical skill in handling language and meter are most fully realized in the several longer fragments which have survived. One poem, "He appears to me like a god," a masterpiece of erotic lyric poetry, was closely imitated by the Roman poet Catullus over 500 years later and suggests the esteem in which the ancients held Sappho. Plato called her "the tenth Muse."
Further Reading on Sappho
An excellent modern translation of Sappho with Greek text and notes is Willis Barnstone, Sappho (1965). The best general account in English of Sappho's life and poetry is Sir Cecil M. Bowra, Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcam to Simonides (1936; rev. ed. 1961). A more detailed analysis of Sappho's works is Denys L. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (1955; rev. ed. 1959).