Modern poetry enthusiasts might recognize one of ancient Greece's most well-known poets from just one surviving poem and many other surviving fragments of work. The fact that scholars have been interested in studying these bits and pieces for hundreds of years is a testament to their impact and beauty. These facts alone would be interesting enough, but what's even more astounding is this poet was a woman who composed lyric poetry at a time when women didn't do that.
We're referring of course to the poet Sappho. She was born between 620 B.C.E. and 615 B.C.E., and has been the subject of much opinion during the past two-and-a-half millennia. That she came from the island of Lesbos, Greece, is agreed upon. Although she was part of an aristocratic family, Sappho's stature as one of the most important poets in Western history, or even a respected poet in her own time, is an unusual turn of events.
In ancient Greece, women were typically educated only enough to run a household. But the city of her birth may have contributed to her life path. In 2018, Marguerite Johnson, professor of classics at the University of Newcastle in Australia, wrote Sappho's hometown Mytilene "appears to have been an enlightened society compared to other communities in Archaic Greece" in the article "Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments."
In Mytilene, women of privileged social standing had access to formal education. Whatever training Sappho received, it united with her personal talent to make a lasting impact on literature.
"She was the first female voice of the artist in the Western tradition," Johnson says. "That lyric voice of the private female poet is vitally important in the history of the Western literary tradition. She's the beginning of it."
Who Was Sappho?
If she was an artistic trailblazer, some parts of Sappho's life appear more traditional. It is believed that she was married, and she had a daughter named Cleis (Kleïs). Some of the fragmented remains of her work discuss her daughter, for example:
But for you, Kleïs, I have no colorful
hairband – where will it come from?
For corroboration, these inclusions are matched with early biographical sketches from antiquity up to the Suda, an early Byzantine encyclopedic text written in Greek, whose writers would have had access to ancient materials that have now been lost. Cleis is also mentioned in the Suda, so her existence is generally agreed upon, and Sappho's daughter provides evidence that the poet was married to a man.
"She would have to have a husband to have a child," Johnson says. "Because there's no way in ancient Greek society that you'd have a kid without a marriage ceremony and a very legitimate process."
Although Sappho wrote about her brothers and other women she knew, there have been no references to her husband found in her works. In other fragments, the names used for Sappho's husband vary and are often puns, joking about his virility rather than providing his actual name. The real pun could have been that she preferred women.
Was Sappho a Lesbian?
One of the oft-asked questions about Sappho is, was she a lesbian? In fact, it has been claimed that the island of Lesbos provides the root of the word "lesbian" because of Sappho. For example, Poets.org states that the characterization of Sappho as overly promiscuous and a lesbian has endured and that "the very term 'lesbian' is derived from the name of her home island."
Not exactly. In her book "Sappho," Johnson explains that the term was derived from the Greek verb "lesbiazein," which ironically means "to fellate." True, that word was associated with the island of Lesbos. "What the verb connotes is an act of unambiguous heterosexuality, and the historical explanation for the origin and meaning of lesbiazein appears to have been based on the reputation of the women of Lesbos for unbridled sensuality and lust," Johnson wrote in the book.
But back to Sappho, was she or wasn't she?
"It's a vitally important question, and that's why it's asked every single time," Johnson says. "The ancients did not use those terms of themselves. The term homosexual and the term lesbian are very late into the English vocabulary." The ancient Greeks did not have a term for it, so scholars who work on culture and sexuality in the ancient world use a more neutral term, which is "same-sex attracted."
"I think that Sappho was predominantly attracted to women emotionally," Johnson says. "We can absolutely see in the fragment[s]. She writes about women's beauty, so in terms of aesthetics, she's attracted to women." Although her poetry contains little about sexual expression of that love and desire, explicit sexual references were not found in poetry at that time anyway.
To limit the definition and put a completely modern spin on it, you would say she's lesbian, Johnson explains. The Greeks would say, she's a "lover of women" — platonically and possibly sexually. For example:
Sweet mother, I cannot weave —
slender Aphrodite has overcome me
with longing for a girl.
When archaeologists discovered new fragments of Sappho's work on papyrus in Egypt in the 1800s, they were "devasted" to find female pronouns in the poet's descriptions of what she found beautiful and what she loved, says Johnson. To "protect" Sappho's image, the idea that she led a girls school and that references to loving girls refer to the pupils at her school, was circulated.
Even today, the Britannica entry for Sappho states, "Her themes are invariably personal — primarily concerned with her thiasos, the usual term (not found in Sappho's extant writings) for the female community, with a religious and educational background, that met under her leadership."
Johnson says this was an example of putting Victorian morals onto Sappho and that there was no girls school at all. Scholars have also considered that Sappho might have been composing more with her performances and audiences in mind, as Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker in 2015.
Because we know little about her — and a lot of what we know is contradictory — throughout the centuries people have been able to make her "their own Sappho," Johnson says. "So, limited and quite skewed biographical detail enables people to see in the fragments, as they are beginning to be uncovered, to see what they want to see."
Sappho and Lyric Poetry
For someone so revered for so long, Sappho's body of work — at least what we have access to today — is exceptionally limited.
"We have a very small percentage of her complete work, maybe I'd be optimistic and say 2 percent," says Johnson. "They had a very vulnerable and fragile means of maintaining literature in the ancient world. A lot of it was passed down by word-of-mouth."
At some point, Sappho's poems were written down and recorded, but probably not by Sappho herself, who would have performed her poems accompanied by a lyre. Thanks to these transcriptions, Romans had access to the works, and some of the examples we have today come from ancient grammar books — a passage explaining a poetic meter might include an example of that meter from Sappho.
Sappho composed in Aeolic Greek, and like her contemporary and fellow Lesbos native Alcaeus, she wrote in a lyric style. Unlike epic poetry — think the "Iliad" — which is written in hexameter, lyric poetry has a shorter meter, making it more suitable for personal topics. It's also performed accompanied by a lyre, hence the name.
The poetic meter Sappho developed is now known as the Sapphic Meter or the Sapphic Stanza, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. It consists of three lines of 11 beats and a concluding line of five. Sapphic verse was used by poets who came after her, including the Roman Catullus, Horace and much later in England by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Unfortunately, the meter is difficult to capture in translations of Sappho's poetry. Sometimes her work is translated in blank verse to retain some of the structure, however, the musical quality is lost.
It was Sappho's description of the intimate that truly set her apart from her contemporaries, so much so that Plato called her the "Tenth Muse," joining the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who lavished divine inspiration to the arts and sciences.
"Her voice is unique," says Johnson. "It's the most personal voice within this rise of Greek lyric poetry that can deal with personal topics, but Sappho is the one who really champions that."
Pieces of Sappho's poetry are mostly fragments titled with numbers. From the nine possible papyrus scrolls — or about 10,000 lines — of Sappho's poetry known to have been edited in Alexandria in the third and second centuries B.C.E., just 650 lines survived, according to Diane Raynor and A.P.M.H. Lardinois' "Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works."
The authors describe the preserved works as "one complete song, approximately 10 substantial fragments that contain more than half of the original number of lines, a hundred short citations from the works of other ancient authors, sometimes containing not more than one word, and another 50 scraps of papyrus."
Poem 58, which is concerned with growing older, was completed in 2004 when a piece of papyrus was found holding text that could be paired with existing fragments of the poem.