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May 16, 1995 From the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Evidence suggests that she had several brothers, married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and had a daughter named Cleis. She spent most of her adult life in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for unmarried young women. Sappho's school devoted itself to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, and Sappho earned great prominence as a dedicated teacher and poet. A legend from Ovid suggests that she threw herself from a cliff when her heart was broken by Phaon, a young sailor, and died at an early age. Other historians posit that she died of old age around 550 B.C.

The history of her poems is as speculative as that of her biography. She was known in antiquity as a great poet: Plato called her "the tenth Muse" and her likeness appeared on coins. It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as "Sapphic" meter. Her poems were first collected into nine volumes around the third century B.C., but her work was lost almost entirely for many years. Merely one twenty-eight-line poem of hers has survived intact, and she was known principally through quotations found in the works of other authors until the nineteenth century. In 1898 scholars unearthed papyri that contained fragments of her poems. In 1914 in Egypt, archeologists discovered papier-mâché coffins made from scraps of paper that contained more verse fragments attributed to Sappho.

Three centuries after her death the writers of the New Comedy parodied Sappho as both overly promiscuous and lesbian. This characterization held fast, so much so that the very term "lesbian" is derived from the name of her home island. Her reputation for licentiousness would cause Pope Gregory to burn her work in 1073. Because social norms in ancient Greece differed from those of today and because so little is actually known of her life, it is difficult to unequivocally answer such claims. Her poems about Eros, however, speak with equal force to men as well as to women.

Sappho is not only one of the few women poets we know of from antiquity, but also is one of the greatest lyric poets from any age. Most of her poems were meant to be sung by one person to the accompaniment of the lyre (hence the name, "lyric" poetry). Rather than addressing the gods or recounting epic narratives such as those of Homer, Sappho's verses speak from one individual to another. They speak simply and directly to the "bittersweet" difficulties of love. Many critics and readers alike have responded to the personal tone and urgency of her verses, and an abundance of translations of her fragments are available today.

[Artfully adorned Aphrodite]

Sappho

 

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Sappho

Sappho

Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho.

by this poet

poem
Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers, 
others call a fleet the most beautiful of 
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it's what-
            ever you love best.

And it's easy to make this understood by 
everyone, for she who surpassed all human 
kind in beauty, Helen, abandoning her
poem
Like the very gods in my sight is he who 
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
          murmur in love and

laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit; 
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken. 
Let me only glance where you are, the voice
poem
In my eyes he matches the gods, that man who 
sits there facing you--any man whatever--
listening from closeby to the sweetness of your 
          voice as you talk, the

sweetness of your laughter: yes, that--I swear it-- 
sets the heart to shaking inside my breast, since 
once I look at you for a moment, I can