“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”
Plato called her ‘wise Sappho’. Solon of Athens once said that he would be happy to die having learned one of her songs; Horace described her work as sacred. Sappho was as celebrated and respected for her art as any man or woman in the ancient world.
She was included as the only woman among the nine Greek lyric poets who were studied by the Alexandrians (Greeks) and later the Romans. Sappho is still well known today, despite much of her work being lost. There are about 200 remnants of Sappho’s poetry still in existence, all of varying lengths. As well as manuscripts copied by scholars over time, her poetry survives on papyrus fragments and pieces of pottery.
She wrote about heroic deeds and praise for the Gods – but is most remembered for her passionate love poetry and razor sharp wit:
“She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.”
“Vain woman, foolish thing!
Do you base your worth on a ring?”
Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos to a noble family and had three older brothers. She may have had a daughter who she named Cleïs after her mother.
What we know of Sappho’s life is based on her own poetry, and the writings of a few contemporary and later Greek historians. She spent most of her life on Lesbos, though she lived during a politically turbulent era and at one point was exiled for a short time. Her fellow poet and friend Alcaeus described her as ‘Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho’ and most physical descriptions agree that she was small and dark haired.
Sappho’s immense reputation surpasses many other poets of antiquity – she was called the tenth muse, was studied by Greeks, Romans and later the Victorians, odes were written to her, paintings and statues were created in her image. She is often praised for the clarity of language in her love poetry and her sharp descriptions – she is the first writer known to describe the moon as ‘silvery’.
“You have returned!
You did well to not depart
because I pined for you.
Now you have re-lit the torch
I bear for you in my heart,
this flare of Love.
I bless you and bless you and bless you
because we’re no longer apart.”
It would be difficult to discuss Sappho without stumbling upon a number of references to her sexuality. Her poetry focused on love and passion for people of both sexes. The word lesbian comes from Lesbos, the island she lived on, and she is also the origin of the word Sapphic. These words did not come to be applied to gay women until the 19th Century, and the poet’s reputation for same-sex relationships did not come about until 300 years after her death, nevertheless the rumor has become legend.
“Once more I dive into this fathomless sea,
intoxicated by lust.”
It was not uncommon for male poets such as Alcaeus and Pindar to form romantic relationships with both men and women in their social circle, so it might be assumed that Sappho adopted a similar attitude. Later philosopher Maximus of Tyre compared her relationships with women to Socrates relationships with men, claiming that they were simply ‘captivated by all things beautiful’.
New Poems by Sappho – Dirk Obbink
In Our Time: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme
Great Lives: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme
Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong is a fiction novel based on the life of the poet.