Born about 630 bce on the island of Lesbos off the coast of Asia Mino and living until about 570 bce, Sappho wrote lyric poems (solo songs, or monodies, sung with the accompaniment of a lyre) so effectively expressive of emotional highs and lows that she was dubbed by Plato “the tenth Muse.” Only a couple complete poems and various fragments survive, probably written down after her death, although the library at Alexandria had nine volumes of her works. In 1879 more poems of hers were discovered in an ancient Egyptian rubbish heap, and other fragments have been found as shreds in mummy wrappings and as stuffing for mummified crocodiles.
Some think Sappho was a priestess in charge of a group of women who worshipped Aphrodite; some believe she was a teacher of poetry and the lyre, the head of a kind of aristocratic finishing school to prepare girls to be wives of the nobility. Scandalous stories about her — that she was a prostitute, that she was a suicide over a lost love — resulted in the denigration of her work. A Bishop of Constantinople ordered all her work destroyed.
The poems offer insight into the lives of young women and many concern the love of these Greek women for each other and border on the homoerotic (at least according to post-classical thinking). For one woman to be called away to the duty of marriage is emotionally devastating for the one abandoned.
Yes, this is where we get the word lesbian. But Themistius wrote in his Orations:
We allow Sappho … to be immoderate and excessive in praise of the beloved, for loved and lover were both private individuals, and there was no danger in it if the loved ones should become elevated by praise. For this love has a nobility, and noble the beloved. (qtd. in Santos 169)
“Surely few poets in history have attracted such a distinguished list of poet-translators: Hardy, Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Byron, Housman, Tennyson, and Swinburne among them” (Santos 169).
Here’s one collection of fragments from Sappho, strung together and titled “Six Fragments for Atthis” (trans. Sherod Santos):
I loved you, Atthis, years ago,
when my youth was still all flowers
and sighs, and you — you seemed to me
such a small ungainly girl.
Can you forget what happened before?
If so, then I’ll remind you how, while lying
beside me, you wove a garland of crocuses
which I then braided into strands of your hair.
And once, when you’d plaited a double necklace
from a hundred blooms, I tied it around
the swanning, sun-licked ring of your neck.
And on more than one occasion (there were two
of them, to be exact), while I looked on, too
silent with adoration to say your name,
you glazed your breasts and arms with oil.
No holy place existed without us then,
no woodland, no dance, no sound.
Beyond all hope, I prayed those timeless
days we spent might be made twice as long.
I prayed one word: I want.
Someone, I tell you, will remember us,
even in another time.
Santos, Sherod. Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 2005.
“Sappho.” Literature of the Western World, Volume 1. 5th edition by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 1141-1147.
“Sappho of Lesbos.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 6th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992. 514-517.