That naughty old Sappho of Greece
Said, "What I prefer to a piece
Is to have my pudenda
Rubbed hard by the enda
The little pink nose of my niece."

-- Anonymous

Sappho was born in either Mytilène or Eressos on the northeastern Aegean isle of Lesbos, in Greece, sometime between 630 and 612 BCE to a wine merchant, Skamandronymous. She is said to have lived until around 570 BCE. In the original Greek, her name would be Psappho.

Most of her works have been lost, but the ones that remain are rated with the finest Greek lyric poetry, especially remarkable for intensity of feeling. Nearly all of these poems treat of erotic love and are focused upon the young women who were part of her circle. But Sappho was not exclusively homosexual, and was married to a man named Cercylas (from Andros), whom she survived, and with him had a daughter, Cleis. She also had as a lover the poet Alcaeus. Legend would have it that she threw herself off of a cliff for love of one Phaon, who did not love her in return.

She wrote in the Aeolic dialect, and was among the first poets to write in the first-person voice. Plato distinguished her by conferring her status as the Tenth Muse. In her native town, the Mytilenians venerated her so greatly that they made coins with her profile as decoration, and paid a royal tribute to her memory at her death. She traveled much of Greece, and after she left from a visit to Syracruse, the locals erected a statue of her. Only one complete Sapphic poem remains, of nine volumes once compiled by Aristophanes and Aristarchus, some few hundred years later.

See also: To a Young Girl, Leto and Niobe, To Aphrodite, Without warning, Tonight I Watched.

See To a Young Girl for one of her best poems, with numerous translations.

Ancients

Her name was Psappho, in her own Lesbian dialect.

The longest account of her life is an entry in the Suda, an encyclopaedia dating from the tenth century. It is not known how reliable this is.

Herodotus says her father was Scamandronymus and her brother was Charaxus. Herodotus says Charaxus loved a famous courtesan Rhodopis, who was a born a slave (to the same master as Aesop) and taken to Egypt, where Charaxus redeemed her for a large sum, for which he was ridiculed in a poem by his sister when he returned to Mytilene. Others say the courtesan was called Doricha.

Her daughter's name was Cleis; this might have been her mother's name as well.

Plato called her "the tenth Muse".

The word anthology for a collection of poems comes from anthos 'flower': the first compiler Meleager of Gadara (c.135-c.65) compared each poet in his garland to a different flower. Of Sappho he said "Few, but roses".

Philostratus says she loved the rose and used it in her poetry to express her appreciation of female beauty. She compared pale skin to a rose, to the moon, to chervil, all white things.

The word rhododaktulos 'rosy-fingered' is familiar from Homer used of the dawn. Sappho used it of the moon. The first part does not mean rose the colour, but rose the flower: it (the Lesbian form is brodo-) is related to our 'root' and 'wort', and even the Arabic ward 'flowers', not to our word 'red'.

Ancient commentators record that she was the first person to say that the moon was "like silver" (arguria).

The ruling family in Lesbos in her day were the Panthilidae. When an attempt was made to overthrow the tyrant Myrsilus, she, as a member of a rival aristocratic family, may have had to go into exile. Her fellow poet Alcaeus may have been involved in the plot. One tradition says she died in Sicily.

There was a statue of her in Syracuse, in Sicily, made by Silanion in the fourth century BCE. It was carried off by the rapacious Roman propraetor Gaius Verres with much other plunder; Mark Antony had him put to death to get his treasure.

Her face was used on the coins of Lesbos.

Lesbos was well-known for female homosexuality in her own day: the poet Anacreon of Tyre (c.570-c.485) wrote that the woman he loves ignores him because "she is from Lesbos and gapes after another woman".

In Attic comedies long after her death, her propensities were mocked, and the story was told how at last she had fallen in love with Phaon the ferryman, and being rejected, she threw herself from the Leucadian Rock on the coast of Epirus. Ovid and Pope use this story, and Ovid says later in life she turned her back on female lovers. But Phaon is a name used for Adonis and the fable may be a myth of rebirth associated with Aphrodite, whom Sappho served.

Maximus of Tyre wrote that her relationship with her pupils was similar to that between Socrates and his.

Among her beloved girls mentioned in her poetry are Anactoria and Atthis; others are Gongyla, Mnasidica, Dicca, Gyrinno, Gorgo, Irana, Micca; her rivals were Andromeda, who took Atthis from her, and Archeanassa.

Catullus's poem 5, beginning ille mi par esse deo videtur, is a translation of her To a Young Girl (q.v.). Catullus used the name Lesbia for his own lover in his poems.

A story says that Gregory Nazianzen destroyed her poems at Byzantium in 380 CE, so that his own might be better appreciated and morality improved.

Aelian quoted Stobaeus: After his nephew had sung one of Sappho's songs over the wine, Solon of Athens, the son of Execestides, told the lad to teach it to him immediately. When someone asked why he was so eager, Solon replied, "So that I may die knowing it". (Solon lived c.640-c.558, so was almost contemporary with her.)

Ancient commentators said she was the first to say poetry brings the poet immortality.

Poseidippus wrote, in about the third century BCE:

Long since your bones have mouldered; long, Doricha, the binding
Of your curls, long all the fragrance from your robe has passed away,
That you flung round fair Charaxus and caught him in its winding
And breast to breast lay drinking, at the dawning of the day.
But the white page of Sappho lives on and lives for ever,
Breathing in its sweetness your name thrice-blest the while,
That Naucratis shall remember while ships shall breast her river,
Standing in from seaward to the long lagoons of Nile.

Dioscorides of Nicopolis wrote of her, in a fragment preserved in the Palatine Anthology:

Wherever you are, lady, equal of the gods, greetings;
for we still have your immortal daughters, your songs.

Moderns

Philip Stubbes wrote in The Anatomie of Abuses in about 1590: "I say of Musick as Plato, Aristotle, Galen, and many others haue said of it; that it is very il for yung heds, for a certaine kinde of nice, smoothe sweetnes in alluring the auditorie to nicenes, effeminacie, pusillanimitie, and lothsomnes of life... and made apt to all wantonnes and sinne. And therefore Writers affirme Sappho to haue been expert in musick, and therefore whorish."

Byron wrote (Don Juan III, lxxxvi):

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung

Elizabeth Barrett Browning said "Sappho's heart beat through [the Greek language] and heaved up the world's", and in her A Vision of Poets wrote:

And Sappho, with that gloriole
Of ebon hair on calmèd brows.
O poet-woman! none forgoes
The leap, attaining repose!

Baudelaire wrote a poem Lesbos, Verlaine wrote Sappho; and Pierre Louÿs wrote the sensual poems Les chansons de Bilitis in 1895.

Theodore Watts-Dunton said: "Never before these songs were sung, and never since did the human soul, in the grip of a fiery passion, utter a cry like hers; and, from the executive point of view, in directness, in lucidity, in that high, imperious verbal economy which only nature can teach the artist, she has no equal, and none worthy to take the place of second."

C.G.D. Roberts said: "If all the poets and all the lovers of poetry should be asked to name the most precious of the priceless things which time has wrung in tribute from the triumphs of human genius, the answer which would rush to every tongue would be 'The Lost Poems of Sappho'. These we know to have been jewels of a radiance so imperishable that the broken gleams of them still dazzle men's eyes, whether shining from the two small brilliants and the handful of stardust which alone remain to us, or reflected merely from the adoration of those poets of old time who were so fortunate as to witness their full glory."

Sappho who broke off a fragment of her soul for us to guess at.

Fragments

Here is what poetry of hers is on E2. Mostly this is in translation, but several have the original Greek. I created this list automatically, and haven't yet checked them all individually. I plan to add details such as the Lobel-Page numbers.

Anactoria
And their feet move
A Young Bride
Blame Aphrodite
Bitter-sweet Love
Cleis
Cyprian, in my dream
I have no complaint
Hymn to Aphrodite L-P 1
I took my lyre
In the Spring Twilight
It was you, Atthis
Leto and Niobe
No Word L-P 94
Of course I love you
Sounds of Grief
Standing by my bed
Tell everyone
The Evening Star
The Most Lovely Thing L-P 16
The Muses
to Aphrodite
Tonight I Watched
We put the urn aboard ship
We shall enjoy it
Without warning L-P 47
words
You may forget L-P 138

Fragment 134 is five words long, yet sets my skin aflame: μητε μοι μελι μητε μελισσα méte moi méli méte mélissa 'Not the honey nor the bee for me'.

Sap"pho (?), n. [See Sapphic.] Zool.

Any one of several species of brilliant South American humming birds of the genus Sappho, having very bright-colored and deeply forked tails; -- called also firetail.

 

© Webster 1913.

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