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Sappho Biography

The biography of Sappho. This page has biographical information on Sappho, one of the best poets of all time. This PoetrySoup page also provides access to the poet's poems, best poetry, quotes, and video biographies...if available.

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An Ancient Greek lyric poetess, born in Eresos on the island of Lesbos. Sappho (/'sæfo/; Attic Greek Sapf, Aeolic Greek pf ) was an Ancient Greek poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life. The bulk of her poetry, which was well-known and greatly admired throughout antiquity, has been lost, but her immense reputation has endured through surviving fragments.. ancient Greek lyric poet from island of Lesbos


Life

No contemporary historical sources exist for Sappho's life—only her poetry. While it is natural to suppose some commonality of experience between Sappho's poetic persona and the historical Sappho, scholars have rejected a biographical reading of the poetry and have cast grave doubts on the reliability of the later biographical traditions from which all more detailed accounts derive.[1]

Sappho is believed to have been the daughter of Scamander and Cleïs and to have had three brothers. She was married (Attic comedy says to a wealthy merchant, but that is apocryphal), the name of her husband being in dispute. Some translators have interpreted a poem about a girl named Cleïs as being evidence that she had a daughter by that name. It was a common practice of the time to name daughters after grandmothers, so there is some basis for this interpretation. But the actual Aeolic word pais was more often used to indicate a slave or any young girl, rather than a daughter. In order to avoid misrepresenting the unknowable status of young Cleïs, translator Diane Rayor and others, such as David Campbell, chose to use the more neutral word "child" in their versions of the poem.

Sappho was born into an aristocratic family, which is reflected in the sophistication of her language and the sometimes rarified environments which her verses record. References to dances, festivals, religious rites, military fleets, parading armies, generals, and ladies of the ancient courts abound in her writings. She speaks of time spent in Lydia, one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries of that time. More specifically, Sappho speaks of her friends and happy times among the ladies of Sardis, capital of Lydia, once the home of Croesus and near the gold-rich lands of King Midas.

A violent coup on Lesbos, following a rebellion led by Pittacus, toppled the ruling families from power. For many years, Sappho and other members of the aristocracy, including fellow poet Alcaeus, were exiled. Her poetry speaks bitterly of the mistreatment she suffered during those years. Much of her exile was spent in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Upon hearing that the famous Sappho would be coming to their city, the people of Syracuse built a statue of her as a form of welcome. Much later, in 581 BC, when Pittacus was no longer in power, she was able to return to her homeland.

Because some of her love poems were addressed to women, she has long been considered to have had homosexual inclinations. The word lesbian itself is derived from the name of the island of Lesbos from which she came. (Her name is also the origin of its much rarer synonym sapphic.) The narrators of many of her poems do in fact speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various women, but descriptions of actual physical acts between women are few and subject to debate. Whether these poems are meant to be autobiographical is not known, although elements of other parts of Sappho's life do make appearances in her work, and it would be compatible with her style to have these intimate encounters expressed poetically, as well.

During the Victorian era, it became the fashion to describe Sappho as the head-mistress of a girls' finishing school. As Page DuBois (among many other experts) points out, this attempt at making Sappho understandable and palatable to the genteel classes of Great Britain was based more on conservative sensibilities than evidence. In fact, there are no references to teaching, students, academies, or tutors in any of Sappho's admittedly scant collection of surviving works. Nonetheless, the notion that Sappho was in charge of some sort of academy persists.

Contributions to the lyric tradition

Plato called Sappho The Tenth Muse, and the rest of the ancient critics agreed. She was one of the canonical nine lyric poets of archaic Greece, which meant that her works were studied by all those wishing to claim that they were properly educated. Older critics sometimes alleged that she led an aesthetic movement away from typical themes of gods to the themes of individual human experiences and emotions, but it is now considered more likely that her work belongs in a long tradition of lyric poetry, and is simply among the first lyric poetry to have been recorded in writing.

During Sappho's lifetime, and in much of Greek poetry thereafter, rhythmic patterns of sound were designed by alternating stresses within and between lines. The stresses were the alternating sounds of long and short vowels but the definitions of "long" or "short" are different from the definitions taught in American schools. The pronunciation of Aeolic Greek, like the other Greek dialects, included a tonal quality, as well. This gave a natural melody to the verses. Sappho's poetry is impossible to be rendered with a sound analogous to the original in an English translation but many have tried.

Like all early lyric poetry, Sappho's works were composed to be either sung or recited to music, in particular to the accompaniment of the lyre. Her extant poetry is in the form of monody, which means that it was designed to be sung by a single voice rather than by a choir. Plutarch credited Sappho with creating the Mixolydian mode of musical composition, which uses a descending scale of notes from b to B. She also developed what is now called the Sapphic stanza as a form of metrical poetry.

With less certainty, she may have invented the plectrum, or pick, which is used to strum the strings of the lyre. Prior to the development of the plectrum, the strings of the lyre were plucked by the fingers. The word which is generally understood to refer to the plectrum is olisbos, but its derivation is uncertain and other meanings have been proposed, thus the uncertainty of it being the specific invention of Sappho. It does appear, however, that she made great use of the plectrum at a time when others were content to pluck the strings.

Transmission and loss of Sappho's works

Although Sappho's work endured well into Roman times, with changing interests, styles, and aesthetics her work was copied less and less, especially after the academies stopped requiring her study. Part of the reason for her disappearance from the standard canon was the predominance of Attic and Homeric Greek as the languages required to be studied. Sappho's Aeolic dialect, a difficult one, and by Roman times, arcane and ancient as well, posed considerable obstacles to her continued popularity.

Once the major academies of the Byzantine Empire dropped her works from their standard curricula, very few copies of her works were made by scribes. Still, the greatest poets and thinkers of ancient Rome continued to emulate her or compare other writers to her, and it is through these comparisons and descriptions that we have received much of her extant poetry.

Modern legends, with origins that are difficult to trace, have made Sappho's literary legacy the victim of purposeful obliteration by scandalized church leaders, often by means of book-burning. There is no known historical evidence for these accounts. Indeed, Gregory of Nazianzus, who along with Pope Gregory VII features as the villain in many of these stories, was a reader and admirer of Sappho's poetry. For example, modern scholars have noted the echoes of Sappho fr. 2 in his poem On Human Nature, which copies from Sappho the quasi-sacred grove (alsos), the wind-shaken branches, and the striking word for "deep sleep" (koma).

It appears likely that Sappho's poetry was decimated by the same forces of cultural change that obliterated, without prejudice, the remains of all the canonical archaic Greek poets. Indeed, as one would expect from ancient critical estimations, which regard Sappho and Pindar as the greatest practitioners of monodic lyric and choral poetry (respectively), more of Sappho's work has survived through quotation than any of the others, with the exception of Pindar (whose works alone survive in a manuscript tradition).

Although the manuscript tradition broke off, some copies of her work have been discovered in Egyptian papyri from an earlier period. A major find at Oxyrhynchus brought many new but tattered verses to light.[2] From the time of the European Renaissance, the interest in Sappho's writing has grown, seeing waves of fairly widespread popularity as new generations rediscover her work. Since few people are able to understand ancient languages, each age has translated Sappho in its own idiomatic way. Poetry, such as Sappho's, that relies on meter is difficult to reproduce in English, especially American English, which has a much more even pronunciation and emphasis than ancient Greek. As a result, many early translators used rhyme and worked Sappho's ideas into English poetic forms.

In the 1960s Mary Barnard reintroduced Sappho to the reading public with a new approach to translation that eschewed the cumbersome use of rhyming stanzas or forms of poetry, such as the sonnet, which were grossly unsuited to Sappho's style. Barnard's translations featured spare, fresh language that better reflected the clarity of Sappho's lines. Her work signalled a new appreciation and hunger for Sappho's poetry. Subsequent translators have tended to work in a similar manner, seeking to allow the essence of Sappho's spirit to be visible through the translated verses.

Works

Ancient sources state that Sappho produced nine volumes of poetry, but only a small proportion of her work survives. Papyrus fragments, such as those found in the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, are an important source. One substantial fragment is preserved on a potsherd. The rest of what we know of Sappho comes through citations in other ancient writers, often made to illustrate grammar, vocabulary, or meter. There is a single complete poem, Fragment 1, Hymn to Aphrodite: for a fine modern translation, with notes, see this page. Another modern translation of that ode, and translations of two more virtually complete poems (16 and 31 in the standard numeration) and three shorter fragments, including one whose authorship is uncertain (168b), are available on this page. Greek texts and translations of the main fragments, with introduction and commentary, are available here.

The 'new Sappho'

The most recent addition to the corpus is a virtually complete poem on old age. The line-ends were first published in 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, no. 1787 (fragment 1: see the third pair of images on this page), but little could be made of them, since the indications of poem-end (placed at the beginnings of the lines) were lost, and scholars could only guess where one poem ended and another began. Most of the rest of the poem has recently (2004) been published from a 3rd century BCE papyrus in the Cologne University collection (image available here). The latest reconstruction, by M. L. West, appeared in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 151 (2005), 1-9, and in the Times Literary Supplement on 21 June 2005 (English translation and discussion). Another full literary translation is available. [3] The Greek text has been reproduced with helpful notes for students of the language, [4] together with other examples of Greek lyric poetry.

Sappho: myth and legend

In ancient and medieval times she was famous for (according to legend) throwing herself off a cliff due to unrequited love for a male sailor named Phaon. This legend dates to Ovid and Lucian in Ancient Rome and certainly is not a Christian overlay.

The 3rd Century philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote that Sappho was "small and dark" and that her relationships to her female friends were similar to those of Socrates:

What else was the love of the Lesbian woman except Socrates' art of love? For they seem to me to have practiced love each in their own way, she that of women, he that of men. For they say that both loved many and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to the Lesbian.

A major new literary discovery, the Milan Papyrus,[5] recovered from a dismantled mummy casing and published in 2001, has revealed the high esteem in which the poet Posidippus of Pella, an important composer of epigrams (3rd century BC), held Sappho's 'divine songs'. An English translation of the new epigrams, with notes, is available [6], as is the original Greek text. [7]

An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina (9.506) ascribed to Plato states:

Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there's Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.

Aelian wrote in Miscellany (Ποικßλη ιστορßα) that Plato called Sappho wise. Horace writes in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics are worthy of sacred admiration. One of Sappho's poems was famously translated by the 1st century BC Roman poet Catullus in his "Ille mi par esse deo videtur" (Catullus 51).

References in modern literature

Lord Byron wrote the following lines about her in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Stanza XXXIX:

And onward viewed the mount, not yet forgot,
The lover's refuge and the Lesbian's grave.
Dark Sappho! could not verse immortal save
That breast imbued with such immortal fire?

Charles Baudelaire writes about Sappho in Les Fleurs du mal.

The Greek poet Odysseas Elytis (20th century AD from Lesbos) admired her in one of his Mikra Epsilon:

Such a being, both sensitive and courageous, is not often presented by life. A small-built deep-dark-skinned girl, that did prove to be equally capable of subjugating a rose-flower, interpreting a wave or a nightingale, and saying 'I love you', to fill the globe with emotion.

Lawrence Durrell wrote a play in verse titled Sappho, set in 7th Century BCE Lesbos.

Algernon Swinburne wrote a poem concerning Sappho, Sapphics, and another, Anactoria, concerning her and her lover Anactoria, which makes Sappho into a rather hyperbolic sadomasochist. The Sapphic stanza is a poetic form occasionally imitated by modern writers, including Swinburne's Sapphics.

The superheroine Wonder Woman frequently uses the phrase "Suffering Sappho!" as an exclamation.

Sappho is the name of the homosexual sister of protagonist Van Albert in L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s The Ethos Effect.

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