Sappho lies remote from us, beyond the fashions and the ages, beyond sight, almost beyond the wing of Thought, in the world's extremest youth.
To thrill the imagination with the vast measure of time between the world of Sappho and the world of the Great War, it is quite useless to express it in years, one must express it in æons, just as astronomers, dealing with sidereal distances, think, not in miles, but in light years.
Between us and Sappho lie the Roman Empire and the age of Christ, and beyond the cross the age of Athenian culture, culminating in the white flower of the Acropolis.
Had she travelled she might have visited Nineveh before its destruction by Cyaxares, or watched the Phœnicians set sail on their African voyage at the command of Nechos. She might have spoken with Draco and Jeremiah the Prophet and the father of Gautama the founder of Buddhism. For her the Historical Past, which is the background of all thought, held little but echoes, voices, and the forms of gods, and the immediate present little but Lesbos and the Ægean Sea, whose waters had been broken by the first trireme only a hundred and fifty years before her birth.
Men call her the greatest lyric poet that the world has known, basing their judgment on the few perfect fragments that remain of her song. But her voice is more than the voice of a lyric poet, it is the voice of a world that has been, of a freshness and beauty that will never be again, and to give that voice a last touch of charm remains the fact that it comes to us as an echo.
For of Sappho's poetry not a single vestige remains that does not come to us reflected in the form of a quotation from the works of some admirer, some one captured by her beauty or her wisdom or the splendour of her verse, or some one, like Herodian or Apollonius the sophist of Alexandria, who takes it to exhibit the æolic use of words or accentuation, or Hephæstion, to give an example of her choriambic tetrameters.
Only one complete poem comes to us, the Hymn to Aphrodite quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and one almost complete, the Ode to Anactoria, quoted by Longinus; all other quotations are fragments: a few lines, a few words, a word, the merest traces.
What fate gave us the shipping lists of Homer, yet denied us Sappho; preserved the Lexicon Græcum Iliadis et Odysseæ of Apollonius, yet cut the song to Anactoria short, and reduced the song of the orchard to three lines? or decided that Sophists and Grammarians, exhibiting dry-as-dust truths, should be a medium between her and us?
Some say that her works were burned at Constantinople, or at Rome, by the Christians, and what we know of the early Christians lends colour to the statement. Some that they were burned by the Byzantine emperors and the poems of Gregory Nazianzen circulated in their place.
But whatever the fate it failed in its evil intention. Sappho remains, eternal as Sirius, and it is doubtful if her charm and her hold upon the world would have been strengthened by the full preservation of her work.
As it is, added to the longing which all great art inspires, we have the longing inspired by suggestion. That lovely figure belonging to the feet she shows us "crossed by a broidered strap of Lydian work," would it have been as beautiful unveiled as imagined? Did she long for maidenhood? Why did the swallow trouble her, and what did the daughter of Cyprus say to her in a dream?
There is not a fragment of Sappho that is not surrounded in the mind of the reader by the rainbow of suggestion. Just as the gods draped the human form to give desire imagination, so, perhaps, some god and no fate has all but hidden the mind of Sappho.
Looking at it in another way one might fancy that all the demons of malignity and destruction had conspired to destroy and traduce: to destroy the works and traduce the character of the poet.
The game of defamation was begun in Athens in the age of corruption by lepers, and carried on through the succeeding ages by their kind, till Welcker came with his torch and showed these gibbering ghosts standing on nothing and with nothing in their hands.
Colonel Mure tried to put Welcker's torch out, and only burned his fingers. Comparetti snuffed it, only to make it burn the brighter. But bright or dim, the torch was only intended to show the lepers. Sappho shines by her own light in the minutest fragments of her that remain—Fragments whose deathless energy, like the energy of radium, has vivified literature in all ages and times.
The mind of Sappho runs through all literature like a spangled thread.