Sappho: Poetry, Sex, & History (part two)
In the nineteenth century, a story began to be told in Victorian society about Sappho being the headmistress of a girls’ finishing school – perhaps to make her more relatable to a conservative British aristocracy. Then French writer Pierre Louys claimed to have discovered Bilitis, a supposed poet and contemporary of Sappho. He announced his supposed discovery of Bilitis’ poetry (and translated it), which confirmed Sappho’s homosexuality. Though it was a hoax, the idea of Sappho’s homosexuality captured Victorian interest, and Bilitis and Sappho have been forever confused. Even now, the word lesbian comes from Lesbos (where Sappho was born), and she’s also given us the word “sapphic”, which we use now to imply having qualities of female homosexuality, though neither word was applied to female homosexuality until the 1800s. The term “sapphic” originally referred to a specific classical Greek poetic form created by Sappho.
Sappho wrote nine volumes of poetry, most of which is lost. We have about 200 fragments, only one of which is complete – Fragment 1, the Hymn to Aphrodite, which survived because it was quoted in work by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Most of her work was uncovered in the late 1800s on largely destroyed Egyptian papyrus fragments from the 700s AD (some pieces found in ancient garbages, some used to wrap mummies or stuff animals), but we’re still discovering fragments within ancient writings.
She was regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets of the era, and her well-loved work was sometimes even considered divine and sacred. Her talent was considered equal to Homer, and she was often referred to as the tenth muse. In the third century BC, three hundred years after her death, Sappho’s body of work was copied into nine papyrus books and placed in the House of the Muses in the library in Alexandra. Some of her poems were hundreds of lines long.
She’s called a lyricist because her poetry is actual lyrics, which she sung herself, accompanied by a cithara or lyre (and she composed the accompanying music).
Sappho’s poetry is written in quantitative verse, a style that is difficult to reproduce in English. English poetry uses stress-based meters and rhyme, whereas Sappho’s poetry uses only length-based meters. Her specialty “sapphic” stanza has become well-known and influential among modern poets. She was unique for her use of the first person in her poetry – a new movement, away from the point of view of gods and muses. She is known for her discussions of deep emotions and erotica that hadn’t been discussed in poetry before. The people in her poems talk about infatuations and love.
Contrary to some popular ideas, Sappho’s work was not deliberately destroyed through book burning by the Christian church in medieval times. There is no evidence for this, and in fact Gregory of Nazianzus and Pope Gregory VII, often accused of destroying her work, were actually fans of her poetry.
Sappho’s poetry was written in Aoelian Greek, a somewhat rustic and difficult dialect spoken in the Northeastern Aegean. Her popularity continued through Roman times and was taught in schools, but her work was dropped from standard curricula during the Byzantine Empire because of the obscure nature of her language, and began to be copied less and less. Changing interests and styles meant people lost interest in her work. By the 1100s, Byzantine scholar Tzetzes referred to her work as lost. The work of many Greek lyric poets was lost in this way, because of cultural change.
Interest in her writing grew again during the Renaissance, again in Victorian times, and again in the twentieth century by Mary Bernard, who published a new translation in the 1960s.
We recommend checking out If Not, Winter, a stunning translation of Sappho’s entire known works by Anne Carson, a Canadian poet (available at Wonderworks).
“Imagine that two millenia or so in the future, literary experts attempt to collect the glories of our literature. Most of our paper writings have crumbled into dust or used for kindling; all our digital files are long gone or indecipherable. English is a dead language and many of the cultural references are a complete puzzle to them. They have a strange jumble of popular and high literature: one partial summary of the episodes of a saga called 'Star Trek', a fragment of an archive of fan fiction about a warrior princess named Xena, some quotes from various authors extracted from anthologies written three hundred years from now, and a few cryptic bits of poetry from somebody named Shakespeare, who was apparently very highly regarded, and wrote in an archaic dialect: specifically, one complete sonnet, a couple of soliloquies and a few random lines from his plays. Now try to psychoanalyze Shakespeare from those fragments. This is about where we stand vis-a-vis Sappho.”
– J.B. Hare