To what do we owe to artists besides the world? Thousands of years in the making, their very existence serves as the foundation of human connection. Artists of love and loss, depicting their emotions through physical pieces such as clay or canvas and of fleeting beauty in dance or song. Some of the deeper stories, however, culminated over years of dedicated ink and paper don’t survive as easily as other forms of art may. Structures can be erected and maintained for centuries, but pages are subject to time far more easily.
The ancient Greek poet, Sappho; revered for her lyrical prowess and inspiring song, Sappho constructed a gorgeous legacy to leave in her wake. She was regarded highly amongst fellow artists and non-artists alike in her time as well as centuries after, even considered to be the “Tenth Muse”. Sappho wrote countless lines of powerful poetry, over 10,000 at least, and commonly wound herself around the ring fingers of young lovers to be their matrimonial songstress.
Unfortunately, all art tends to have an expiration date sooner or later.
What was once over 10,000 lines of richly historical and ethereal content has been reduced to an upsetting 650. Imagine being revered for your inspirational poetic aptitude only to be survived by 6.5% of your life’s work. With what little we have left of Sappho, we can, however, make out chunks of her person as well as her surroundings; this one’s for the history buffs out there.
Despite having lost the majority of her works through the loss of the Library of Alexandria as well as multiple accounts of church-related public burnings, Sappho’s impact is still clear at the feet of artistry. When we consider her fragmented poems, there is much to be assumed about the gaps. Plenty of Sappho’s poems include her affairs of love and loss: although the later they span, it seems the more they focus on loss.
Fragment of a Sappho poem, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Part X.
In “Fragment 102” (Puchner), we see Sappho longing for another as Aphrodite has caused her to love once more.
Truly, sweet mother, I cannot weave on the loom,
for I am overcome with desire for a boy because of slender Aphrodite.
In this poem, the speaker is fully enamored with another (it is not specified in the original translation whether or not the subject was a boy or a girl because Sappho, presumably on purpose, did not include a gendered article) and fails to complete her work as a weaver. Although it’s a short poem, the tone is clear and painfully longing.
Aphrodite is mentioned by Sappho consistently throughout her work; usually as a (respectful) vessel of mockery or exasperation, since Sappho is often overwhelmed by the tumultuous feelings she bears. Aphrodite, though her source of agony at times, seems to respond whenever Sappho calls upon her, as in “Fragment 1,” and serves as a guiding presence for the poet’s despair.
Fragment 130 is an excellent example of Sappho’s tonal focus: seductive, yearning, and almost self-deprecating in a sense.
Once again limb-loosening Love makes me tremble, that bittersweet, irresistible creature.
Respectfully, I will weep now.
Sappho’s expression of choice in her writing is most obviously her ability to create a bridge between the reader and the writer that feeds emotion seamlessly. Her capitalization of “Love” insinuates Aphrodite yet again, this time as a concept, although her intent is clear. Her adoration of Aphrodite, in my opinion, could also be seen as love for the goddess herself. If you turn her poems in a different light, Aphrodite can be reflected as the love interest in Sappho’s work. This brings about the notion that, since Sappho’s love seems to be mostly unrequited, the ultimate sense of longing might find itself in the heart of an immortal who you cannot be with: a bittersweet, yet irresistible creature.
Shying away from that revelation, poem 168B presents the epitome mortal solitude: communal loneliness.
The moon has set
and the Pleiades. It’s the middle
of the night and time goes by.
I lie here alone.
Instead of referencing Aphrodite, Sappho references the Pleiades, a star cluster located near the constellation Orion. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were seven sisters born of Atlas, the titan cursed to hold the world upon his shoulders. Atlas was unable to protect his daughters from Orion, who wanted all of them for himself, so Zeus turned them into stars to be free of his seven-year chase. Unfortunately, Orion was also immortalized in the stars right behind the sisters, forever continuing his chase of them.
Sappho could be referencing her loneliness as unmoving and stagnant, like the state of the sisters cursed to the stars as their father was. Time goes by, and they still lie there alone. She could also be referring to her place in life; as the night changes, the moon sets as well as the stars, the is still where she was before, hopelessly aware of herself and her fleeting existence. She has a daughter, Cleis, who grows and changes constantly. Sappho herself, alone, depicts herself as her other poems have, assuming they reflect her identity, which ties in to the love and loss she’s experienced.
Despite the overbearing lack of context provided for the majority of her pieces, Sappho’s impact is greater than we could have ever imagined. Fragments of her image have resurfaced recently, which gives hope to the future that there will be more to come (assuming any exhumed mummies have her page in the local paper they were wrapped with). Even though her remnants are scarce, her name is still spoken, still sung, still remembered by others who strive to keep her legacy alive.
As Sappho predicted centuries ago, a resurfaced line of hers perfectly encompasses said legacy:
Someone will remember us, I say.
Even in another time.
Poems, pictures, and information on Sappho:
Marguerite Johnson Professor of Classics. “Guide to the Classics: Sappho, a Poet in Fragments.” The Conversation, 24 Jan. 2022, https://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-sappho-a-poet-in-fragments-90823.
Puchner, Martin. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: Volume A. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Print.