Hey, howdy, hi, and welcome back to my blog! This week we are going to talk about an ancient Greek poet by the name of Sappho.
Sappho was born around 630 B.C. on the Greek Island of Lesbos. She committed most of her life to running a school for unwedded women on the island of Lesbos. After that, the other factors and characteristics of Sappho’s existence are pretty subjective. She is one of the women that history remembers, but detail forgot.
Sappho’s school, on the island of Lesbos, was what inspired the term Lesbian in the 19th century. While there is no “definitive” proof that Sappho, or anyone at her school, were attracted to the fairer sex, it is widely believed in the academic community. This is one reason that so little of her work exists today. There was a period of time where Sappho’s work was burned by the church, if you believe the stories.
The rad thing about Sappho is that she is one of the only female poets who has surviving work that aren’t just fragments. The Norton Anthology really praises her work, as it should, and paints a picture of this woman, living in a school closed off to men, writing poetry that seemed to be a direct middle finger to the epic. Sappho’s poetry, unlike Homer’s, wasn’t meant to be read on a flat service by candle light on the battlefield, preparing men to give their life for their citadel. Sappho’s poetry was to be performed with a live band; performed by women, for women. Whether these performances were in public, or in private, we will never know.
Sappho’s talent really is undeniable, in my opinion, from the first stanza or line you read. The Norton Anthology gave us quite a selection of her pieces, what remains at least. One of the things that I appreciate about Sappho’s content, is the fact that it is mostly focused on women. That isn’t really something that we see in older writing, and as progressive as the Greeks were, they were really no different. The women in her poetry are quite multifaceted which I appreciate, and something I honestly wasn’t prepared to see in ancient literature. The women are children, daughters, sisters, and lovers. They control their own narratives.
The men in the piece are also seen as multiple things. They are servants, fathers, brothers, lovers, and even personifications of nature. They are powerful and decently well rounded within the style of the text. While the descriptions of the genders seem to be equitably distributed, with neither of them being described as better or more powerful than the other, the style it is written would say differently. Gender also seems to be one of the driving aspects of Sappho’s many narratives. When she does write about men, it is hardly ever in the “Main character” or “speaker” position. She created these pieces that weave and exude femininity within their lines. Creating noticeable differences between the genders. Without the differences in them, the pieces would not be nearly as long, and because of this the genders are seen in multiple ways. You see this especially in the poems that mention any of the male Greek Gods, such as Zeus and Hades.
Religion is also heavily present throughout her work. This is common for the time period, as most Ancient Greek authors and poets wrote about their Gods and Goddesses, the main difference though, is that while the epic, such as the Odyssey and the Iliad used the Gods as a means to drive the ideals of conflict and war, the Gods in Sappho’s work were used mainly as a way to explain the day to day. Aphrodite is the Goddess that is most seen throughout the poems. The Goddess of love, marriage, and sex. Aphrodite is the epitome of feminine beauty and power, so it makes sense that a poet such as Sappho, one so entuned with the ideals of feminine power, and empowerment, would focus on her.
In the Norton Anthology, page 621, the poem fragment titled, “102” says: “Truly, sweet mother, I cannot weave on the loom, for I am overcome with desire for a boy because of slender Aphrodite.” The fragment is a great example of the kid of content that Sappho was known for. She uses short sentences, that could easily be sung, to explain a day in the life of a young Greek girl, in love. She praises the Goddess Aphrodite, and includes yet another female figure in the mother.
Sappho created her own form, still utilized today. Sapphic Stanza can be seen in most of her work. Four line stanzas with a highly recognizable meter, that has been used in the centuries since the woman herself coined the style. You see this form especially in “The Brother’s Poem” which can be found in the Norton Anthology on page 623. She made the form of a lyric, named so because it should be accompanied by a lyre, her bitch, as the kids would say.
Her love poem’s could be a genre all on their own. Sappho writes love poems the way that they should be written: with detail and abandon. This is one of the reasons that the church burned her work. The church saw Sappho as this wanton woman, only trying to make waves in a pond where waves shouldn’t exist. On page 623 we see this brazenly apparent in “The Cypris Poem”. “How can a person not be so often distressed, Queen Cypris, about someone you want so much to make your own?” The use of another woman as the all knowing here, is something to behold in ancient poetry.
Overall, the thing about Sappho that makes her a poet that has withstood the test of time, is that her poetry was relatable, and still is thousands of years later. She wrote for the people, she wrote for the woman, and she wrote for all. Her style has stayed prevalent throughout time, and continues to be utilized today. It makes you wonder, what would the world be like if Sappho’s poetry had made it through in more than just fragments? What would the face of literature be if we had more of her works to fully understand what this wild, wanton woman was all about?
The Norton Anthology of World Literature,4th edition, vol. A. W. Norton & Company, 2020. pp. 1294-1303
Mendelsohn, D., 2020. How Gay Was Sappho?. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/girl-interrupted> [Accessed 3 September 2020].