Among the world’s most famous poets, Sappho is arguably the best known female poet of Classical Greece. She was believed to have been born around 600 B.C. in the island of Lesbos in the Greek archipelago. Most of Sappho’s poetry did not survive antiquity, but the precious few that were left is clear, unmistakable proof that Sappho deserves to be counted as one of the best poets mankind has ever produced.
Unfortunately there are no verifiable, historical records of Sappho as the woman. We glean the life and the person from the writings that she has left us. Her poetry is all that she has left us; and from these precious few words we cull out glimpses of how Sappho lived and how she was as a human being. Very little is actually known about Sappho the person; the best that we can do is make inferences and assumptions based on what remains of her work. Maybe that is why Sappho remains a controversial and enigmatic figure in the world of poets. As such, it is incumbent upon us to do right by her work and do her justice through careful analysis of her poetry.
Poetry, as it existed in Sappho’s days, was performed or spoken with background music. The instrument used to accompany poetry is called the lyre, which is akin to a small harp. Perhaps it is because of this element of music that gave Sappho’s poems a lyrical, expressive, almost mystical tone. In fact, Sappho did not depend on anyone else to render music to her poetry, she wrote the words and the melody. As a classical poet, Sappho was a trailblazer. She introduced new styles and improved upon the writing techniques that were prevalent in her time. Sappho was part of the group of poets who pioneered the shift from writings using the god’s point of view to mankind’s perspectives. Sappho was also credited to be among the first to use poetry as an expressive device that shows how life events affect an individual on a personal and intimate level. In a sense, Sappho gave us among the first pieces of poetry that were intended to express emotions in all its raw nakedness. Her poems speak of sublime beauty that is so compelling, even thousands of years after they have been written.
In one of her poems, (Wilkie, 2000, p. 1146) “Yes, Atthis you may be sure” Sappho writes,
Now among Lydian women she in her
turn stands first as the red-
fingered moon rising at sunset takes
precedence over stars around her;
her light spreads equally
on the salt sea and fields thick with bloom
In this poem Sappho speaks of beauty as a function of how we value and see the things around us. Beauty is a matter of perspective, and it can be found by anyone who is willing to look for such beauty in their everyday lives. Mankind has embraced Sappho’s take on beauty. The common expression that “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” is generally believed to have been culled from this particular poem and speaks of beauty as a matter of seeing.
Love and beauty are recurrent themes that are present in varying degrees in most of Sappho’s writings. In her poem (1146) “I have not had one word from her”, Sappho writes,
I have not had one word from her
Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to me, “This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly.
In this poem Sappho speaks of a love so powerful that it can take over one’s faculties. Of course this love can turn into an obsession, but it can really happen to even the most level-minded of people. The end of a love is always tragic and the pain almost unbearable to endure, and this pain, Sappho was able to capture so eloquently.
Such is the power of Sappho’s poetry; her works defy are beyond mere words, and goes straight to the soul of those who are reading her work.
From these words, it is very obvious that Sappho had very strong, passionate emotions. She felt deeply and harbored a profound appreciation for the great beauty that resides in nature and in her fellowmen. Sappho was also fond of writing about the majesty of nature. She wrote lyrical praises to the beauty of the moon and the sea. In yet another one of her poems, Sappho waxes,
The stars around the beautiful moon
Hiding their glittering forms.
Whenever she shines full on earth…. Silver….
How Sappho manages to use such simple words and combine them in ways that are magical and enchanting is truly amazing and is a mark of pure genius. How such a short poem made of very few words can evoke strong and compelling emotions is indeed amazing.
Sappho has so many poems about love and the longing to make meaningful connections with other people. She effortlessly captures the agony of loving from a distance and the utter joy of reciprocated love and while these two situations are very different, Sappho celebrates both of these as expressions of the peaks that man can aspire for when loving another. She shows this in one of her works, “Prayer to Our Lady of Paphos” (1143)
“if she won’t accept gifts, she
will one day give them; and if
she won’t love you — she soon will
“love, although unwillingly…”
If ever — come now! Relieve
this intolerable pain!
What my heart most hopes will
happen, make happen; you your-
self join forces on my side!
In this line, Sappho completely captures the anguish of love in a very simple uncomplicated language. In this case, Sappho may be talking about the enduring nature of love, how it manages to triumph over adversities and remains abiding in spite of life are many uncertainties.
Seeing at the bigger picture, Sappho, as evidenced by her work is a person with a strong appreciation for life. She celebrated every moment, immortalizing such moment through print. Sappho had a heart full of love for life and people. And love is the unifying theme that is present in all of her works.
One that deserves mention when talking about Sappho is the widely-held belief that she was a homosexual. In fact, the term lesbian was culled from Lesbo, Sappho’s birthplace. Many experts believe this assumption based on the works that she has left us. Indeed most of Sappho’s works were about love for women. There was a certain sensuality about her poems, especially when talking about the women in her life, but they were not overwhelmingly lesbian in characteristic that it would put off readers. Her works are very accessible and can be appreciated for its own sake. Her works not only transcend time and space, but every person reading her writings can relate to them in so many different ways and at so many different levels. You can bring you own unique circumstances and still be able to find a sense of communal experiences
However which way you look at it, Sappho is truly ahead of her time. She defied the norms, both in her writing and in her life as well as well. Sappho has influenced many women poets. As an example Maya Angelou writes about love,
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.”
In this poem, Maya Angelou channels the spirit of Sappho without losing her own voice as a writer. Angelou talks of the irony of love, how it brings about pain and happiness at the same time but rewards those who are brave enough to love even though it brings them suffering. Truly the love that Sappho and Maya Angelou are talking about is one and the same thing.
Indeed Sappho’s writings are for all times and places because love and beauty are universal to all of mankind. Even in modern times, her poems find significant place. They seem modern because love is something that will never go out of style, no matter how sophisticated and complex our lives become. Love is transcendental, and Sappho’s works are enduring as well.
Sappho deserves to be heard across time and space. Her words should be allowed to linger in all of our collective history. Whatever future scholars cull out from her poems does not matter as long as she continues to be read by generations to come.
“Although they are only breath, words which I command are immortal.”