Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, 1955
Sappho: A New Translation, 1958
Lyra Graeca, volume 1, 1958
Sappho: Poems and Fragments, 1965
The Poems of Sappho, 1966
The Sappho Companion, 2000 (Margaret Reynolds, editor)
Sappho (SAF-oh), properly spelled Psappho, was born on the Greek Island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea west of Turkey. Despite intense political strife around the time of her birth, this island, the largest in the Aegean, was the center of Aeolian culture, which then was superior to the Ionian and Dorian Greek literary traditions. Lesbos was also the birthplace of Sappho’s equally famous contemporary, Alcaeus, another founding figure in classical Greek lyric poetry. Various ancient sources claim that the two poets exchanged their work; but although Alcaeus definitely refers to Sappho once in his poetry, exchanges between the two poets constitute only one of many stories about them that cannot be verified. There is no foundation, certainly, for the story that Sappho, spurned in heterosexual love, threw herself into the ocean from the Leucadian cliffs, a locale that still bears the name “Sappho’s rock.”
The tenth century Byzantine lexicographer Suïdas gave Sappho’s father’s name as Scamandronymous; her mother’s name was Kleis, which also became, as we know from Sappho’s poetry, the name of her daughter. Sappho is reported to have married Cercylas of Andros, although some scholars doubt that she ever wed. Sappho’s family clearly belonged to the Lesbian aristocracy, which was endangered at the time by a group of popular civic leaders. Various biographical information attests to her aristocratic station, but above all the poetry makes her elite position manifest. Sappho spent most of her life in Mytilene, the principal city of Lesbos. Sometime around 597 she went into exile on the island of Sicily, where she may have remained until her death. Although her death date is unknown, in certain of her poems she speaks of herself as an aged woman.
Regard for her poetry caused the ancients to rank her with Homer. In his Geography Strabo claimed that no other woman could rival her poetic skill. In Phaedrus Plato called her the “tenth muse.” (The same approbation, made by an anonymous writer, was also given to Corinna, a Boeotian Greek successor to Sappho and virtually the only other ancient Greek woman writer to be known in later ages.) Less flatteringly, another ancient source, recorded on the Oxyrhynchus papyrus, describes her as a “woman-lover,” calling her “contemptible” and “ugly.” The first collection of her work was made by an Alexandrian scholar during the Hellenistic period (third century
In her native Aeolian dialect, free from any formal poetic traditions such as those that influenced the works of Homer and Hesiod, Sappho wrote pure but simple love poems. The poems are charged with passion and vivid language: even many of her briefest fragments contain striking, memorable images. Her writing, however, is pervaded by an extraordinary element of self-restraint, which creates a tension with the evocative, sensuous language. She was extremely sensitive to acoustic effects, preferring liquid consonants and vowels to harsher consonant sounds. (The sound “b,” for example, is deliberately avoided in many works.) She employed a variety of meters, and seems to have preferred the famous stanzaic form that now bears her name, which consists of one short and three long lines. The stanza was widely imitated after her death, by writers of Latin and English poetry as well as Greek.
Although Sappho’s poetry, on the basis of its homoerotic content, was condemned in many historical periods, only in the twentieth century have the terms “Sapphic” and “Lesbian” acquired their primary denotations as synonyms for homosexual relationships between women. Although many classicists still feel that Sappho’s reputation as a lesbian is based on a misunderstanding of her work, few would deny that homoeroticism (a type lacking any explicit descriptions of genital sexual contact) forms a primary theme in her work. Truly understanding the nature of Sappho’s lesbian identity requires a thorough knowledge of her culture–and possibly also fluency in her dialect of Greek. It seems, however, that Sappho and the circle of female students or admirers who surrounded her on Lesbos and Sicily were privileged women who enjoyed the freedom (usually reserved exclusively for men in ancient Greece) to experience sexual orientation as a fluid category that was not polarized, as it is in contemporary culture, between homosexual and heterosexual.