By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
At the end of the nineteenth century, a series of excavations of a rubbish-dump in the city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt led to the inadvertent discovery of some papyrus scrolls. They contained, among other things, quite a lot of the poetry by the lyric poet Sappho. We are still finding Sappho’s poetry: two more fragments came to light in 2004 and 2012.
Although only a small amount of her poetry has survived, the ancient Greek poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BC) has had a posthumous literary reputation. She has become an icon for lyric poets, and, of course, a symbol for homosexual love between women. The Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne thought her the finest poet ever, better even than Homer or Shakespeare.
Sappho’s work mostly survives only as fragments, so many of the ‘poems of Sappho’ which we read as English translations contain some additional writing by the translator, who tries to restore what’s missing (and perhaps forever lost) from the manuscripts. So the best Sappho poems which we have compiled below are a combination of fragments and poems which have been ‘completed’ by translators. Nevertheless, they give a flavour of her style and her subject-matter.
Sappho is an important poet because she stands at the beginning of the lyric tradition in poetry: a tradition so named because Sappho’s compositions were originally accompanied by music, played on the lyre. Sappho is also the reason we talk of ‘lesbian’ relationships between women, because of the homoerotic strain in her poems and because she hailed, of course, from the Greek island of Lesbos.
If you enjoy these Sappho poems, you might also like our facts about Sappho, including the modern item she is credited with inventing.
Among other things, Sappho is perhaps the first great love poet in the Western tradition (although parts of Homer’s Iliad contain some very powerful writing about love and devotion).
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Sappho wrote a poem in praise of Venus, the goddess of love (although Sappho would have known her as Aphrodite). The poet acknowledges that Venus can be ‘false’ and deceitful, much as love can trick us, but she still calls upon the love-deity to provide her soul with relief.
Adonis was the beautiful youth who was loved by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to the myth, he was killed by a wild boar during a hunting trip and died in Aphrodite’s arms as she wept for him.
The poem is a lament, so it’s full of weeping, tears, and grief. It’s a grief without consolation, since Sappho doesn’t believe any of the other gods and goddesses can ease the pain of losing such a beautiful youth as Adonis.
Although there’s much about Sappho’s life that we don’t know, we do know that she had two brothers, for she wrote this poem about them: Charaxos and Larichos.
She hopes Charaxos will return home safely from a trading voyage. In a curiously modern twist, she does not wish to pray to the gods to deliver him safely home, because she realises there is no point: gods do whatever they want and don’t listen to human supplications.
Larichos, meanwhile, is a lazy layabout, yet to do much with his life. The poem is refreshingly down to earth.
Many of Sappho’s poems have survived only as fragments running to a few lines. Indeed, this is one reason why she appealed to imagists like Ezra Pound and H. D., who deliberately sought to write in a fragmentary, elliptical style.
In this short lyric, which is translated in various ways, the poet laments her lonely state: the Pleiades (the cluster of stars also known as the Seven Sisters) are set, the moon is down, and the sky is dark at midnight. Meanwhile, the poet lies alone …
This is a love poem in several senses of the term: Sappho rejects the idea that military force is the finest thing on earth, instead expressing the opinion that love is more beautiful and powerful than the military might of armies and fleets.
She uses Helen of Troy, praised as the face that launched a thousand ships, as an example in support of her argument: Helen’s beauty brought about the Trojan War. Sappho then addresses Anactoria, the ‘army wife’ of the poem’s title, telling her that the sound of her returning footsteps would move the poet more than the sight of any cavalry or infantry soldiers …
These two Sapphic fragments, translated by Anita George and published in Poetry magazine in 1994, provide an insight into Sappho’s reputation as a love poet. (The Victorian Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti also translated these two fragments in the nineteenth century.)
In the first poem, her beloved is likened to Achilles’ apple (a red apple) blushing on a high branch of the tree. The addressee is no ‘low-hanging fruit’ but someone out of bounds or off-limits: out of the poet’s, and everyone’s league.
In the second fragment, Sappho addresses her beloved as a mountain hyacinth trodden underfoot by careless shepherds. The flower has become a ‘scarlet stain’: the beloved’s beauty is soiled (and spoiled).
Here’s another fragment, down-to-earth, straightforward, and light-hearted, which sees the poet chastising her mother for attempting to chastise her for neglecting her weaving work. Aphrodite has made her fall in love (with a boy, this time, note) and she is presumably too lovesick, too busy daydreaming about him, to attend to her loom …
It’s official: Tennyson was not the first poet to write a great poem about Tithonus, the lover (in classical myth) of Eos, goddess of the dawn, who was doomed to wither in her arms while his divine lover remained forever young.
In her poem about this ageing figure, Sappho adopts the voice of someone growing old, before admitting that old age is inevitable for all humans who live to a ripe old age – and she cites Tithonus as a classic example.
How better to conclude this selection of some of the best Sappho poems than with this short lyric about the poet’s lyre? She views the ‘tortoiseshell’ instrument as a kind of extension of her voice, a ‘speaking instrument’, which is an integral part of her art.