The Tenth Muse: Sappho

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The lyric poet Sappho lived between c 630 – c 570 BC,  in Mytilene on the Greek Island of Lesbos and regarded by many as the ‘tenth muse’ .   There are only scant details about her life.   It is believed she had 3 brothers and once or twice was exiled to Sicily because of her political views. Not much is known of her parentage, though it is believed she came from a prosperous family. Several names are given for who her father might have been.   Her mother was said to be named Kleis, but even this is not definite.  There is a legend concerning her love for the ferryman Phaon.  After he rejected her she threw herself into the sea and drowned.  However there is no real evidence that this actually happened and it may just be a myth.  There are so many conflicting views about her life, that it is impossible to know the truth. 

Unfortunately not much of Sappho’s poetry remains.  It is mostly just fragments.  Only one poem “Ode to Aphrodite” has survived in its fullness. Originally there were said to be about 10,000 lines of poetry by her but now only about 650 lines remain.  It is widely believed that her poems were destroyed by Church leaders around 1073 CE because they were regarded as ‘lascivious’.  At the time her poems may not have been written down, but sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. It is probable that others wrote her poetry down later. Many scholars at the time thought very highly of her work and one even wrote:

“Never before these songs were sung, and never since did the human soul, in the grip of a fiery passion, utter a cry like hers; and, from the executive point of view, in directness, in lucidity, in that high, imperious verbal economy which only nature can teach the artist, she has no equal, and none worthy to take the place of second.”

Another story told by Stobaeus (5th century CE), says that: “Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho’s over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said: `So that I may learn it, then die’.”

Recently more fragments of her poems have been unearthed and this gives us the hope that many more will reappear over the coming years.  Although it is tragic that so little of her work remains, even the fragments that are left do manage to convey some intense emotions and picturesque images of the time in which she lived.

It was Sappho and her poetry that gave rise to the words “Sapphic” and “lesbian” due to her name and the Island on which she lived. Her poems were often directed romantically towards other women. However she was said to be married and had a daughter, Kleis, named after grandmother.  Other sources say that Kleis may not have been her daughter, but one of her lovers! This shows how  confusing it is to try to make some sense of her life!

Although she is somewhat of a ‘gay icon’ nowadays it is not known whether she actually was a lesbian herself, though many of her poems certainly give that impression. It is known, however, that certain early translators of her works deliberately hetero-sexualised her poetry, which would add to the confusion! 

It was unusual in Greek poetry of that time to write in a style that expressed personal emotions and feelings, in this way she was innovative. 

It is possible that sentiments expressed in some of her poems may have been of an innocent nature, expressing love of a purer kind.  Certain literary experts have suggested that her feelings for other women may have been idealistic and non-sensual. The general consensus has always been that certain of her poems do contain ‘homoerotic’ references.  As most things concerning Sappho, it is all open to conjecture.

 The mystery of her life certainly adds to her appeal as a poet. Despite the conflicting theories regarding her life, the real woman shines through in her poems which, she described as her “immortal daughters”. The best way to get some understanding of Sappho is to immerse oneself in her words and see what the intuition tells you in some quiet place away from the confusion of facts. It may be you will walk those ancient pathways as if time had rolled back and you had become the poet herself with all the lucidity of the feelings she sang of on those days when the sun shone eternally. I firmly believe that there is a bond that links all poets, regardless of time or space, in a true community of souls; and we can enter at times into each others worlds with a deeper understanding than the outer facade gives to us.  This is the true way to know that the person was once real, felt things deeply, and left us their wonderful legacy for us all to enjoy.

Study of Sappho 1862 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03104

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