Sappho the Poet, from LesvosOnce upon a time, very long ago, in fact in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., there lived a lyric poet named Sappho. In her world, and in the world of the epic poet Homer who preceded her, Dawn had rosy fingers and the sea was wine-dark. The stars circling the moon blushed and hid their bright faces in awe when the moon's brilliance graced the evening sky. And Aphrodite, the purple-robed goddess of love, lived in a golden house and rode in a yoked chariot pulled by swift-winged sparrows.
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These are the images created by Sappho, Greece's exalted lyric poet, the honey-voiced songbird of the ancient world. She is the most famous person who ever lived on the island of Lesovs.
Sappho was highly esteemed in her day and the homage continues. Her image appeared on coins minted in Mytilene and a huge statue of her was in the town's square. The ancient writer Strabo called Sappho "a marvelous creature and said "In all recorded history I know of no woman who comes close to rivaling her as a poet." A man called Solon of Athens begged to be taught one of her poems and said "Let me learn it and then I can die."
Who was she, exactly, and why has her poetry endured? Why is she the source of tantalizing legends and speculations? Actually, very little is known about Sappho's life and what is known is disputed. Scholars seem to agree that she wrote nine books of poetry, none of which has survived, and that she lived during a golden time of extraordinary intellectual richness along the coast of Asia Minor, near the great cultural centers of Ephesus. Smyrna, and Phocaea. Born in Mytilene or Eressos on the island of Lesbos she was known in her time as the Lesbian poet, and in ancient times that meant simply the poet from Lesbos. The modern word lesbian comes from her birthplace.
Some scholars believe she was married and had a child; others say there is no evidence of this. Some believe her love poetry was written to women and that she was the center of a "cult to Aphrodite," and ran a type of school where women and girls were trained in the arts of music, dance and poetry to honor the muses. The renowned classics scholar, C.M. Bowra, speculated that Sappho trained young girls in the art of love and said she founded "a house that cultivated the muses." Others dispute this. Professor Denys L. Page, for example, says her poetry simply represents the everyday loves and jealousies of the poet and her companions.
Mary Barnard, in her book, Sappho, points out that in sixth century Greece, young women were encouraged to study poetry and music, and they sang and danced at festivals in honor of Artemis and Aphrodite. She adds that the songs in some religious exercises were performed exclusively for and by women.
Ms. Barnard finds it plausible, therefore, that mothers would send their daughters to be trained by the most famous lyricist of the age.
There is not much evidence to support various speculations which have developed over the centuries. All we have, really, are fragments of her poetry which survived on papyruses, figures on vase paintings, and writings of those who came after her. Scholars agree she was a genius who created a unique meter, called "the Sappic meter," which is very difficult to reproduce in English. Plato honored her by naming her "the Tenth Muse" and the Latin poet Horace paid her the supreme compliment by imitating her meter and the unique structure of her odes.
While it is fascinating to speculate on Sappho's life, it is a supreme joy to read the poems and fragments that have survived. The poems are beautiful and it is most interesting to see how various scholars translate these poems. Two excellent translations are Mary Barnard's Sappho and Margaret Williamson's Sappho's Immortal Daughters.
All of you already know some of her words. For example, the famous phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is hers and it comes from this poem:
A company of horsemen
Others a legion of foot soldiers
And others a fleet of ships
Is the most beautiful to behold
on this black earth
The most beautiful
Standing at my bedside
Is golden sandaled Dawn.
In her time, most of Sappho's poems were sung to the accompaniment of the famous ancient musical instrument the lyre and we see evidence of this on vase paintings.
How to sum up this poet when so little is actually known? For me, she is charming, had a wonderful sense of humor, was supremely confident, and saw beauty wherever she looked. Once she looked at an apple tree. Her image of the apple, which has become known as "Sappho's Apple," was the inspiration for my novel, A Lone Red Apple. Sappho's poem reads:
To a lone red apple
High atop the tallest tree
Some say all who came
Passed it by
I say none
Can reach that high.
One can only speculate on the beautiful poems that were in the nine books we know she wrote. Are they really lost forever? I believe that someday, somewhere, her works will surface again. It is an amazing fact that In this century in 1932, one of her poems was discovered on a piece of pottery.
Sappho herself said her worlds would live forever. She inspired an ancient writer Tullius Laurea, to write about her immortality. The writer imagined he was near Sappho's tomb and heard her voice. She said:
"As you pass the Aeolian tomb, stranger, do not say that I, the Mytilenan poet, am dead: human hands built this, and such works of men disappear into swift oblivion; but if you judge me by the divine Muses, from each of whom I set a flower beside my nine, you will know that I escaped the gloom of Hades, and that no day will ever dawn that does not speak the name of Sappho, the lyric poet."
May golden-sandaled Dawn appear each day in memory of you, Sappho, as swift-winged sparrows guide golden chariots above the wine-dark sea.