Who Was Sappho?
Sappho has been called the "greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece," the "first modern poet," and the "Tenth Muse." However, although her name is well-known in our time, the details of her life and work are fragmented and incomplete. Just who was Sappho?
Scholars believe that Sappho was born sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and that she spent most of her life on the Greek island of Lesbos during a rich intellectual and cultural period. Sappho was a lyrist writing poetry to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre but none of her music has survived. In fact, although it is thought that she wrote nine full books of poetry, only fragments of these have been found, some on papyrus, some on vase paintings, and some in the writings of those who came after her. One or two complete poems may exist of the whole set the rest can only be imagined using the fragments that have survived.
Sappho was notable in that she refined the prevailing lyric meter of the time, and her unique meter has come to be called "Sapphic meter." She wrote on themes of love, yearning, and reflection, from a personal point-of-view, and describing her experience as a woman, all of which were rare in ancient times. It is known that she was well-respected in her time, as her image appeared on coins of Lesbos, Plato dubbed her the "Tenth Muse," and the Athenian ruler, lawyer, and poet Solon is said to have been a great admirer.
Translations of Sappho's work vary greatly, as any translation of the fragmented lines involves some form of reconstruction, and translators have made many different choices as to how to accomplish this. Nevertheless, the ideas behind her words have influenced poets for thousands of years.
According to the Academy of American Poets, there are widely divergent theories about Sappho's death:
A legend from Ovid suggests that she threw herself from a cliff when her heart was broken by Phaon, a young sailor, and died at an early age. Other historians posit that she died of old age around 550 BC.
Read Erica Jong's fictionalized account of the life of Sappho in SAPPHO'S LEAP.
Sources: The Academy of American Poets; Isle of Lesbos.