1902 Encyclopedia > Sappho

Ancient Greek lyric poet
(born c. 600 BC)

SAPPHO (in Attic Greek _____ but called by herself ______, which is necessitated by the metre also in Anthol, ix. 190, though Alcseus, himself an Aeolian and her contemporary, calls her Som-c^cu), incomparably the greatest poetess the world has ever seen, was a native of Lesbos, and probably both was born and lived at Mytilene. For the idea that she migrated thither from Eresus is merely a conjecture tp explain a perfectly imaginary difficulty caused by the grammarians who invented another Sappho, a courtesan of Eresus, to whom to ascribe the current scandals about the poetess. She was the daughter of Scamandronymus and Cleis, of whom nothing more is known. The epistle of Sappho to Phaon, ascribed to Ovid, says that her "parent" died when she was six years old; if Frag. 90 refers to Sappho's own mother, which is very doubtful, this "parent" must be her father. Her date cannot be certainly fixed, but she must have lived about the end of the 7th and beginning of the 6th cen-turies B.C., being contemporary with Alcaeus, Stesichorus, and Pittacus, in fact with the culminating period of iEc-lic poetry. But of her life very little else is known. One of her brothers, Charaxus, who was engaged in the wine-trade between Lesbos and Naucratis in Egypt, fell in love there with a courtesan named Doricha and surnamed for her beauty Rhodopis, whom he freed from slavery and upon whom he squandered his property. Sappho wrote an ode on this, in which she severely satirized and rebuked him. Another brother, Larichus, was public cup-bearer at Mytilene,—a fact for which it was necessary to be e£yevi;s, so that we may suppose Sappho to have been of good family. For the rest it is known that she had a daughter, named after her grandmother Cleis, and that she had some personal acquaintance with Alcreus. He addressed her in an ode of which a fragment is preserved : " Violet- weav-ing, pure, sweet-smiling Sappho, I wish to say somewhat, but shame hinders me;" and she answered in another ode : "Hadst thou had desire of aught good or fair, shame would not have touched thine eyes, but thou wouldst have spoken thereof openly." Further than this everything is enveloped in doubt and darkness. The well-known story of her love for the disdainful Phaon, and her leap into the sea from the Leucadian promontory, together with that of her flight from Mytilene to Sicily, which has been con-nected with her love for Phaon, rests upon no evidence that will bear examination. Indeed, we are not even told whether she died of the leap or not. All critics again are agreed that Suidas was simply gulled by the comic poets when he tells us of her imaginary husband, Cercolas of Andros. The name of Sappho was by these poets con-sistently dragged in the dirt, and both the aspersions they cast on her character and the embellishments with which they garnished her life passed for centuries as undoubted history. Six comedies entitled Sappho, and two Phaon, were produced by the Middle Comedy; and, when we consider, for example, the way in which Socrates was caricatured by Aristophanes, we are justified in putting no faith whatever in any accounts of Sappho which depend upon such authority, as most of our accounts appear to do.

Welcker was the first to examine carefully the evidence upon which the current opinion of Sappho's character rested. He found it easy to disprove, in his opinion, all the common accusations against her moral character, but unfortunately, not content with disproving actual statements, went on to uphold Sappho as a model of feminine virtue. Bergk and Mure both combated his views, and in the Rheinisches Museum for 1857 may be found the issues between him and the latter clearly stated on both sides, unfortunately with considerable acrimony. It is plain to the impartial reader that both of the controver-sialists have gone decidedly too far, but it can hardly be denied, however much we should naturally desire to think otherwise, that Mure has very considerably the best of it. We owe thanks to Welcker for clearing the history of Sappho from several fictions, but further than this it is impossible to go; we owe thanks to Mure for preferring truth to sentiment, but we cannot disregard some points of Welcker's argument so completely as he does. In fact, the truth appears to be that Sappho was not, as the Attic comedy represented her, a woman utterly abandoned to vice, and only distinguished among the corrupt community of Lesbos by exceptional immorality and the gift of song,—that indeed she was not notoriously immoral at all, but no worse and perhaps better than the standard of her age and country required. This seems clearly indicated by the epithet ____, with which Alcaeus addressed her. On the other hand, not merely tradition but the character of her extant fragments, with the other evidence adduced by Mure, constrain us to resign the pleasant dream of Welcker, K. O. Müller, and their followers,—an ideal and eminently respectable head of a poetic school, with a matronly regard for her pupils, who meant by her own poems anything but what she said, and was more careful to inculcate virtue than unlimited indulgence in passion.

To leave this disagreeable question, we will next indicate briefly all that is known of her position in Lesbos. She was there the centre of a brilliant society and head of a great poetic school, for poetry in that age and place was cultivated as assiduously and apparently as successfully by women as by men. Her most famous pupils were Erinna of Telos and Damophyla of Pamphylia. Besides them we know the names of Atthis, Telesippa, Megara, Gongyla, Gyrinna, Dica, Mnasidica Eunica, and Anactoria, to whom the second ode, _______, is said to have been addressed. The names also of two of her rivals are preserved—Andromeda and Gorgo; but whether they also presided over similar schools or not is very doubtful, as that idea of them depends on the authority of Maximus Tyrius, which is quite worthless on this point.

In antiquity the fame of Sappho rivalled that of Homer. She was called "the poetess," as he was called "the poet." Different writers style her "the tenth Muse," "the flower of the Graces," "a miracle," "the beautiful," the last epithet referring to her writings, not her person, which is said to have been small and dark. Her poems were arranged in nine books, on what principle is uncertain; she is said to have sung them to the Mixo-Lydian mode, which she herself invented. The few remains which have come down to us amply testify to the justice of the praises lavished upon Sappho by the ancients. The perfection and finish of every line, the correspondence of sense and sound, the incomparable com-mand over all the most delicate resources of verse, and the exquisite symmetry of the complete odes raise her into the very first rank of technical poetry at once, while her direct and fervent painting of passion, which caused Longinus to quote the ode to Anactoria as an example of the sublime, has never been since surpassed, and only approached by Catullus and in the Vita Nuova. Her fragments also bear witness to a profound feeling for the beauty of nature; we know from other sources that she had a peculiar delight in flowers, and especially in the rose. The ancients also attributed to her a considerable power in satire, but in hexameter verse they considered her inferior to her pupil Erinna.

The fragments of Sappho have been all preserved by other authors incidentally. An independent fragment, ascribed to her by Blass but rejected by Bergk and of very doubtful authenticity, has been discovered on a papyrus in the Egyptian museum at Berlin (see lihein. Mus. for 1880, p. 287 ; Bergk, vol. iii. p. 704); but even if really hers it is too fragmentary to be of any value. The best edition of Sappho is to be found in Bergk's Poetae Lyrici Graeci, vol. iii., 4th ed., Leipsic, 1882. The only separate edition and the only complete translation in English is that of Mr Wharton (London, 1885), in which it is unfortunately impossible for the general reader to place much reliance. (J. A. PL.)

The above article was written by: J. A. Platt, B.A.

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