The lesbian Love poet Sappho is a true enigma. A problem. A fantasy. Sometimes but a figment of our very vivid imaginations. Perhaps that is why I love reading her.
“Sapphic” has come to mean anything relating to love between women, and that alone makes Sappho worth studying.
There is pitifully little of Sappho’s original writing in existence, just 100 or so fragments, most of them only a line or two of text, like one would see in a review of a poem. Combine that with the fact that Sappho wrote in an obscure Greek dialect that translators have had difficulty with over the centuries, and we can begin to grasp some of the issues.
Problems Understanding Sappho’s Love Poems
Then there are other problems, such as:
Society has waxed and waned on the propriety of lesbianism, and so the translators have re-translated many times over to meet the mores of society. It is not unusual, for example, to find the same poetic snippet reference “she”, and then from another translator reference “he” as the object of affection.
The notion of lesbians has waxed and waned too. In some eras it has been fashionable to feel love between women; in other eras the lesbians in question have been painted as sadistic deviants. The views of Sappho have wavered in reaction to these evolving feelings in society.
Sappho was hardly noted at all in contemporary writing, except to praise her love poems as being wonderfully lyrical. So we don’t know the details of her life, such as whether or not she married or had children, or what profession, if any, she had. Some historians have attempted to use the snippets of her poetry that we do have as biographical comments, such as using the one about a child to demonstrate that she did indeed have a daughter. In fact, we don’t know that to be true. Poems are not histories.
Then there are the downright literary hoaxes, like the one perpetrated by “Bilitis”, a reputed member of Sappho’s group of women, and a poet herself. This “Bilitis” turned out to be not only a complete fabrication, but a man! The poems that this man wrote scared the reputation of Sappho for centuries.
Sappho has been reported as
- Being a kind of headmistress of a girls’ school AND leading a group of wildly erotic women;
- Being a lesbian AND being a married woman (which is not necessarily mutually exclusive);
- Having a daughter AND living childless;
… and many other contradictory things. Anything we say is speculation, so let me speculate this:
Sappho was probably born into a wealthy family in the 7th century b.c. and received a classical education, one that led her appreciate and use language magnificently. She lived on the Greek island Lesbos, from where we get the term “lesbian”. She may or may not have married. Odds are that she created something of a women’s salon, which may nor may not have been sexually based. She was probably a lesbian. And she did write exquisite lyrical poetry.
A Snippet or Two of Sappho’s Lesbian Love Poems
Here is one little poem I especially like:
Like the sweet apple that reddens
At end of the bough–
Far end of the bough–
Left by the gatherer’s swaying,
Forgotten, so thou.
Nay, not forgotten, ungotten,
Ungathered (till now).
This is likely a lesbian love poem talking about a lovely young lady who is heretofore “ungotten, ungathered”. And that is what I like to believe. It is difficult to imagine a young man being referred to a “sweet apple that reddens at the end of the bough”.
Here is another lesbian love poem by Sappho, one that references a “she” as the beloved. Please note that I am not a Greek scholar and I cannot say for sure that the original love poem referenced a “she”, although it does seen logical in context.
I have had not one word from her
Frankly I wish I were dead.
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to me, “This parting must be endured,
Sappho. I go unwillingly.”
I said, “Go, and be happy but remember (you know well)
whom you leave shackled by love
“If you forget me, think of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared
“all the violet tiaras, braided rosebuds,
dill and crocus twined around your young neck
“myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with all that they most wished for beside them
“while no voices chanted choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song…”
The Poet Sappho In Art
The images of Sappho throughout the centuries have varied so dramatically it is difficult to imagine that they are truly the same person. Many of them are downright lewd orgies of lesbians. Some are sedate paintings, reflecting the headmistress notion, and some depict a school for nymph-like lovers. A few even show her with her reputed husband.
However she is depicted, Sappho is a fascinating, extraordinary woman. I am glad that we also claim her as a lesbian.
Gift yourself a few moments to listen to this lovely telling of one of Sappho’s fragments (with English subtitles).
More About Sappho
Every so often a new fragment of Sappho’s poetry is discovered. The fragment at the left came to light in 2013. There were actually two fragments, from two different poems. Scholars are truly excited because the poems are nearly intact. I would be incredibly excited too … if it turns out to be true.
The truth is that these two poems seem to draw on information that we already know about Sappho, such as the names of her two brothers. This type of information is not hard to come by. Also, only one scholar has “verified” these scraps as being from Sappho. I would look for much more scholarly input before jumping on the bandwagon. And third, there is a huge monetary market for old scraps of papyrus like this, and something from Sappho would command a very high price.
So sadly I am skeptical at this point. Goodness knows, we’ve been duped before, and may be duped again. I am content to live with my imagined Sappho, the one who wrote glorious wedding songs and love poems, the one who captured the eternal beauty of her companions in a few smudgy lines of a long forgotten love poem.
For someone we truly know so little about, Sappho has generated an amazing amount of scholarship … and devotion. One of my favorite spots is the Sappho blog by Stuart Dean that looks at Sappho and her influence from all different angles. Dean speaks with compassion from a scholarly background, a rare combination.
Sappho in Opera
While there have been several operas written about Sappho, the one presented in Chelsea in the summer of 2014 is particularly outstanding. In Ariadne Greif’s searing presentation of Sappho, she strips duct tape off her bare body.
Why duct tape? “It’s like the spirit of the world, or Sappho, being bound up and then released,” she said.
See this review for a more detailed description.
At one point, Ms. Greif sang with deep sadness at the loss of her lover. Both she and her audience were in tears.