620 BCE–550 BCE
Little is known with certainty about the life of Sappho, or Psappha in her native Aeolic dialect. She was born probably about 620 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the island of Lesbos during a great cultural flowering in the area. Apparently her birthplace was either Eressos or Mytilene, the main city on the island, where she seems to have lived for some time. Even the names of her family members are inconsistently reported, but she does seem to have had several brothers and to have married and had a daughter named Cleis. Sappho seems also to have exchanged verses with the poet Alcaeus. Scholars have discussed her likely political connections and have proposed plausible biographical details, but these remain highly speculative.
In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as "the Poetess," just as Homer was called "the Poet." Plato hailed her as "the tenth Muse," and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary. Nonetheless, an ancient, scurrilous tradition attacked and ridiculed her for her evident sexual preferences. Indeed, the facts of her life have often been distorted to serve the moral or psychological ends of her readers. An Anacreontic fragment that was written in the generation after Sappho sneers at Lesbians. Sappho was lampooned by the writers of New Comedy. Ovid related the story of Phaon, who, according to some traditions, rejected Sappho's love and caused her to leap from a rock to her death. Christian moralists pronounced anathemas upon her. Many modern editors have exercised "gallantry" and "discretion" by eliminating or changing words or lines in her poems that they believed would be misunderstood by readers. This history of her reception is itself part of Sappho's significance.
Perhaps the text that best represents the more purely poetic influence of Sappho is number 31, which catalogues the physical symptoms of love longing in the writer as she watches her beloved chatting with a man. This poem is preserved in On the Sublime (circa first century A.D.), whose author, traditionally known as Longinus, cites it as an example of the attainment of great sublimity by skillful arrangement of content. Noting the great passion, the accuracy of observation, and the felicitous combination of detail, he asks, in the impressionistic way characteristic of Sappho's admirers, "Are you not astonished?" For this critic, Sappho illustrates "the most extreme and intense expression of emotion," and his reading surely exemplifies the primary way in which her work has been read. For all her metrical complexity and innovation (one of the meters in which she composed her poems later became known as the "Sapphic" meter), for all the vowel-rich melody of her verse, it is the content that has fascinated her readers. Her poems are, for all their dazzling craft, repeatedly praised as spontaneous, simple, direct, and honest.
This particular poem was imitated by Theocritus and Apollonius of Rhodes; it was translated by Catullus; Sir Philip Sidney; Percy Bysshe Shelley; George Gordon, Lord Byron; Alfred Tennyson; and many others, including the nineteenth-century Greek poet Aléxandros Soútsos. That list alone may suggest something of the nature of Sappho's influence on the Romantic idea of the poet as a creature of feeling, one whose solitary song is overheard, as opposed to the classical model of the poet as a socially defined craftsperson who speaks to a group.
The same emphasis on the overwhelming power of love appears in many of Sappho's songs. Indeed, even when she wrote in the more conventional genres of ancient poetry, Sappho's erotic themes find expression. Poems addressed to individuals (such as the epistolary poem number 2) and ritual and religious poems manifest a similar content. What was once a considerable body of marriage songs, now known only from a few fragments, may be read as public, ceremonial affirmations of Eros. Similarly,...