6 The Star/Nov. 11,1983
Lesbos' Sappho Remains
History's Romantic Enigma
By Patrick Franklin
Plato regarded her so highly that he called
her "the tenth muse," a name that bestowed the status of a demi-goddess on her.
Catullus quoted her poetry in his own. The
ancients carefully kept copies of her nine
books of poems.
But who was Sappho? The life of the
woman whose very name is used as identification for the love between women, and
whose birth on the island of Lesbos gives a
name to the women who practice that love,
is now lost. But "lost" is too kind a word.
The memory of Sappho brings with it a
legacy of talent and genius that was too
startling a burden to be borne by generations of men for whom the love of woman
for woman was vile, and who demanded
that the place of women must be subservient.
But she lived. More important, she
wrote, and in Buch a way that the minds of
her contemporaries were Btunned by the
perfection of her writing. Small-minded
men could burn her books and try to erase
her memory, but not completely. To do so
would have required that they censor or
destroy many of the works of the great
male thinkers who admired and quoted
She was born in the late 7th century B.C.
When, exactly, is lost in time along with
the date of her death. We know the name of
her father, Scamandronymus, who died
when she was only six, and we know that
he must have been a relatively wealthy
man because ofthe position in society that
Sappho enjoyed. She had three brothers,
who, from the poetry that remains, must
have been spendthrifts.
Very little else of unquestioned truth
remains from independent sources. What
few hints can be assumed come from the
interior evidence of her poetry. She was a
friendly correspondent with the poet
Alcaeus, and the two of them were considered leaders of the Aeolian school of poetry.
More important by today's standards is
that she apparently presided over a feminine literary set at Mitylene, writing short
poems to the charms of some of those
women. It is on the basis of those small
fragments that her highly regarded reputation rests. They show an unquestioned
command of feeling expressed in perfect,
It was this, her ability to combine emotional depth with classical purity, that
made her not only the greatest woman
poet of Greece, but one of the great poets of
all time. Solon, hearing one of her verses
recited, declared that he could not die until
he had learned it.
Passing references indicate that she
was married and had borne a son. Still,
those references never show the depth of
feeling, the sincerity and the grace with
which she described her feelings for her
women friends. That bothered even the
ancients, and they believed a legend that
Sappho had thrown herself from theLeuc-
adian Rock in frustration at having failed
in love with a young man, Phaoan.
Though the story was disproved by
Roman times, it was continued by later
writers who could not understand a
woman who was complete without male
She, in turn, frustrated other writers by
refusing to consider the passing scene.
She ignored the eternal strife and struggle
of the Greeks and their interminable civil
wars. Her poetry concerned eternal
values, those of love and the relationship
of common people with the infinite. Perhaps the only complete poem that survives
is a hymn to Aphrodite, the goddess of
Her entire output of nine books of poetry
was small, even for those times. In her
own words, they were "roses, but roses
all." There were no thorns or faded blossoms in those books, and they survived at
least until the destruction ofthe Library in
Alexandria, completed by the Arabs in 640
The fathers of the church had little use
for her poetry, and all copies of Sappho's
verse were Bummarily burned when discovered. They offered no support to the views
of those men, unlike the writing of other
"pagans," and posed a real threat to the
idea of male supremacy that the early
church was so devoted to. Sappho seemed
to be a dead issue.
Even today, when we are left with only
tantalizing fragments of what must have
been an exciting body of work, the old prej
udices appear. Robert Graves, writing the
The White Goddess, a volume extolling the
role of women in poetry and art, tells of his
discussion with a professor about the poetry of Sappho. "Tell me, sir," he asked, "do
you think Sappho was a great poet?"
The Oxford don looked up and down the
Btreet to see if anyone was listening. "Yes,
Graves," he whispered, "that's the trouble. She was very, very good."
Humanity can be proud that one woman
in its early history stands as a monument
to the ability of all who face prejudice. At
the same time, we must mourn for the
vicious destruction of her art.
Willa Cather said it best. "If of all the
lost riches we could have one master restored to us, one of all the philosophers and
poets, the choice of the world would be for
the lost nine books of Sappho."
Franklin, of Carmel, Calif., is the director
of Stonewall Features. ©1983 Stonewall