Sappho is the most famous love poet of ancient times, the first woman who tried to express in words her own feelings and the conflicting effects of love on the human heart and soul. Her poetry is considered “monadic lyric”, as it featured only one voice.
She was born in Lesbos, an island in the Aegean Sea; she came from an aristocratic family and lived mostly in the city of Mytilene. Her life, which they say was quite long, crossed the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. Ancient tradition relates that she threw herself from a cliff, because Phaon, the man she was in love with, refused her. Modern scholars believe that this tradition is due to comedy writers who wanted to sneer at her.
Sappho directed a thiasos, which was a small, elitist circle where young girls were educated. They were taught above all music and poetry, but a kind of emotional education was also given to pupils and homosexual experience was considered a good preparation for marriage in Greek culture. It was in this context that Sappho’s love poetry was born.
Sappho’s poetry was autobiographical, as she used to describe her feelings to deities or people with spontaneity and naturalness. She tried to analyze and catch the real essence of love and the harmony of beauty, describing nature’s images and sounds. Her poems have a precise structure, which was an important formal achievement in archaic lyric.
Archaic Lyric Poets
“Lyric” was the word used by Hellenistic scholars from Alexandria for poems whose performance was accompanied by a flute or a stringed instrument, often the lyre. Unfortunately we possess only fragments of these poets’ work and they were often found written on papyrus. The Alexandrian Canon rated nine authors who were considered the most esteemed from antiquity: Alcman, Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Stesichorus, Ibicus, Simonides, Bacchylides, Pindar. There were nine of them, just like the nine Muses. Thereafter, the poetess Corinna too was added to this group. Modern scholars nowadays assert that also Archilochus and Mimnermus were also important lyric poets, even if they do not form part of the famous Canon.
There were different forms of archaic lyrics. Poetry performed by only one voice was called “monodic lyric”: these poems were created inside restricted contexts, such as the thiasos, an elitist circle where young girls were educated, and the eteria, a political group. Lyric with choral sections was denominated “choral poetry” and it was composed for public occasions. Besides these forms, there was also “iambic poetry”, an often aggressive kind of lyric, whose aim was to represent realistic situations. Lastly there was “elegiac poetry”, which was a quite complex genre: in the first examples poems were meant to encourage soldiers before going into war, but most poets used elegiac verses to express personal feelings and thoughts about life, time, youth and love. These poems featured during religious or political ceremonies, when the whole community took part in the event.
Lyric, in fact, played a very important role in Greek society between the 7th and 6th century BCE, because it served as a vehicle through which rapid social change and political tensions could be expressed. Afterwards, in the 5th century, expectations and fears of Greek people would be represented in dramatic plays, both in tragedy and comedy. At that point, lyric poetry gradually disappeared. Choral poetry was the last to be extinguished, as it was bound to the aristocratic world.
The most important revolution brought about by Archaic lyric poetry in the Greek world was the birth of individualism: man, for the first time, feels as if he is in the middle of the world and wants to react to the Homeric “shame culture” and to a vision of life dominated by deities, where he could decide none of his actions and words. He wants to communicate his own vision of the world, his point of view, his love for life, his scale of values, grounded on his own experience, often standing back from traditional ethics (Archilocus, fr. 5 West: I saved myself, so what do I care about the shield?).
Mariangela Labate, Classics Teacher, Liceo Scientifico
“Leonardo da Vinci”, Reggio Calabria, Italy
Fragment 2 | The Apple Grove
Contributed by Andrew Bellon
Fragment 31 | The Equal of the Gods
Contributed by Mariangela Labate
Fragment 58 | You desire the Beautful Gifts of the Muses
Contributed by Andrew Bellon
Fragments | Sappho and the Moon
Contributed by Terry Walsh