Sappho: A Pioneering Woman of Poetry

Happy National Women’s Month! Today we will be taking a look at how Sappho influenced poetry in our series, “Poetry’s Pioneering Women.”

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It is Women’s History Month! Here at Bookstr we are breaking down some of the most influential female poets in history. In this series we are shedding light on how women have major impacts on literature–from their movements, choice of words and imagery, and their overall style. This week, we are taking a look at Sappho!

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The Early life of the Poet, Sappho

Sappho was an Archaic Greek poet from either Eresos or Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Considering she was active at a very early date in history, there is not much concrete evidence of her early life. However, there are three sources that exist about her life: her testimonia, the history of her times, and what can be contrived from her poetry. The testimonia is derived from Sappho’s own poetry.

Sappho was born around 630 B.C. Tradition states that her mother was named Cleis. There are ten possible names for her father derived from her ancient testimonia. According to Ovid’s Heroides, Sappho’s father died when she was seven. Her father is not mentioned in any of her surviving works. But it is suggested that this detail may have been based on a now-lost poem.

According to the Suda, Sappho was married to Kerkylas of Andros. She may have had a daughter named Cleis, named after her mother. However, it is also suggested that the name Cleis mentioned in the ancient texts could be transcribed as “youthful beloved in a male homosexual liaison.” It is suggested that Cleis could have been a younger lover.

A tradition said that Sappho was exiled from Lesbos around 600 BC. The Parian Chronicle records Sappho going into exile in Sicily sometime between 604 and 591.

Sappho’s cause of death is uncertain. Some traditions state that she killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for the love of Phaon, a ferryman.

Sappho and Her Poetry

Sappho lived in a time where men dominated everything; they dominated life. Male voices were put on blast, and women were silenced. Sappho wrote lyrical poems, but the poems that we know today are merely fragmented remains of Greek literature. Only two poems are complete from nine books of verse. We are forced to use our imaginations to reconstruct the output of one of the most mysterious of ancient poets.

Women lived very quiet and controlled lives, but Sappho acquired education so that she could compose her masterpieces. This fact has baffled most ancient and modern scholars. If a girl during ancient Greece were to exhibit any sort of artistic skills, there was barely an outlet to express them. Those who did were deemed unnatural, suppressed, and regarded with suspicion.

So how did she amount to such success in her endeavors with lyricism? We may never know. All that is known is that she was a force to be reckoned with.

Sappho women
Image Via the Conversation

Sappho wrote short, sweet verses on a variety of topics–she was no epic poet. She wrote on topics such as hymns to the gods, marriage songs, and mini-tales of myth and legend. She also sang of desire, passion, and love. These were all directed towards women, and are the poems she is renowned for.

Sappho, following poetic traditions of the Greek, wrote floral and natural imagery to depict feminine beauty and youth. Elsewhere, she depicts images of garlands and scenes. She even uses the imagery of apples to convey feminine sensuality.

Her world was about beauty and caresses and whispers of desire. She sang songs in honor of the goddess Aphrodite and tales of mythical love.

Her Legacy

Sappho was called the “Tenth Muse” by Plato. She was prolific, and innovated poetic form with first-person narration instead of writing from the vantage point of the gods. She also refined lyrical meter.

During the span of her life, the style of poetry was transforming from great epics, to more personal narratives. She was one of the earliest poets to write vivid and emotional poetry in the first person. Her most common subject was love and the strong emotions that followed suit. This included passion, jealousy, affection, and hatred. Her poems were recited accompanied by a lyre, which heightened the emotional impact.

Not only was her subject matter revolutionary, but so was Sappho’s use of language. She wrote solely in the local dialect, using common expressions and words in her writings. She had a sense of grace and elegance in her style. The lyrical meter that she refined is now called the Sapphic meter, a type of lyric that influenced both Ovid and Catullus.

A nine-volume edition of Sappho’s poetry was published in the 3rd century B.C.E. However, most of her time she was criticized for her writings, and her poems were destroyed after the 4th century by the church. This was due to her erotic and homosexual imagery. Attempts to revive her poetry began during the Renaissance and have been continued throughout history.

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