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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sappho (fl. c. 610–580 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Davidson (1840–1900)
 
SAPPHO (more properly Psappha), the greatest of all poetesses, was born at Eressos in the island of Lesbos. Her father’s name was Scamandronymus, her mother’s Cleïs. Few facts of her life are recorded. As a girl she doubtless learnt by heart her Homer and Hesiod, and sang the songs of her countrymen Terpander and Arion. While still young she paid a visit to Sicily, and possibly there made the acquaintance of the great Western poets, Stesichorus and Ibycus. When she returned home she settled at Mitylene, being perhaps disgusted with the conduct of her brother Charaxus, who had married the courtesan Rhodopis. To one of her satirical poems on him belongs perhaps the line—
  “Wealth without worth is no harmless housemate.”
She found some compensation in her youngest brother Larichus, who for his beauty had been chosen as cupbearer in the public banquet hall at Mitylene. In an extant fragment she says to him:—
  “Stand kindly there before me, and unfold
The beauty of thine eyes.”
  1
  As we may well believe, the beautiful, gifted Sappho had many admirers. Chief among these was the great Alcæus,—statesman, warrior, and lyric poet. There is still extant the opening of a poem which he addressed to her:—
  “Violet-crowned, chaste, sweet-smiling Sappho,
I fain would speak; but bashfulness forbids.”
She replied in the spirited lines, showing her simplicity of character:
  “Had thy wish been pure and manly,
    And no evil on thy tongue,
Shame had not possessed thine eyelids:
    From thy lips the right had rung.”
To a suitor younger than herself she wrote:—
  “Remain my friend, but seek a younger bride:
I am too old, and may not mate with thee.”
Indeed, a passionate nature like hers was not easily mated; and so we find a strain of longing pathos in her. In one fragment she says:
  “The moon hath set,
  The Pleiades are gone:
’Tis midnight, and the time goes by,
  And I—I sleep alone.”
Elsewhere she says (in the exact words of a Scotch ballad),—
  “For I sall aye gang a maiden mair.”
  2
  The much-quoted but absurd story of Sappho’s flinging herself from the Leucadian Rock, in despair at her unrequited love for the handsome Phaon, is due to a confusion between her and a courtesan of the same name. So far from such folly was the poetess, that, late in life apparently, she changed her mind about marrying, and gave her hand to a wealthy Andrian named Cercylas, by whom she had a daughter, named after her own mother, Cleïs. We have still a fragment referring to this child:—
        “I have a little maid, as fair
        As any golden flower,
            My Cleïs dear,
For whom I would not take all Lydia,
        Nor lovely Lesbos here.”
Elsewhere she says to the same child,—
  “Let me enfold thee, darling mine.”
  3
  Of the events of Sappho’s later life we know little: merely that she lived to a ripe old age, and died leaving a name which the Greeks for a thousand years, with one accord, placed next to that of Homer. After her death the Lesbians paid her divine honors, erected memorial temples to her, and even stamped her image upon their coins, as other cities did those of their tutelary deities. How she was regarded by her great contemporaries we may learn from a story told of Solon. When near his end, some one having repeated to him a poem of Sappho’s, he prayed the gods to allow him to live long enough to learn it by heart. From his day to the latest times of antiquity, poets and critics strove in vain for words to express their admiration of herself and her works. Plato calls her “the beautiful Sappho”; and she is often referred to as “the tenth Muse.” An epigram on the great lyric poets, after enumerating the eight men, says, “Sappho was not the ninth among men: she is catalogued as the tenth among the Muses.” Horace writes:—
  “Still breathes the love, still live the hues,
Intrusted to the Æolian maiden’s strings.”
And the great critic Longinus is even more complimentary.
  4
  Such uniform, unqualified praise for a thousand years may well make us mourn the loss of Sappho’s works. For with the exception of two short poems (one incomplete), and about a hundred and twenty fragments of from one to five lines, they are all lost. But what remains is very precious, containing a wealth of deft expression not easy to match in any other poet, and more than sufficient to enable us to comprehend the estimate given of the poetess by Strabo: “Sappho is a kind of miracle; for within the memory of man there has not, so far as we know, arisen any woman worthy even to be mentioned along with Sappho in the matter of poetry.”  5
  Sappho left nine books and rolls of poems, the subjects of which were so various that they were arranged according to metres, a book being devoted to each of the nine metres in which she wrote. Of these metres the most famous was the “Sapphic stanza,” which she seems to have invented. Another invention of hers was the plectrum or pectis, with which the lyre was struck,—the first step toward the piano.  6
  We shall arrange her briefer fragments not according to metre but to subject, premising the remark that through most of them runs a trait to which she frankly bears testimony,—the love of splendor. She says:—
  “I am in love with luxury:
The love of the sun hath won for me
    The splendid and the beautiful.”
  7
  Her love of nature, and her power of expressing its charm in simple, striking language, remind us of Burns and Goethe. Her pathetic lines about her loneliness at midnight have already been quoted. But it is not merely the pathetic in nature that she feels: she feels all its living beauty. It is not only the night, with the moon and the Pleiads set, that touches her: every hour of the day comes to her with a fresh surprise. Of the morning she says:—
  “Early uprose the golden-slippered Dawn;”
and of the evening:—
  “O Hesperus! thou bringest all
The glimmering Dawn dispersed.”
And again:—
  “O Hesperus! thou bringest all:
Thou bring’st the wine; thou bring’st the goat;
Thou bring’st the child to the mother’s knee.” 1
Of the night she says:—
  “The stars about the pale-faced moon
  Veil back their shining forms from sight,
As oft as, full with radiant round,
  She bathes the earth with silver light.”
And again of the moon and the Pleiads:—
  “The moon was shining full, and they
Stood as about an altar ranged.”
And just as the hours of the day, so the seasons of the year bring her joy. Her ear is open to—
  “Spring’s harbinger, the passion-warbling nightingale;”
and her eye brightens when—
  “The golden chick-peas spring upon the banks.”
What a picture of the Southern summer, with its noonday siesta in the open air, we have in these lines:—
  “The lullaby of waters cool
  Through apple-boughs is softly blown,
And, shaken from the rippling leaves,
    Sleep droppeth down.”
And how we should like to hear the termination of this simile:—
          “As when the shepherds on the hills
        Tread under foot the hyacinth,
And on the ground the purple flower [lies crushed].”
Along with her delight in nature goes a keen joyous feeling for all that is festive: song, wine, and dance, garlands, gold vessels, and purple robes are dear to her. To her lyre she says:—
  “Come then, my lyre divine!
  Let speech be thine.”
And to Aphrodite she calls,—
  “Come, Queen of Cyprus! pour the stream
Of nectar, mingled lusciously
With merriment, in cups of gold.”
  8
  But Aphrodite is not enough. Life requires other ennobling elements,—light, sweetness, and art, represented by Hermes, the Graces, and the Muses. Of a wedding-feast she says:—
  “Then with ambrosia the bowl was mixed,
And Hermes took a cup, to toast the gods,
While all the rest raised goblets, poured the wine,
And prayed for all brave things to bless the groom.”
Again she calls:—
  “Hither come, ye dainty Graces,
And ye fair-haired Muses now!”
And again:—
  “Come, rosy-armed, chaste Graces! come,
        Daughters of Jove!”
And yet again:—
  “Hither, hither come, ye Muses!
    Leave the golden sky.”
  9
  Nay, she even calls upon Justice herself to put garlands about her fair locks, and come to the feast; adding, characteristically enough, that the gods turn away from worshipers that wear no wreaths. From such sayings we see that Sappho’s delight in nature, deep as it was, was chastened and refined by a delight in art. The Grecian grace of movement and management of drapery are particularly dear to her. She exclaims:—
  “What rustic hoyden ever charmed the soul,
That round her ankles could not kilt her coats!”
  10
  But far more than all outward adornment of the body, which is but an index of the soul, is the adornment of the soul itself with sweetness and art. To an uncultivated woman she says:—
  “When thou art dead, thou shalt lie in the earth:
Not even the memory of thee shall be,
Thenceforward and forever; for no part
Hast thou, or share, in the Pierian roses:
But, formless, even in Hades’s halls shalt thou
Wander and flit with the effacèd dead.”
On the other hand, to a cultivated woman she says:—
  “I think no other maid, nay, not even one,
That hath beheld the sunlight, e’er shall be
Like thee in wisdom, in all days to come.”
She knows too that she herself will not be easily forgotten. She says:—
  “I think there will be memory of us yet,
In after days.”
But, aware of the labor required by genius, she adds:—
  “I do not think with these two arms to clasp
The heavens.”
  11
  What calls forth Sappho’s supreme admiration and love is the cultivated, genial, loving soul, at home in a beautiful body. Her joy in such souls expresses itself in language of the most tempestuous sort. In one fragment she says:—
  “Love again, unnerving might,
Bitter-sweet, doth shake and smite,
Like a serpent folded tight.”
In another:—
  “Love again hath tossed my spirit,
Like a blast down mountain-gorges,
Rushing on the oak-tree’s branches.”
She is sad when her love is not returned. Of one friend she says:—
  “I loved thee, Atthis, once, in days gone by;
A little maid thou seemedst, nor very fair.
Atthis, thou hatest now to think of me,
And fleest to Andromeda.”
Of others she speaks pathetically:—
  “The heart within their breast is cold,
And drops its wings.”
Then her sorrow is too great for utterance.
  “To you, dear ones, this thought of mine may not
Be told; but in myself I know it well.”
There is a whole heart-tragedy in such snatches as this:—
  “The beings that I have toiled to please,
They wound me most.”
  12
  But the strongest expression of her love occurs in the two longer poems which follow this article. Of the second, Longinus says:—
          “Do you not admire the manner in which, at one and the same time, she loses soul, body, hearing, speech, color, everything, as if they were passing from her and melting away? how, in self-contradiction, she is at once hot and cold, foolish and wise? how she is afraid, and almost dead, so that not one feeling, but a whole congregation of feelings, appears in her? For all these things are true of persons in love. But it was the seizing of the salient points, and the combination of them, that produced the sublime.”
And he classes the poem as sublime. Certain it is that her influence, like that of Homer, went far to determine the character of all subsequent Greek poetry and art,—to keep it pure and high, above sensuality and above sentimentalism.
  13
  The character of Sappho’s work may be thus summed up: Take Homer’s unstudied directness, Dante’s intensity without his mysticism, Keats’s sensibility without his sensuousness, Burns’s masculine strength, and Lady Nairne’s exquisite pathos, that goes straight to the heart and stays there, and you have Sappho. What a darkened world it must have been that allowed such poetry as hers to be lost! And yet it is not all lost. Enough remains to show us the extent of our loss; and of it we may say, in the words of the ancient epigram:
  “Sappho’s white, speaking pages of dear song
Yet linger with us, and will linger long.”
  14
 
  EDITORIAL NOTE.—Since the above article was written, a few more fragments of Sappho have been discovered in the Oxyrhyncus Papryi. A discussion of these by Mr. J. M. Edmonds, of Jesus College, Cambridge, with English versions of the more important lyrics, will be found in the Classical Review for May 1914, and for June 1916. See also London Times, May 4th, 1914, and London Weekly Times, June 16th, 1916.  15
 
Note 1. Lord Byron’s expansion of this in ‘Don Juan’ will be remembered. [back]
 
 
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