Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sappho (ca 630-ca 570 BC)

Little biographical information about Sappho survives. We know she was born in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos into a wealthy family. With her family she was temporarily exiled to Sicily around 600. Later she returned to Lesbos and remained there until her death. She wrote poetry and sang these poems while playing the lyre.

Most of her poetry has been lost. Her fame in ancient days, however, was great. Ancient artists drew her on red-figured vases or carved her out of marble. Ancient poets, Plato, and Solon compared her with the Muses themselves. After hearing his nephew sing one of her poems, Solon asked to be taught it. When asked why, he answered so he could die a happy man.

Scholars at the great library of Alexandria also celebrated Sappho by collecting all of her poems and publishing them in a definitive edition of nine books based on their meter. Sadly, of all the poems in these nine books, only one complete one, “Hymn to Aphrodite,” survives.

Her poems continued to be learned by students and imitated by poets in Roman times. This active appreciation of her poetry disappeared in western Olympia with the collapse of the western Roman Empire. When that happened, even scholars forgot the Greek language. Renewed interest in Sappho began again with the Renaissance of classical Hellenian culture in the 1400s. It has grown ever since.

Two of Sappho’s surviving poems express her responses to scenes from Homer’s Iliad. One speaks of Helen; the other, of the wedding of Hector and Andromache. Sappho criticizes Homer’s point of view, and Mars god of war whom he honors, when she says of Helen (in Anne Carson’s translation):

     Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
     and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
     on this black earth. But I say it is
     ... what you love.

     Easy to make this understood by all.
     For she who overcame everyone
     in beauty (Helen)
     left her fine husband
     behind and went sailing to Troy.
     Not for her children nor her dead parents
     had she a thought, no—

     I would rather see her lovely step
     and the motion of light on her face
     than the chariots of the Lydians or ranks
     of footsoldiers in arms.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.