Very little is known of Sappho’s life; we have only a few biographical details, mostly based on supposition and extrapolation from other classical writers’ references to her. She was born into a wealthy Aeolian family on the island of Lesbos in the 7th century B.C. She was married to a merchant, Cercôlas, and had a daughter, Cleïs. After a brief period of exile in Sicily for her family’s political activities, she returned to Lesbos and founded a school for girls on the island.
In ancient Greece, the poems of Sappho were universally admired, so much so that she was called “the poetess” (as Homer was “the poet”), and Plato suggested she should be honored as one of the Muses, more than human, a goddess of poetry. Her name and the name of her native island have come to carry the meaning of female homosexuality. As the model of a love poet, it was said that she leaped from a rock to her death out of unrequited love... but this seems to be a legend and not historical truth.
Nine scrolls of her poems were in the great Alexandria library, but most of Sappho’s works were burned in the 4th or the 11th century A.D. by order of the “anti-pagan” Byzantine emperors. We have only bits of her poetry to read today: quotations and references in the work of other ancient authors (like her “Hymn to Aphrodite,” preserved by Dionysius of Halicarnassus as an exemplar of “smooth composition”), and torn scraps of papyrus which have yielded 264 fragments and only four complete poems.
Sappho the romantic:
Sappho and her friend Alcaeus are considered the twin founders of the Aeolian tradition of lyric poetry on Lesbos, but where he was known for poems on war, politics and other “manly” activities, Sappho wrote emotionally tender, introspective, first-person poems about the events and people in her life. Some say her work represents a “subjective revolution” in classical literature. She could be considered the first, prototypical romantic, 2400 years before the Romantic poets of the 19th century.
Books of Sappho in English translation:
- The Complete Poems of Sappho (trans. Willis Barnstone, Shambhala, 2009)
- If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (trans. with notes by Anne Carson, original Greek on facing pages, Vintage Books, 2003)
- The Love Songs of Sappho (trans. with an essay by Paul Roche, Literary Classics, Prometheus Books, 1999)
- The Sappho Companion (ed. Margaret Reynolds, comprehensive readers guide with the Greek fragments, a selection of English translations and an anthology of literary work inspired by Sappho, Palgrave McMillan, 2002)