Sappho

by Margaret Beasley

Born about 630 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sappho is now regarded as the greatest lyrical poet of ancient Greece, ironic and passionate, capturing the troubled depths of love. Her work survives only in fragments yet her influence extends throughout Western literature, fuelled by the speculations and romances, which have gathered around her name, her story and her sexuality.

If the tradition that she spent a period of exile in Syracuse is based on fact, she knew Sicily at first hand. She is said to have been exiled by the tyrant Pithacus for political reasons. Nevertheless, judging by the surviving poems, what interested her most were her private life and her poetry. Some snippets follow:

Without warning - as a whirlwind
swoops on an oak, love shakes my heart

I was so happy, believe me, I prayed
that night might be doubled for us.

Now I know why Eros,
of all the progeny of Earth and Heaven,
has been most dearly loved.
Referred to variously as teacher, dancer, poet, lyricist, prostitute etc., Sappho was one among many women of that time who became a poet and musician. What stands out in her work is her marshalling of sharp details rather than the melody of verse. This seems to be the secret of her eloquence and the sustaining pillar, which has drawn Greek scholars to her work, fragmented though they may be.


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