In addition to epic poetry (see previous post), the Ancient Greeks also wrote lyrical poetry. In the ancient world, lyrical poetry was set to the music of the Lyre (a stringed musical instrument). It often rhymed, and it was always more personal and emotional (contrasted to epic poetry which concerned the whole of society). One of the few known female poets of the time period is Sappho (630ish – 612ish BCE). We do not know a tremendous amount about her, but we do know that she was a member of the aristocracy (wealthy class) and had a daughter named Cleis. Because she had money, she could afford to spend life studying the arts, which she did on the isle of Lesbos, a center of culture at that time.
In addition to writing lyrics (lyrical poetry), Sappho composed her own music. She was an innovator in both technique and style, moving from writing from the viewpoint of the gods to focusing on the point of view of an individual. She wrote in first person (“I” point of view), and she wrote about love and loss. Sappho wrote ten books of poetry that were published in the Ancient Times, but by the Middle Ages (which we will tackle in Unit II), those books were lost. What we know of Sappho’s poetry we know from others who quote her or talk about her. And most of that is in fragments. We only have one complete poem from her work.
Sappho’s work most often focused on love between women. That love may have been homosexual, which is why homosexual women are now called lesbians (from Lesbos), but it may not have been. It might have been more acceptable to have sensual friendships. And, we know that the women Sappho wrote about often married (as she did), so we know that this love she wrote about did not preclude heterosexual marriage.
Sappho’s Only Complete Poem Still in Existence
Hymn to Aphrodite
THRONED in splendor, immortal Aphrodite!
Child of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee
Slay me not in this distress and anguish,
Lady of beauty.
Hither come as once before thou camest,
When from afar thou heard’st my voice lamenting,
Heard’st and camest, leaving thy glorious father’s Palace golden,
Yoking thy chariot. Fair the doves that bore thee;
Swift to the darksome earth their course directing,
Waving their thick wings from the highest heaven
Down through the ether.
Quickly they came. Then thou, O blessed goddess,
All in smiling wreathed thy face immortal,
Bade me tell thee the cause of all my suffering,
Why now I called thee;
What for my maddened heart I most was longing.
“Whom,” thou criest, “dost wish that sweet Persuasion
Now win over and lead to thy love, my Sappho?
Who is it wrongs thee?
“For, though now he flies, he soon shall follow,
Soon shall be giving gifts who now rejects them.
Even though now he love not, soon shall he love thee
Even though thou wouldst not.”
Come then now, dear goddess, and release me
From my anguish. All my heart’s desiring
Grant thou now. Now too again as aforetime,
Be thou my ally.
This English translation, by William Hyde Appleton, of “Hymn to Aphrodite” is reprinted from Greek Poets in English Verse. Ed. William Hyde Appleton. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1893.