History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman in Literature - The Literary Position of Women in the Classic Ages - Sappho


Strange to say, during the classic period, feminine genius developed itself to a very high point, unsurpassed for a thousand years; and this through one woman, with the circle she summoned around her. Sappho (610 B.C.) grew up in the highlands of Lesbos, where women had more freedom and more culture than elsewhere, and where, by a most gratifying coincidence, they also made bread so admirable that it has kept its reputation for two thousand years. The Greek Archestratus, who wrote a book on cookery, said that if the gods were to eat bread they would send to Eresos — Sappho’s birthplace — to buy it, and a traveler, Mr. C.T. Newton, who visited the village in 1865, reported the same receipt for bread as still followed.

The Greek Anthology mentions seven women who were as it says “divinely tongued.” Of these Sappho was the recognized chief. Among the old Greeks, “the poet” meant Homer, “the poetess” meant Sappho. There flourished in those days, says Strabo, writing a little before the Christian era, “Sappho, a wondrous creature, for we know not any woman to have appeared within recorded time who was in the least to be compared with her in respect to poetry.” She and Alcæus — her townsman and possible lover — were the joint founders of the lyric poetry of the world. Pindar and Anacreon, Horace and Catullus, imitated their measures. Alcæus is the author of that noble poem translated by Sir William Jones and beginning “What constitutes a state.” But of him, as of Sappho, only fragments remain, one of which is a line addressed by him to her,

“Violet-crowned, pure, sweetly smiling Sappho.”

Plato called her the tenth muse. Solon so admired one of her poems that he wished he might not die until he had learned it by heart. Legends grew up around her in the hands of the Roman Ovid, living centuries later, for which it is now admitted that there is no ground; this being especially true since the work of the German Welcker under the title “Sappho Vindicated from a prevailing Prejudice.” Bishop Thirlwall said of this book, “The tenderness of Sappho, whose character has been rescued, by one of the happiest efforts of modern criticism, from the unmerited reproach under which it had labored for so many centuries, appears to have been no less pure than glowing.”

Of all the modern poets, the one who has most highly praised the genius of Sappho is Swinburne, who says of her, “Her remaining verses are the supreme success, the final achievement in poetic art,” and says of his own translations, “I have striven to cast my spirit into the mould [sic] of hers, to express and represent, not the poem but the poet,” and he describes her in his Songs Before Sunrise,

“O deathless, O god’s daughter, subtle soul.”

An admirable little volume of her poems, including every broken fragment of the text with a memoir with selected renderings and a literal translation, accompanied by the original, was published by David Stott, Oxford, in 1885, the editor being the late Henry T. Wharton. He paid the writer the honor of including in this volume the writer’s own version of Sappho’s most celebrated poem, the “Ode to Aphrodite,” which is as follows:

Beautiful-throned, immortal Aphrodite,
Daughter of Zeus, beguiler, I implore thee,
Weigh me not down with weariness and anguish
O though most holy!

Come to me now, if ever thou in kindness
Harkenedst my words — and often hast though hearkened —
Heeding, and gliding from the mansions golden
Of thy great Father,

Yoking thy chariot, borne by thy most lovely
Consecrated birds, with dusky-tinted pinions,
Waving swift wings from utmost heights of heaven
Through the mid-ether;

Swiftly they vanish, leaving thee, O goddess,
Smiling, with face immortal in its beauty,
Asking why I grieved, and why in utter longing
I had dared call thee;

Asking what I sought, thus hopeless in desiring,
Wildered in brain, and spreading nets of passion —
Alas, for whom? and saidst thou, “Who has harmed thee?
O my poor Sappho!

“Though now he flies, ere long he shall pursue thee;
Fearing thy gifts, he too in turn shall bring them;
Love less today, tomorrow he shall woo thee,
Though thou shouldst spurn him;

Thus seek me now, O holy Aphrodite!
Save me from anguish; give me all I ask for,
Gifts at thy hand; and thine shall be the glory,
Sacred protector!


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.

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