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In 1073 an edict destroyed Sappho’s lyric poetry

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Literature on Friday, 1 February 2013

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This edited article about Sappho originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 114 published on 21 March 1964.

Sappho, picture, image, illustration

Through the streets of Rome and Constantinople they came carrying books. The literate people of those two cities were simultaneously obeying the proclamation:

“Books of lyric poetry are evil. They must be burned today in the city square.”

Among the books consigned to the bonfires by order of the authorities on that day in the year 1073 were many by Sappho, who had by then been read and loved and recognized as one of the world’s greatest poets for more than 1,500 years.

How thoroughly the book-burners did their job can be judged from the fact that we now have only 2,000 words in 500 lines of poetry, which are known with certainty to have been written by her. And among these we have only one complete poem.

Yet on the basis of those pitifully few words Sappho today stands as the supreme woman poet, and the greatest lyricist, who ever lived.

One scholar has said of her verses: “Never before these songs were sung, and never since did the human soul, in the grip of a fiery passion, utter a cry like hers; and, from the executive point of view, in directness, in lucidity, in that high, imperious verbal economy which only nature can teach the artist, she has no equal, and none worthy to take the place of second.”

This is the accepted view today. And few scholars would challenge it.

Sappho was born about 640 B.C. at Eresus, on the coast of Lesbos, a beautiful Greek island near the shores of Turkey. When she was about six years old, one of her parents died and she and her three younger brothers went to live in Mitylene, also on Lesbos. There amid the myrtle groves and temples, sunlit fountains and hyacinth gardens by the sea, she grew up.

We know that she came of a wealthy family, for her youngest brother, Larichus, was a boy cup-bearer at Mitylene’s civic feasts, an honour reserved for the richest citizens.

The youthful Sappho was vastly pleased by his success and sang his praises. But on her eldest brother, Charaxus, she heaped only scorn.

What he did to deserve such scorn looks more noble than wicked to us; but in those days it was something calculated to bring disgrace to a family . . . he fell in love with a slave girl.

This girl, whose nickname we know was “Rosycheeks,” was purchased out of slavery by Charaxus for a vast sum. To recoup his expenditure he engaged in some form of illegal trade, which angered his sister Sappho still more.

Her own marriage was in much more traditional vein. The bridegroom was Kerkylas, a man whose wealth put him in the millionaire class.

Yet wealth did not prevent Sappho being exiled to Sicily – certainly once, and possibly twice.

She lived at a time when Lesbos was struggling to become a freer democracy against the wishes of its ancient nobility. It may be that she was banished for playing some part in the revolutions that shadowed this lovely sunlit island.

She was certainly a close friend of Alcaeus who led one revolt. And from a marble inscription that says: “Sappho sailed from Mitylene to Sicily as an exile,” we can be sure that she spent some part of her life there.

Alcaeus was soon pardoned, and no doubt Sappho was, too.

Back in Mitylene she bore a daughter, whom she named Cleis.

She wrote about her little girl like this:

“I have a child; so fair
As golden flowers is she,
My Cleis, all my care.
I’d not give her away
For Lydia’s wide sway
Nor lands men long to see.”

When Cleis was still a baby, Sappho’s husband died, and to overcome her grief she started an academy for teaching girls dancing, music and poetry . . . all the physical and mental graces.

Before long pupils were coming from all over the Greek world to study in her “House of the Muses.” And her fame in composing verses and songs was being carried back by the pupils to their homelands.

She wrote in ordinary, everyday language that everyone could understand, of doves dropping their wings in the chill of death, of the hyacinths trodden into the dust by careless shepherds, of the rosy-fingered moon and the heaven-haunting swallow, the rosy-sandalled dawn and cool orchards with the sound of running water under the apple boughs.

She wrote of anguish at the desertion of a lover; she wrote of her amusement at a rich woman who pretended to be cultured; she wrote of the joys of sweet sleep and the horror of old age and death; she wrote marriage hymns full of joy and of deep understanding of true love.

In her more passionate moments she never resorts to any coarse imagery. Always she is a woman – gentle, lovable, profound. Never is she crude or profane, as some of her ill-informed detractors have suggested.

Such criticisms of her life and writing stem mainly from Greek satirists of later centuries, who made up many stories about her. They even alleged that she flung herself to death off a high cliff after a wild, unhappy love affair.

But the greatest Greek writers, like Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, and Solon, spoke of her as a pure genius, whose whole philosophy was bound up in the phrase “there is no beauty without goodness.”

Unfortunately most people can only read Sappho’s work in translation. And no one has yet been able to reproduce in English anything more than a rough approximation of the style and cadence and subtlety of the original.

One ancient Greek writer unknowingly summed up our problem: “The beauty and charm . . . lie in the woven tissue of the words and the smoothness of their adjustment. For the words are woven into one piece as by a sort of relationship or natural affinity of the letters.” That is what makes translation so difficult.

Plutarch wrote more simply: “Do you not see what a charm there is in Sappho’s songs, and how they delight and tickle the ears. . . ?”

We have some idea of her appearance from a few vases on which her figure appears. But a better impression is gained from coins which bear her strong but finely-chiselled, almost delicate features.

It is believed that she was the first real person ever to be represented on a coin. We find her face again – and even her name – on Imperial Roman coins 800 years later, a fact which gives a true indication of the reverence for her which persisted throughout the civilized ancient world.

In the third century A.D. Sappho’s songs were still being sung. Even after Church hostility had them banned, and even publicly burned, in the fourth century, the songs were still handed down by word of mouth. And over the next 700 years they were again written in books and on scrolls.

Then came the great bonfires of Rome and Constantinople, which should have destroyed her nine books of songs for ever.

Fortunately, reports of her in other writings made scholars search for any remnants of the real Sappho.

Very little that was authentic came to light until fairly recent times, when archaeologists in Egypt were turning over ancient rubbish dumps.

There they found some stray papyrus rolls, torn vertically down the middle. They were soon identified as authentic, though mutilated fragments of Sappho – sometimes just half a line, or even only a word – but nevertheless the most splendid pieces of waste paper in the history of literature.

Today scholars still pore over them, trying to bring back more glimmers of Sappho’s unique brilliance.

The following poem, although not entirely preserved, gives some understanding of Sappho’s graceful cadences and the depth of meaning she could reach in simple words.

A Young Bride


Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig – which the pluckers forgot somehow –
Forgot it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now.


Like the wild hyacinth flower, which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden into the ground.

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