By Rhiannon Garth Jones and Tom Dean.
For over three thousand years, poetry has been a way to achieve immortality, both for the poet and the subject, making permanent the passing lives of humans. This fragment from Sappho expresses, whether intentionally or not, that belief, and proves it to be justified. Although almost nothing of Sappho’s poetry remains for us to study, she continues to be one of the most admired poets in literary history.
From the extant fragments that do remain it is possible to see understand why Sappho was so admired for her direct but beautiful style of poetry. Whether the topic is the Olympic deities, nature or other young women, there is a frankness about her writing which resonates with readers and audiences. It is through avoiding the deliberate archaisms and Homeric language utilised by other lyric poets, most famously Pindar, that Sappho is able to imbue her poetry with a more conversational and everyday tone. Almost uniquely in literature from this period, Sappho seems concerned to accurately parallel the patterns and rhythms of everyday speech. As such one of the most striking features of her poetry is that it is so personal: whether or not one believes Sappho herself is the first person narrator the emotional range demonstrated by this narrator is tremendous. Desire, friendship and jealous anger can all be witnessed in the extant poetry.
It is inevitable however, when one talks about Sappho that eventually the same questions arise: to what extent should the narrator of the poems be assimilated with Sappho herself? How do we therefore judge the sexuality of the poet? Despite extensive scholarship on the subject the questions remain unanswerable. Partly as a result of this difficulty some more modern readers have begun to question the necessity of establishing the sexuality of the poet at all given that the modern conception of sexuality as more a less a dichotomy frequently seems insufficient for examining sexual relationships in the Classical world. While it would therefore be overly simplistic to describe Sappho as a lesbian, even if we did have definitive evidence she engaged in homosexual sex, it is easy to see how the she has become an adopted figurehead of the modern lesbian community. One attractive interpretation of Sappho’s poetry is of a reaction against a particularly patriarchal society; where relationships involved the subjugation of one party by a dominant other, through the promotion of relationships based on mutual understanding and intimacy.
This aspect of Sappho’s work and stories told about her private life, which now seem to be largely fictitious, mean she has always been a controversial figure. Unfortunately this controversy surrounding her person has sometimes threatened the survival of her poetry. Reacting against the perceived immorality of her work, the Church ordered all her poetry to be burnt in 380, and this order was repeated in 1073 by the church authorities in Constantinople and Rome. The Victorians, adopting rather more subtle methods of suppression, chose to ignore entirely the sexual content of her work, instead theorising that she was a stern school-mistress, teaching the arts to young girls. Even today she is as well known for being a lesbian and for the etymological source of the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘Sapphic’, as for being a poet. In contrast to her later reception, one of the established facts concerning the life of Sappho is that she was very highly respected in her own time. The residents of Syracuse were so honoured that she chose to visit them that they erected a statue on her honour, coins of Lesbos were minted in her image and a contemporary, on hearing one of her songs asked that he be taught it “because I want to learn it and die”. Plato was later to say of her “Some say the muses are nine – how careless – behold, Sappho of Lesbos is the tenth”. The praise is matched by Horace who in his second Ode tells of how the dead listen admiringly to her songs in the underworld. Whatever her lifestyle may have been, her contemporaries respected her highly, and it is only later generations who have found their perception of her personal life creates problems in enjoying her poetry.
Sappho’s poetry and personality have continued to inspire even today: playwrights, film directors and modern poets have all acknowledged her as a major influence. Tom Stoppard’s 1997 play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, although mostly about Czechoslovakian politics, requires an awareness from the audience, if not an understanding, of Sappho’s fragments; about a third of Jane Griffith’s 2007 play, Sappho, is free translation from the fragments, most of them subtly integrated into the script; Robert Crombie’s 2008 film, Sappho, is based on the theories we have of Sappho’s life, acknowledges the influence of her poetry and, most importantly, attempts to realise the repressed fervour, refined sensuality and ultimately the potentially destructive passion of her poetry; and this year the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, offered a new translation of Sappho’s poetry, acknowledging her lasting importance.
Whilst only a small proportion of Sappho’s poetry and even less information about her life has survived to our time, what has survived is the impression of the brilliance and significance of her work. Her continuing influence is testament to the impact she made on her own time and the emotive power of her work. This enduring ability to move her audience has ensured we “in another time” do indeed remember her, just as she hoped. Perhaps her greatest legacy is the confirmation that poetry can indeed be a form of immortality.