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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sappho

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SAPPHO (7th-6th centuries B.C.), Greek poetess, was a native of Lesbos, contemporary with Alcaeus, Stesichorus and Pittacus, in fact, with the culminating period of Aeolic poetry. One of her brothers, Charaxus, fell in love with a courtesan named Doricha upon whom he squandered his property. Sappho wrote an ode, in which she severely satirized and rebuked him. Another brother, Larichus, was public cup-bearer at Mytilene — a position for which it was necessary to be well born. It is said that she had a daughter, named after her grandmother Cleis, and she had some personal acquaintance with Alcaeus. He addressed her in an ode of which a fragment is preserved: “Violet-weaving (or dark-haired), pure, sweet-smiling Sappho, I wish to say somewhat, but shame hinders me”; and she answered in another ode: “Hadst thou had desire of aught good or fair, shame would not have touched thine eyes, but thou wouldst have spoken thereof openly.” The story of her love for the disdainful Phaon, and her leap into the sea from the Leucadian promontory, together with that of her flight from Mytilene to Sicily, has no confirmation; we are not even told whether she died of the leap or not. Critics again are agreed that Suïdas was simply gulled by the comic poets when he tells of her husband, Cercolas of Andros. Both the aspersions which these poets cast on her character and the embellishments with which they garnished her life passed for centuries as undoubted history. Six comedies entitled Sappho and two Phaon, were produced by the Middle Comedy; but, when we consider, for example, the way in which Socrates was caricatured by Aristophanes, we are justified in putting no faith whatever in such authority. We may conclude that Sappho was not utterly vicious, though by no means a paragon of virtue. All ancient tradition and the character of her extant fragments show that her morality was what has ever since been known as “Lesbian.”

At Lesbos she was head of a great poetic school, for poetry in that age and place was cultivated as assiduously and apparently as successfully by women as by men. Her most famous pupils were Erinna of Telos and Damophyla of Pamphylia. In antiquity her fame rivalled that of Homer. She was called “the poetess,” he “the poet.” Different writers style her “the tenth Muse,” “the flower of the Graces,” “a miracle,” “the beautiful,” the last epithet referring to her writings, not her person, which is said to have been small and dark.

Her poems were arranged in nine books, on what principle is uncertain; she is said to have sung them to the Mixo-Lydian mode, which she herself invented. The perfection and finish of every line, the correspondence of sense and sound, the incomparable command over all the most delicate resources of verse, and the exquisite symmetry of the complete odes which are extant, raise her into the very first rank of technical poetry at once, while her painting of passion, which caused Longinus to quote the ode to Anactoria as an example of the sublime, has never been since surpassed, and only approached by Catullus and in the Vita Nuova. Her fragments also bear witness to a profound feeling for the beauty of nature. The ancients also attributed to her a considerable power in satire, but in hexameter verse they considered her inferior to her pupil Erinna.

The fragments of Sappho have been preserved by other authors incidentally. Three fragments ascribed to her have been found on Egyptian papyri within recent years. The first two were published by W. Schubart in Sitzungsberichte d. königl. preuss. Akademie d. Wissenschaften (1902), i. 195 and re-edited (with bibliography) in the Berliner Klassikertexte, v. 2 (1907); the third, discovered in 1879, and attributed to Sappho by Blass, is re-edited in the Berlin. Klass. v. For these three fragments see especially J. M. Edmonds, in Classical Review (June, 1909), pp. 99-104 (text, trans., comment.) and on the text of the “Ode to the Nereids” in Classical Quarterly (October, 1909). The poems were separately edited with translation by Wharton (3rd ed., 1895); also in H. Weir Smyth's Greek Melic Poets (1900). See also P. Brandt, Sappho (Leipzig, 1905); B. Steiner, Sappho (1907).

(J. A. Pl.)