Sappho was a Greek poetess born around 600 BC on the island of Lesbos--one of the larger islands in the Agean. It is said that she was born into a noble family, but little is known of her except that she married a wealthy merchant and had a daughter, Cleis. It is also believed that, for a time, she ran a Greek finishing school for young women; many of her verses were addressed to her students.
She became very famous in her day for her poetry and appears to have been the center of a closely knit group of women in Lesbos...one that was devoted to art, poetry, and all other forms of culture. Plato called her the tenth muse, and Roman poets like Cotullus and Ovid were inspired by her. Many legends surround her life. Some say that she was the lover of the poet, Alceaus, also from Lesbos and Ovid tells a tale that she jumped off a cliff to her death because her love for a boatman, Phaon, was unreturned. It also has been said, that she was short, dark, and not very pretty. None of these tales have been substantiated.
Sappho wrote mainly love poems, of which only fragments survive. Her poems often refer to the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite. Some of her love poems were addressed to women, from which she developed a reputation for lesbianism. The word lesbian itself is derived from the name of the island of Lesbos from which she came. Sadly, it is due to its homosexual content that very little of her work survives. The early church ordered that her work be burned.
It is sad, indeed that so much of her work has been to us lost forever. Sappho was one of the first to write lyrical poems that expressed personal feelings. And what we have left today of her works are considered remarkable for their passionate descriptions of emotion and the simple beauty of their language. The world lost a valuable treasure in her work.
The following is a fragment of one of her poems.
Aphrodite dressed in an embroidery of flowers,
never to die, the daughter of God,
untangle from longing and perplexities
O Lady, my heart.
But come down to me, as you came before,
for if every I cried, and you heard and came,
come now, of all times, leaving
your father's golden house.
In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted
swift in their flying, a quick blur aquicer,
beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
down to the black earth;
fast they cam, and you behind them, O
hilarious heart, your face all laughter,
asking, What troubles you this time, why again
do you call me down?
Asking, in your wild heart, who now
must you have? Who is she that persuasion
fetch her, enlist her, and put her into your binding love?
Sappho, who does you wrong?
If she balks, I promise, soon she'll chase you,
if she's turned from your gifts, now she'll give them.
And if she does not love you, she will love,
helpless, she will love.