Although there is little information about the life of Sappho, we still can read her poems. These poems are translated. The poem in this article, “A girl” was translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s safe to conclude that her life is a mystery, but her poems are not.
One of the most important sources that mention Sappho is the Greek lyric poet Anacreon (582 – c. 485 BC). He mentioned Sappho as “the sweet-singing.” He wasn’t the only one to praise her. Lucian (c 125 – 180) mentioned her as “the honey-sweet glory of Lesvos.” Even Plato mentioned her as being the “tenth muse.” You must take into consideration that none of these men ever met this poetess.
Sappho was supposedly born in the year 630 BC and died in 570/575 BC. Supposedly, because there is no clear evidence of her birthdate or the date she died.
Because there are no contemporary sources about her life, we must go on the information provided by others who wrote about her in later periods. Apart from the mentions by Anacreon, Lucian and Plato there is another important non-contemporary source.
Fifteen hundred years after her death she was written about by Byzantine scholar. This work was written in Greek and was entitled, Suda. This is a lexicon of about 30,000 articles that saw its completion in the tenth century.
According to this source, Sappho was born in either Mytilini (Mytilene) or Eresos, on the Greek island Lesbos, as the daughter of Scamander and Cleïs. Her family was rich and aristocratic. It’s not clear if she had any siblings or not. Not every source is clear enough.
Sappho was considered as one of the greatest poets of antiquity. But, not everyone was an equally big fan. She was regularly ridiculed. First, because she was a woman and then because of her clear sexual preferences. Parts of her life should serve as a moral to others. Only they weren’t always based on the truth. Who does or knew the truth? Those were her contemporaries. Only in her day, there was no writing about her. That only happened later.
You could say her life was exaggerated. To propagate a certain morality. Indeed, a dash for equal love. So also the love between women. It got so bad that her poems were changed. Just to show how bad it all was. There were also translators from her work who wanted to ensure that her words would not be misunderstood.
Her poems are nothing more than an accumulation of spontaneity, they are sometimes even simple (which is not bad) and direct or honest. What could be wrong with that?
Not the least names have ventured into her work. Mostly they were men, which sometimes makes the translation situation difficult and perhaps even uncomfortable. Think of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Alfred Tennyson. But Christina Rossetti’s brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti also ventured into translating her work. Translating poems is good. Then a wider audience can become acquainted with the poems. It’s a different story when the translator will act like a poet or someone who has to edit the work.
Vision of love
But before we get drunk on the translations, although they are hugely important, there is something else we should not forget. Sappho was able to make her mark on poetry. Her vision of love was something that would inspire others and continues to this day. She was not only a poet, she was also part of the evolution of poetry.
What has overshadowed her work and maybe even her life is the way she was portrayed. This did not only happen in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the thoughts that arose in the nineteenth century.
Lesbian or bisexual?
It wasn’t even a thought, more of a myth. This consisted of setting up a boarding school for girls of good origin when she returned to Lesvos (she spent some time on the island of Pittacus after a coup d’état or uprising). The boarding school offered an education based on music, dance and poetry. There is no clear evidence whether Sappho ever started a boarding school or whether she taught here. It was the atmosphere of intimacy in this boarding school that became the breeding ground for the idea that she might be attracted to women. That the boarding school could be found on the island of Lesbos, from which the word lesbian is derived, would be sufficient ‘proof’. If you read her work carefully, it seems that she made no distinction between women or men and was therefore bisexual. Although it remains to be seen whether the works in which this emerges are based on her own life.
There is another myth about her life, giving ‘proof’ to the idea that she might have killed herself when an unreturned love for the ferryman Phaon. No unambiguous evidence can be found for this either.
The aforementioned Suda even mentions that she would have been married (to Kerkylas, a wealthy merchant from the island of Andros) and that they had a daughter together. Kerkylas from Andros could be translated as “Stiff man,” which may have been a way of ridicule her.
In short, her life is a mystery, her poems are not. Well, at least the one below isn’t. It’s a beautiful love poem.
Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —
Forget 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 in the ground.
Sappho (translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)