For those who have a deep-rooted love for poetry, I would surely hope that they have read the fragmented remains of Sappho; a Greek poet who is more commonly known as the first documented lesbian.
Poetry in itself dates back to hundreds of thousands of years and is a huge tool in shedding light on topics that are lost in the abyss of the world’s problems. Sappho’s poems are no exception, and the loss of Sappho’s poetic corpus is something to regret. We only have fragments of her poetry with just a mere two complete poems extant from nine books of verse. Needless to say, there is an abundance left to the imagination in the restoration of Sappho’s fragments.
Society has so long been dominated by male voices but despite this, Sappho’s poetry was so acclaimed even in ancient times that she was titled the Tenth Muse. This is probably the highest regard an Ancient Greek woman has ever received.
In a time where women lived quiet and controlled lives, Sappho emerged as a literate woman noted by her ability to pen down her emotions and sensuality. It was common during this time period that girls were only taught skills regarding literacy if it were to equip them to run a household once she was married-off, so, what set Sappho apart from everyone else?
Little is known about the life that Sappho lived. We know Sappho was born in the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey in the late 7th Century BC. (Yes, the rumors are true: the term ‘lesbian’ derives from Sappho’s place of birth.)
From Sappho’s fragments, readers can gather the immense love and respect she had for women, which sparked a debate that is still going on today – was Sappho truly a lesbian? On The Exploress website, an article titled That Loosener of Limbs: Sappho and Sexuality in Ancient Greece explores different ideologies that are reflected in Sappho’s work and state that “the thing that makes her poetry so special is that it’s refreshingly intimate for her era; personal in a way that little ancient poetry is. It makes it tough not to insert the Poetess into her creations. Many of her poems deal with love, and the object of that love is often another woman.” It should also be noted that the second entry on Sappho in the Suda states that Sappho was married, had a daughter by the name of Cleis, and was also a lover of women.
However, Sappho’s works are not responsible for her synonymy with women-loving. This was something that manifested with the Greeks and Romans of later centuries, who translated her literary abilities into a perverted form of masculinity and ultimately labeled Sappho to be a hyper-sexual individual. Years on, Sappho’s reputation for her sexual appetite eventually linked her to passionate relations with men, which later morphed into relations with women.
But debate aside, let’s take a deeper look into the fragments which are embedded in the history of literature. One of my personal favorites is Fragment 31 in which Sappho wrote:
He seems to me an equal of the gods—
whoever gets to sit across from you
and listen to the sound of your sweet speech
so close to him,
to your beguiling laughter: O it makes my
panicked heart go fluttering in my chest,
for the moment I catch sight of you there’s no
speech left in me,
but tongue gags—: all at once a faint
fever courses down beneath the skin,
eyes no longer capable of sight, a thrum-
ming in the ears,
and sweat drips down my body, and the shakes
lay siege to me all over, and I’m greener
than grass, I’m just a little short of dying,
I seem to me;
but all must be endured, since even a pauper . . .
I love this fragment because the piece itself is void of any physical features of the lover. Sappho instead writes of the effect love has on the beholder, the poem providing readers with the reaction of looking at a lover. We as the readers have the opportunity to envision symptoms they describe as the poet’s faculties fail one by one in the consuming aura of her beloved, the outside world dissolves around her and disappears from the poem, too, leaving the speaker in an echo chamber where all they can hear is the narrator professing her love for her beloved.
The arc from “he seems to me” in the first line to the solipsistic “I seem to me” at the end, as unfinished as it is, is the perfect ending to the poem. With the readers left in this echo chamber that Sappho has created and with the rest of the poem essentially missing, it rounds it up to the perfect ending that so many people in love experience, the feeling of never-ending infatuation with their spouse.
Some of Sappho’s poems even extend onto thoughts of her daughter Cleis. An example of this is Fragment 132, where Sappho sings:
I have a beautiful child whose face is like
golden flowers, my beloved Cleis …
For anyone that is looking for a good read, I would highly recommend looking into Sappho’s fragments. If I were to go on, this article would become a novel, but be assured that the reading of such beautiful pieces of literature leaves you craving more and wondering how good her work would have been if the whole piece had been preserved.
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