Sappho was an educated Greek aristocratic lady, married to a businessman, living on the island of Lesbos, in the late Homeric period. Most women were precluded from education as they were deemed inappropriate. She is an exception.
Sappho innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual, writing from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.
Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female,
Plato elevated her from the status of great lyric poet to one of the muses. Upon hearing one of her songs, Solon, an Athenian ruler, lawyer, and a poet himself, asked that he be taught the song “Because I want to learn it and die.”
To Atthis #
(tr. Willis Barnstone)
I have not had one word from her
Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to me,
“This parting must be endured,
Sappho. I go unwillingly.”
I said, “Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love
“If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared
“all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck
“myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them
“while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song…”
–Translated by Mary Barnard
Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.
Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus-born goddess,
Whom I now beseech
Never to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.
–Translated by Paul Roche
The Ode To Aphrodite. The poem is a prayer to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, where Sappho asks for help in getting attention from an unnamed woman, for which Sappho has fallen in love.
“To my side:
“And whom should Persuasion summon
Here, to soothe the sting of your passion this time?
Who is now abusing you, Sappho?
Who is Treating you cruelly?
Now she runs away, but she’ll soon pursue you;
Gifts she now rejects–soon enough she’ll give them;
Now she doesn’t love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling.”
- Sappho, Hymn to Aphrodite
“What cannot be said will be wept.”
“May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.”
“Once again love drives me on, that loosener of limbs, bittersweet creature against which nothing can be done.”
“You may blame Aphrodite, soft as she is, she has almost killed me with love for that boy.”
“Virginity, virginity, when you leave me, where do you go? I am gone and never come back to you. I never return.”
“When wrath runs rampage in your heart you must hold still that rambunctious tongue!”
“The moon and the Pleiades have set, it is midnight, and the time is passing, but I sleep alone.”
“All the violet tiaras, braided rosebuds, dill and crocus twined around your young neck.”
“Someone will remember us, I say; even in another time.”
See: Burning Sappho - Gwen Harwood: