Sappho’s Fragments: A Depiction of Love

“Although only breath, words which I command are immortal.

Sappho


Residing on the Greek Island of Lesbos, Sappho remains one of the most famous archaic Greek poets (c. 620-570 BCE). She was referred to as ‘the Poetess’ much like Homer was hailed as ‘the Poet.’ Although little information about Sappho survives, she was born to a wealthy family on the island of Lesbos where she was educated in the arts. She is believed to have led a thiasoi (school-like environment usually put in place to educate young girls on marriage ) dedicated to the ancient Greek deity Aphrodite, to whom Sappho showed immense devotion.  

Sappho’s death is believed to have been due to throwing herself off the Leucadian cliffs in the name of her unrequited devotion to the ferryman, Phaon. However, this is regarded as a mere myth by scholars, perhaps contrived from mis-interpretation of poems or biographies.

Miguel Carbonell Selva, Death of Sappho, 1881. Narrative painting depicting Sappho throwing herself off the cliffs of the Greek island Leucadia because of her love for Phaon, a ferryman.

Whilst most of her work is lost and primarily remains as fragments, one can observe a recognisable style of writing. The Aeolic verse, a distinctive style employed by Sappho is seen throughout her work, consisting of a fixed number of syllables within the stanzas. Her poetry is further distinguished by the Sapphic meter. Using four-lined stanzas, Sappho’s concise phrasing and picturesque imagery often painted feelings of desperation and concupiscence. 

Why Sappho’s work remains as fragments:

Approximately 650 lines of Sappho’s poetry still survive, one of which is just one complete poem – “Ode to Aphrodite”-  with more than half of the original lines surviving in around ten more fragments, mostly discovered in papyrus form in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. 

It is widely believed that in 1073, most of Sappho’s poetic corpora were burned by Pope Gregory VII because her allegedly ‘lecherous’ works defied the word of God, Thus causing her poems to largely remain as fragments of their once complete selves.

The Tithonus poem fragment 58, found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt

Love, as depicted by Sappho:


Commonly recurring themes within Sappho’s works were love, marriage, devotion and prayers to her deity – Aphrodite. When writing about love, Sappho’s poetry presented varying opinions on it. Often, she would be infatuated with her lover and praying that her affections may be returned. However, one can also observe Sappho almost feeling sickly from the overwhelming feelings she experienced due to love.


Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene by Simeon Solomon.

Love as important above all

Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot…is the most beautiful thing…But I say it is what you love.

Sappho continuously depicted love as a central object in her life. To place a greater significance on love than on defences for the safety for her city was not insignificant as army, soldiers and navy were particularly important, due to them being main lines of defence against potential invaders. Yet, Sappho almost describes love as a compelling force, rooted deeply in human nature.

Love as the cause of her desperation

In her fragments, Sappho depicted an intimate relationship with the goddess. As seen in Sappho’s fragment one (Ode to Aphrodite), she prays to Aphrodite to help heal her broken heart. In response, Aphrodite flies down on a chariot from Olympus, drawn by sparrows to assist Sappho. 

She desperately begs the goddess for the object of her affection to return her feelings, “deathless child of Zeus, Aphrodite, weaver of plots: I beg of you, do not, my lady, wear down my spirit with heartache and grief.” To which Aphrodite is seen to answer with,” whom shall I seduce back to your love this time? Who is it, Sappho, who flouts you?” This implies a certain closeness between Aphrodite and the lovelorn Sappho. Moreover, it also suggests that Sappho has often begged Aphrodite for love. Showing love was important enough to Sappho, causing her to beg the Gods to aid her.

Love as an affliction

“My heart beats (but my blood is gone) at the sound of your sweet laugh. I cannot look at you for long, I cannot speak.”


Sappho often appears lovesick in her fragments. Although one may chalk it up to a mere infatuation, it is nonetheless a sweet sentiment, to see her so purely in love. Many of her fragments describe her love as an affliction, with symptoms such as a fast heartbeat, signs of fever and cold sweats.

In another one of her fragments, Sappho describes her reaction to the sound of her loved one’s voice.”It sets my heart racing, …a thin flame runs under my skin, …a cold sweat pours down my body. …I tremble all over…just a shade from dead, but I must bear it….” Despite showing symptoms of being ill, it is rather amusing to see her reduced to an almost nervous mess in the presence of her beloved. 

Detail of Raphael’s Parnassus showing Sappho, 1509

Aliza

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