Lyric poet Sappho is universally regarded as the greatest ancient poet. She came to be known as the “tenth muse.” Although scholars can’t agree whether Homer even existed or not, Sappho’s work was recorded and preserved by other writers. An unfortunate destruction of a volume of all her work—nine books of lyric poetry and one of elegiac verse—occurred in the early Middle Ages, engendering a search for her writing that continues even now. The Catholic Church deemed her work to be far too erotic and obscene, so they burned the volume containing her complete body of work, thus erasing what could only be some of the finest poetry in all of herstory. Known for her powerful phrasing and the intensity of feeling, erotic and otherwise, Sappho’s poetry is immediate and accessible to the reader. Upon reading Sappho, you can feel that you know her, her ecstatic highs as well as the depth of her pain and longings.
Sappho is believed to have been married to a wealthy man from the island of Andros, and she had one daughter. She taught at a small college for women and was also an athlete. One haiku-like fragment reports that she “taught poetry to Hero, a girl athlete from the island of Gyra.” She was banished to Sicily for some time, but the majority of her life was lived on the island of Lesbos. Much of her work, her most lustful in fact, is written to other women, whom she exalts for their beauty, often achieving a poetic frenzy of desire. She also writes for her brother Charaxus and makes the occasional reference to the political arena of the ancient world she inhabited. Although Sappho is one of the earliest and best known poets of either gender, she is actually regarded, stylistically, as the first modern poet.
Though in Sardis now,
she thinks of us constantly
and of the life we shared.
She saw you as a goddess
and above all your dancing gave deep joy.
Now she shines among Lydian women like
the rose fingered moon
rising after sundown, erasing all
stars around her, and pouring light equally
across the salt sea
and over densely flowered fields
lucent under dew. Her light spreads
on roses and tender thyme
and the blooming honey-lotus
Often while she wanders she remembers you,
and desire eats away at her heart
for us to come.
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