She was short and rather unattractive. She was tall, and her beauty was transcendent. Even these descriptions of her appearance, which were themselves written long after her death, conflict completely with each other. But one aspect of her life was generally agreed upon: in a society which tended to view women as second-class citizens, she was widely regarded as the greatest poet of her age. What survives of her poetry is as fragmented as the few facts which we know of her life. It is as if we were to try and assess the genius of Shakespeare through only a few surviving lines from Hamlet or The Tempest. But even if those few lines of Shakespeare were all that existed, we still would know that we were in the presence of a voice of true greatness, and so it is with Sappho of Lesbos.
Sappho lived her life twenty five centuries ago on the large island of Lesbos in Ancient Greece, composing poems which were intended both to be sung in performance for special occasions such as weddings and other celebrations, and as personal expressions of her thoughts and emotions. Today we take the idea of poetry as self-expression for granted, but such was Sappho’s originality that this idea was thought to have begun with her. Before Sappho, poetry was confined to the formal reciting of epic ideals and traditional stories. What I find so touching about her work, and what speaks to me, is the sense of passion for life which she clearly retained even into her later years. True art needs such passion to express itself – and to communicate itself to, and so to touch, others.
Most of Sappho’s poetry was almost certainly lost when Crusaders sacked Constantinople in the 13th-century and destroyed its libraries and cultural treasures. Fragments from other locations have been discovered in such places as ancient refuse pits, inscribed on shards of pottery, and even among the padding used for the wrappings of mummies. What we have managed to rescue from the jaws of time is but a fraction of what once existed, which from contemporary accounts we know to have been a substantial body of work. We are fortunate that other writers who admired her work also quoted from her in their own writings, for it is these which have provided another source of her poetry for us.
Sappho’s is a voice which has endured against all the vagaries of history. I also think of the Gnostic Gospels, buried in a jar in the Egyptian sands, and lying undiscovered for sixteen long centuries – or the charred and blackened manuscript which is our only known copy of the epic of Beowulf, which was so very nearly destroyed by fire. It is as if some voices are simply not meant to be silenced, in spite of all apparent efforts to erase them from history, either wilfully or by the misadventures of time.
Voices are so fragile, and reflect the very fragility of life itself. But their very survival also paradoxically reflects the tenacity of life: the tenacity to endure, to reach beyond the time in which these voices speak, so that they may be heard by others in a future unimaginable to them. Delicate and exquisite, passionate and refined, Sappho’s words remain like rare flowers pressed between the pages of the book of centuries. My slim edition of her poems, which contains all of the few known surviving fragments of her work, seems to speak of a fragile hope, and of that hope’s will to endure against all the odds.
Artistic rendering of Sappho by William Adolphe Bouguereau
Translated and with an introduction by Aaron Poochigian, and with a preface by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Penguin Classics.