A Lecture delivered before
the Classical Association
of Victoria, 1913.

Professor of Classical Philology in the University of
First Edition, May 1914.


IT is hardly possible to realize and judge of Sappho without realizing her environment. The picture must have its background, and the background is Lesbos about the year 600 B.C. One may well regret never to have seen the island now called Mytilene but known in ancient times as Lesbos. There are, however, descriptions not a few, and with these we must perforce be satisfied. On the map it lies there in the Aegean Sea, a sort of triangle with rounded edges, pierced deeply on the south by two deep lochs or fiords, while toward each of its three angles it rises into mountains of from two to three thousand feet in height. One way it stretches some thirty-five miles, the other some twenty-five.
It is twenty-five centuries ago since this island was the home of Sappho, of Actus, and of a whole school of the most finished lyric poetry and music ever heard in Greece. From its northern shore, across only seven miles of laughing sea, the poetess might every day look upon the Road, the land of Homeric legend; and in the North-East distance, over the broadening strait, rose the storied crest of “many-fountained Ida.” The air was clear with that translucency of which Athens also boasted, and in which the Athenian poet rightly or wrongly found one cause of the Athenian intellectual brilliancy. The climate was, and still is, famous for its mildness and celebrity. The Lesbian soil was, and still is, rich in corn and oil and wine, in figs and olives, in building-wood and tinted marble. It was eminently a land of flowers and aromatic plants, of the rose and the iris, the myrtle and the violet, and the Lesbians would seem to have loved and cultivated flowers much as they are loved and cultivated in Japan.
Such was the land. The Greeks who inhabited it belonged apparently to that Achkan Olean branch which was the first to cross from Europe to the north-west Gyan and to oust, or plant colonies among, the older nameless—perhaps “Pelasgian”—occupants. This is not the place to discuss the tribal or even racial differences which once existed between Olean, Ionian, and Dorian Greeks. Their divergence of character was great; it was of the first significance as exhibited in war, in social life, in art. The fact that each division spoke the Greek tongue, though with various accents and idioms, is no longer held as proof that their racial origin and capacity were the same. Between the Greek of Lesbos and the Greek of Sparta there were differences in temper, in adaptability, and in taste, as great as those between the English-speaking Irishman, with his nimble sympathies and his ready eloquence and wit, and the slower if surer Saxon of Mid-Lothian. If we touch upon this question here, it is merely because it casts some measure of light upon those social and literary characteristics of the Lesbians in which Sappho fortunately shared. Almost beyond a doubt the Olean Greeks who first made Lesbos their home was the nearest of kin to those fair-haired Achkans who, in the Iliad, followed their feudal lords to the siege of Troy. Socially a distinguishing mark of these people was the liberty and high position enjoyed by the women in the household, by the Penelope's as well as by the Helens. This fact has hardly been sufficiently considered in dealing with that peculiar position of Sappho and her coterie, concerning which something will be said later. Artistically their distinguishing mark, as represented first in Homer, was their clear, open-eyed, original observation of essentials, their veracity of description, their dislike of the indefinite and the mystic. This too is clearly reflected in the work of Sappho and her compatriots.
We must not, it is true, make too much of this racial derivation and its consequences. The population of Lesbos doubtless became mixed; the lapse of centuries, the passing away of the feudal relation, increasing ease and wealth in a softening climate, long intercourse with the trade and culture of the neighboring Asiatic coast—all these had their inevitable effects. Nevertheless, among it all, the frank genius of earliest Greece is still discernible in the classic poetry of Lesbos.
The island naturally possessed its characteristic speech. The dialect of Lesbos was strongly marked. It is altogether unsafe to specify at this distance of time the particular qualities of softness or sonority which belonged to Greek dialects; but, if one may venture where doubt must always be so great, it would not be unreasonable to speak of Lesbian Greek as perhaps the most “swingable” of them all. In several ways it is peculiarly like Italian. The aspirate is gone, the double consonants are brought out with an Italian clarity unique in Greece, the vowels are firm and musical. And here we must remember that a local Greek dialect must never be looked upon as a provincial patois simply because it is not Attic. Neither Attic nor any other one speech possessed a pre-eminence in Greece in the year 600 B.C. The poet of every little independent Grecian state was free to compose in his own idiom, with no more hesitation or self-consciousness than would have occurred to a Provençal troubadour, an early trover of Normandy, or a Sicilian poet before the age of Dante. The half-doubts of Burns when writing his native Scots would find no sympathy in Sappho or Actus. No poetry that profoundly stirs the heart was ever written with effort in an alien speech. Burns perhaps had some reason to be tempted to write in English. The Lesbian singers had no temptation to write in anything but Lesbian. Sappho may indeed be called the Burns of Greece, but if her dialect, like his, was local, it was at the same time the genuine and recognized language of the most cultured men and women of her people.
Having thus spoken of Lesbos, its people, and its language, we may proceed to the social and ethical surroundings into which Sappho was born. The island contained, after the usual Greek fashion, perhaps half-a-dozen little communities independent of each other. All these had their “little summer wars” and their little revolutions; but it is with Mytilene, the chief and largest town, that the life of Sappho is identified. The history of such a town at this period may be compared to that of an Italian city in the later thirteenth century. It was the history of a struggle between a despotism, or an oligarchy of aristocrats, and the rights of the citizens. The grand and popular of Florence in the time of Dante find their analogues in the conflicts of nobles like Actus and his brother Antimonides against the champions of the common folk of Mytilene. There were also feuds less immediately explainable, just as there were feuds of Guelfs and Ghibellines, of Blacks and Whites. We need not inquire into the usurpations of Elenchus and Missiles or the dictatorship of Pittacus. Men carried to power by favor of one party might drive their opponents into banishment, just as Dante was exiled to Verona and Ravenna. Among those who thus left their country for a space were the poet Actus and his greater contemporary Sappho. Particularly haughty and turbulent were the nobly born, and these often elected to roam abroad and serve as condottieri in foreign armies rather than condescend to obey the rule of the commons at home. It may be mentioned in passing that the brother of the poet Actus took service under King Nebuchadnezzar, and in his wars killed a Goliath, who “lacked but a hand’s-breath of five cubits.”
Yet these are after all but surface incidents, of which history often makes too much. As in modern times, the little wars and little revolutions caused but an inconsiderable suspension of social and industrial life. Commerce and art went on very much as before. The vines of Lesbos were pruned, the ships of Lesbos went trading down the coast, the poets and musicians of Lesbos played and sang. We know that while Guelfs were quarrelling with Ghibellines and Florentines were fighting with Pisans or Genoese, the festive processions went with song across the Arno, Giotto’s tower rose from the ground, Guido Cavalcanti composed his sonnets, and Dante, for all that he must fight in the front ranks at Capaldi, found time and hearers for his Donne chi’ averted intellect s'more. So, it was at Mytilene. We need not therefore picture Sappho and her society of maidens as living perpetually among war’s alarms or fluttering in daily expectation of battle, murder, and sudden death. Life in Lesbos must have been passing cheerful, as life goes.
When we proceed next to speak of the lively enthusiasm of this Lesbian folk for beauty in all its forms, and in especial for the beauty of music and poetry, we must guard against a misconception. Under all the love of art which ruled in Lesbos, amid all its eager cultivation of the Muses and the Graces, this isle of Greece “where burning Sappho loved and sung” carried on its daily work as strenuously as any Greeks were wont. Its farmers and fishermen, its quarriers and vinedressers, labored like others in sun or cold. There was no doubt plenty of envy, hatred, and malice, and no little that was coarse and gross. Nevertheless, the love of art and beauty and the spontaneous appreciation of them penetrated far deeper into a Greek people than it does with us. It was not an artificial outgrowth, a dainty efflorescence of leisure and luxury. It was no private possession of the virtuoso, or sequestered playground of the amateur. Even now the popular songs of the village Greeks are in literary grace and thought of a higher quality than many songs familiar to our drawing-rooms. Life without song and dance upon the sward was unimaginable in old Hellas.
The special pride of Lesbos was in its music and poetry. In the language of the legend, when that magic singer Orpheus had been torn to pieces in Thrace, his head—with, as some say, his lyre—was carried “down the swift Hubris to the Lesbian shore.” On the coins of Mytilene, as on the flag of Ireland, may be seen a harp. The first great name in the musical history of Greece is that of the Lesbian Trepanier. It is not indeed a probable story that he was the first to increase the strings of the lyre from four to seven, but it is practically certain that he both improved that instrument and invented new forms of composition to embody a lyrical idea. Another world-known poet and musician who shed glory on Lesbos was Arion. Of him in later days the story grew that, when he was thrown overboard by pirates, a dolphin, which had been charmed by his melodies, bore him upon its back safe to the Tarentine shore.
In Lesbos, as in every part of Greece, there were abundant demands upon musician and poet. Every occasion of worship, festivity, and grief required its song. The gods were hymned by groups at their altars and by white-robed maidens in processions; at weddings the hymeneal chorus was chanted along the street, and the epithalamion before the doors of the bridal home; at every banquet were sung lively catches and jocund songs of Bacchus; every season—spring, summer, harvest—had its popular ditty, exultant or pathetic; almost every occupation, of herdsman, boatman, gardener, was beguiled with melody; at the coming of the first swallow, as on the old English Mayday, the children sang the “swallow-song” from house to house. And let it be remembered that the Greeks had none of our modern tolerance for a song of which the words were naught and the tune everything. To them the thought, the sentiment, was first; the melody was simply its proper vehicle. Italian opera, when not a word is intelligible, would have seemed to them a strange anomaly. To them music was the “art of the Muses,” and this meant literature no less than minstrelsy. The poet, unless, like Burns, he wrote his verses to existing tunes, was his own composer. In either case he was poet first and foremost.
Now for generations the songs for special purposes had been shaping themselves on special lines. To use a phrase of Aristotle, experience had found out the right species to fit the case. There were sundry recognized stanzas and meters for a processional, a hymeneal, or a dirge. In most cases, therefore, the task of a new poet was to write new words; the melody would, as in the case of Burns, almost find itself. Nevertheless, the complete poet could not dispense with an elaborate training in music. To invent beautiful variations of existing tunes was part of his glory; he must at least write words which should sing themselves to the melody he selected. “Melodies” is the word, for the Greeks knew practically nothing of harmonies. Their songs were sung in unison, or simply with an octave interval when men sang with women or with boys. The accompanying instrument was generally the lyre, or one of many stringed instruments akin thereto; sometimes it was the so-called flute, which was in truth a clarinet. Whatever their musical deficiencies, it has been maintained by competent authorities that in nicety of ear for pitch and time the training of the Greeks incomparably surpassed the modern. Be that as it may, it must never be left out of sight that, when a Lesbian wrote a song, it was in the first place as perfect a poem as he could create, and in the second it was meant to be sung, not merely to be read. Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark is consummate literature. Yet we may doubt if it could ever be sung, and assuredly it was not written to that end. On the other hand, the songs of Moore are often but sickly stuff to read, but they lend themselves perfectly to those touching Irish airs, to which, by the way, the Lesbians seem to have been akin in a peculiar tone of plaintiveness. A Greek lyric aimed at combining the literary music of Shelley’s Ode with the songful music of Moore. It is in the perfection of this combination that Sappho excels all women who have ever written verse.
Where song was for generations so abundant, it follows that there was floating about among the people many an old ballad or favorite ditty whose author had been long forgotten. Numbers of these Volkslieder, or snatches of them, lay, sometimes with consciousness and sometimes unrealized, in the memory of every child of Lesbos. The artistic poet did not scorn them; he feared no charge of plagiarism if he adopted and adapted them; he often acted as Burns acted with the ballads of Scotland; he took them, gave them that marvelous and inexplicable touch of finality which only genius can impart, and so made them his forever. This also did Sappho do, and her verses, when she deals with well-worn themes, are beyond question often fed with the hints of older nameless songsters.
There is one department of lyric verse in which Lesbos stood supreme, and Sappho supreme in Lesbos. It is the poetry, not of religion or marriage, of the banquet or the seasons, but of personal emotion; the verse of the “lyric cry,” which tells of the writer’s own passion, its waves of joy and sorrow, love and hate. It is the monody, the verse sung, not by a gathered company, but from the one overflowing heart, the song best represented at Rome by Catullus, and in modern times by Burns or Heine. For most of her poems in this kind there is no reason to suppose that Sappho relied upon any promptings but those of her own soul. She took the floating rhythms of the ballads, modified them, and into their mold she poured verse which, as George Sand said of her own writings, came from “the real blood of her heart and the real flame of her thought.”
And here at length we come to the poetess herself. Into this land, devoted to poetry, to music, to flowers, and so regardful of loveliness that a public “prize of beauty” was annually competed for in the temple of Hera, was Sappho—or Sappho, as she apparently called herself—born in the latter part of the seventh century before Christ. Our ancient authorities are sufficiently in agreement as to her date, and we may lay it down that she was in her prime about the year 600 B.C., or nearly a hundred and fifty years before that great period of Athenian literary culture which is represented by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The ascertainable facts of her career are miserably few, and concerning those matters which are in debate as to her life and character the present exponent must be permitted to express simply his own views, premising that they have been formed with all due and deliberate care.
Whether the names of her parents were or were not Scamandronymus and Class is an unimportant question. We may simply remark that both those names are of aristocratic color, and both are authenticated. Whether again she was born at Mytilene itself, or at the smaller town of Eres's, is of little moment, since we know that at any rate Mytilene was the scene of her life’s work. That she belonged to the ranks of the well-born, and that good looks were in the family, is proved by the choice of her brother Larches as cupbearer of Mytilene, an office which was bestowed only on handsome and noble youth. That at least one member of the family possessed considerable means is known from the rather romantic history of a second brother, Choragus. This young man sailed away in his ship, laden with the famous Lesbian wine—the innocents popular Lesbian of Horace—as far as Egypt. There he traded in that merchandise at the Pan-Grecian free-town of Naucratis, which had been established in the Delta under a permission somewhat like that by which settlement was first allowed in the treaty-ports of China. Here, however, he fell in love with the world-famed demi-mondaine whose name, Dobrich, is less familiar than her sobriquet Rhodopids— “complexion of a rose”—and his gains were spent in chivalrously ransoming that lady from a degrading slavery. It is of interest to know, though the verses are not preserved to us, that his poetess sister reproved him sharply for this conduct. Her “love of love” did not blind her to the claims of family honor and dignity. It is gratifying to learn that at a later time she expresses her reconciliation to her brother in a poem which, like those of Herenda's and Bicchulites, has but recently been disgorged, though in a sadly mutilated state, by the omnivorous sands of Egypt. Sappho herself is said to have married a wealthy islander of Andros, and to have had at least one daughter, whose name, according to Greek custom, was the name of the grandmother, Class. It is apparently this Class whom she is addressing in a fragment which we may venture to translate thus——
“I have a maid, a bonny maid,
As dainty as the golden flowers,
My darling Class. Where I paid
All Lydia, and the lovely bowers
Of Cyprus, ’would not buy my maid.”
An inscription on the Parian marbles informs us that, at some uncertain date, Sappho fled, or was driven, into banishment to Sicily. There is nothing unlikely in the circumstance, and it is worth noting that more than 500 years later, in the days of Cicero, Verres, the governor of that island, appropriated a bronze statue of Sappho, wrought by a Grecian master and greatly prized at Syracuse.
As Aberg Aube which has gathered about Sappho’s history, there are two strange legends, or rather there is one strange legend in two parts, which must here be told briefly.
The story goes that once upon a time Aphrodite, goddess of love, disguised as an aged woman, was gallantly ferried across to Lesbos by a young waterman of the name of Pheon. In reward she bestowed upon him marvelous beauty and irresistible charm. Of him, the fable tells, Sappho became enamored to the point of frenzy, and, unable to win his heart, she resolved to attempt the last and most desperate cure known for her disease. Away in the Ionian Sea was the jutting rock of Leucas, and it was believed that those who cast themselves down from that cliff into the sea either ended their miseries in death or rose from the waters cured of their malady. What became of Sappho when she took that “lover’s leap” may be found narrated by Hephaestion. It is given in Addison’s 233rd Spectator. “Many who were present related that they saw her fall into the sea, from whence she never rose again; there were others who affirmed that she never came to the bottom of her leap, but that she was changed into a swan as she fell, and that they saw her hovering in the air under that shape. But whether the whiteness and fluttering of her garments might not deceive those who looked upon her, or whether she might not really be metamorphosed into that musical and melancholy bird, is still a doubt among the Lesbians.” Well, let us share the Lesbian doubt, and a little more. Suffice it to say that, though this story, which has been elaborated by the fancy of Ovid, appears to have been known in some shape to Menander and other comic poets of Athens, there is absolutely no trace of the name of Pheon or of anything connected with him in any fragment of Sappho. Nor was there likely to be, seeing that he is in all probability but another avatar of the mythical youth Adonis. More interesting is it to observe that the rock of desperation is called “Sappho’s Leap” unto this day. Unfortunately, we do not know when or by whom it was so baptized.
Of Sappho’s personal appearance we have no certain knowledge. More than four centuries later a philosopher named Maximus Tyrus says that she was considered beautiful, “though” short and dark, and hence is prompted Swinburne’s assumption—
“The small dark body’s Lesbian loveliness
That held the fire eternal.”
If this be true, she was sufficiently unlike the conventional ideal of Lesbian beauty. Her contemporary Actus speaks of her “sweet smile,” and Anacreon, in the next generation, of her “sweet voice.” Later writers of epigrams, who can hardly have known much about the matter, call her “bright-eyed,” or “the pride of the lovely-haired Lesbians,” but those are as likely as not mere descriptive guesses of the kind in which poetical fancy may pardonably indulge. If we meet with the untranslatable adjective kale applied to her by Plato, we must remember that it is a stock epithet of admiration for a writer of charm and genius, and in such cases contains no reference whatever to beauty of person.
What we really know best of Sappho’s life is that she was acknowledged the choicest spirit of her time in music and poetry, and that, whether as friendly guide or professional teacher or something of both, she gathered about her what may be variously called a coterie, academy, conservatorium, or club, of young women, not only from Lesbos itself but from other islands, and even from Miletus and the distant Pamphylia. Sometimes they had called her “companions,” sometimes her “disciples.” One of them, Edina of Telos, herself became famous, but unhappily survives for us as a lyrist only in an inconsiderable line or two.
Sappho appears to have taught these damsels music and the art of poetry, so far as that art is teachable. She appears, moreover, to have taught them whatever charms and graces of bearing and behavior were most desired by women, whether in their social life or in their frequent appearances in religious or secular processions and ceremonies. There exists a short fragment in which she derides the rusticity of the woman who has no idea how to hold up her train about her ankles. In another place she bids one of her maidens—
“Take sprigs of anise fair
With soft hands twined,
And round thy bonny hair
A chaplet bind;
The Muse with smiles will bless
Thy blossoms gay,
While from the garlandless
She turns away.”
It has often been observed that the relations of Sappho with the young women Edina and at this and Anatolia resembled those of Socrates with the young men Alcibiades and Charmides and Hydrus. But it has apparently not been also pointed out as a parallel that, three centuries later, there similarly gathered about the maître Philotas, in the isle of Cos, a school of young poets, among whom were no less persons than Theocritus, Asclepiades and Aratus.
The peculiarity of Sappho’s coterie lay to the general mind in the fact that it was a club of women. And here we must handle with brief and gentle touch, but with no false reserve, a topic which no discourse on Sappho can shrink from facing. The reputation of Sappho and her comrades has long been made to suffer from what is probably, and almost certainly, a cruel injustice. Partly through the social depravity of the later Greek and Roman, partly through taking too seriously the scurrilous humors of the comic dramatists of Athens, many ancients and most moderns have formed concerning that Lesbian school a notion which in all likelihood does bitter wrong to Sappho, wrong to art, and wrong to human nature. At Athens, as among all the Ionian Greeks, and later among Greeks almost everywhere, a woman of character was kept in a seclusion suggestive of the oriental. The woman most to be praised, Pericles declared, was “she of whom least is said among men whether for good or evil.” This, as we have seen, was not the way of the older Olean Lesbos, where woman still enjoyed much of the Homeric freedom and independence to go and come and live her life. What more natural than for Athenians to imagine that the famous coterie of Sappho consisted of women of the same class as the brilliant Aspasia? Their very talent was proof enough, for the Athenian housekeeper who passed for wife made no pretensions to literature and art. What more natural also than for an Athenian playwright, like him of the Ecclesiasts, or “Women in Parliament,” to find scandalous comedy in the Preciouses of Lesbos? Again, the poems of Sappho are nearly all poems of love, and to the ordinary Greek, especially of a later date, it was unseemly for modest women to acknowledge so positive a passion. An Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have received no countenance from the Athenian Mrs. Grundy. The truth seems to be that Lesbos in the year 600 B.C. was in this respect socially and ethically almost as different from the Athens of two hundred years later as the emancipated young woman of America is different from the dragon-guarded Spanish maiden of Madrid.
We may pass by other considerations which might be urged, but it is no surprise that the false notion of Sappho, constructed by decadent Greeks and refined upon by the vice of the Romans, should do her special harm in the days when paganism gave way to Christianity. Among the many works destroyed by the undo’ guide in the early Byzantine days were the poems of Sappho—destroyed the more savagely because that particular pagan, who so passionately invoked the Queen of love, was a woman, and woman’s ideal place was then the cloister. Unhappily certain moderns, who are anything but undo’ guide, have carried on the wrong in a different way, and, for example, the title Sapho of Daudet’s sketch of mars Parisiennes is a choice which may pardonably stir the ire of any Hellenist.
The few fragments of Sappho which have been preserved are not those which have been spared by the saints or which have been culled for special innocence. They simply happen to be quoted here and there by ancient critics, grammarians, and even lexicographers, to illustrate some esthetic doctrine, the use of some word, or even some peculiarity of grammar. And no understanding man or woman can read them without feeling that what we find is sheer poetry, sound and true, free from dross in either form or thought. Says Sappho herself, “I love daintiness, and for me love possesses the brightness and beauty of the sun.” To Actus, her fellow-countryman and acquaintance, she was the “violet-weaving, pure, sweetly-smiling Sappho.” To Plato, who judged even art by ethical standards, she is “beautiful and wise.” Her reply to her fellow-poet, when he was too bashful to say something which was in his mind, was this—
“Had your desire been right and good,
Your tongue perplexed with no bad thought,
With frank eye unabashed you would
Have spoken of the thing you ought.”
To some lover she says—if she is speaking in her own person—
“As friends we’ll part:
Win thee a younger bride;
Too old, I lack the heart
To keep thee at my side.”
Nay, we may go further and say that, after reading and re-reading and translating and commenting on her poems, so far as we possess them, we find her verse full indeed of warmth and color, full of poignant feeling, but never riotous, always sane, always controlled by the truest sense of art. Obedience to the central Greek motto μηδν γαν—nothing too much”—was never better exemplified. The Greeks would never have set her on such a pedestal if she had been the poetical monad who seems to exist in the mind of Swinburne, when he writes of her, in that vicious exaggeration of phrase which he too often affects, as—
Love’s priestess, mad with pain and joy of song,
Song’s priestess, mad with joy and pain of love.”
No writer so lacking in sophrosyne could assert, as Swinburne elsewhere in his finer and truer style makes her assert—
I Sappho shall be one ...
... with all high things forever.”
There is not a line of Sappho of which you do not feel that, glow as it may with feeling, it is constructed with such art as—unconscious though it may possibly be—can only be sustained in a mind of perfect sanity.
There is something else which is too often strangely overlooked in judging a poet from his writings alone. It is particularly liable to be forgotten when the writings which have been preserved are, but fragments severed from their context. The poet is not always writing in his own person; he is not always revealing his own feelings. He is often dramatizing; and his verses then utter the sentiments and passions suited to the character concerned. No one will accept a passage culled from Shakespeare as proof of the ethical views of Shakespeare himself. It may express only the whim of Falstaff, or the snarl of Shylock, or the banter of Benedick, or the melancholy humor of Hamlet. Allowing for all the difference between lyric poetry and dramatic, the lyrist also has his passages in which he is speaking for another. He may be writing for another. In Memoriam doubtless represents the heart of Tennyson himself. But suppose posterity to retain but a few fragments of his other works. What shall we say of those who might take the isolated words “I am a weary, a weary, I would that I were dead” as a proof of the settled pessimism of our poet? We know that the speaker was Mariana. We do not always know who the speaker in the fragments of Sappho is. But, even if we did know, there remains not a verse which betrays the too much, or which passes beyond the pathetic into the reckless, the hysterical, still less the dissolute.
Behind Sappho, as behind Burns before he wrote “Green grow the rushes O” or “Auld Lang Syne,” lay a mass of popular ballads and a wealth of lyrical ideas to be seized upon and shaped when the perfect mood arrived. When she sings—
Sunk is the moon;
The Pleiades are set;
Tic midnight; soon
The hour is past; and yet
I lie alone”
it is probable that she is setting one such prehistoric lyrical idea to new words or recasting one such varoom ditty. It is practically certain that she is doing so in that quatrain which begins “Sweet mother mine, I cannot ply my loom.” That thought is embodied in English folksong also— “O mother, put my wheel away; I cannot spin to-night”—as well as in German and other tongues.
Let us then sweep aside from the memory of Sappho the myths of Pheon and the Leucadian leap, and the calumnies of Athenian worldlangs in the comic theatre; let us reject all that Swinburn Ian hyperbole which makes her “mad” in any sense whatever; and let us simply take her upon the strength of the “few passages, but roses” which are left to us, and upon the word of Actus that she was the “violet-weaving, pure, sweetly-smiling Sappho.”
Her life as teacher and esthetic guide in Lesbos evidently did not pass without a cloud. Her talent, like talent everywhere, found jealous rivals and detractors. A certain Andromeda seems to have caused her special vexation by luring away her favorite pupil at this. There were also, then as now, rich but uncultured women who had little love for art and its votaries, particularly if these latter were all too charming. To one such woman Sappho, who, like a true Olean, looked with horror on a life without poetry and a death unconjured by song, writes—
When thou art dead, thou shalt lie, with none to remember or mourn,
Forever and aye; for thy head no Pieria roses adorn;
But even in the nether abodes thou shalt herd thee, unnoted, forlorn,
With the dead whom the great dead scorn.”
Her work as poetess, though of everlasting value for what it touches in universal humanity, naturally bears many marks of her country and her time. Besides her songs of personal emotion, she wrote in several of the various forms of occasional verse which we found reason to mention as existing in Lesbos. Of her wedding songs and epithalamia, we possess several short fragments. Among them is one in the accepted amban or antiphonic style, in which a band of girls mock the men with failure to win some dainty maiden, and the men reply with a taunt at the neglected bloom of the unprofitable virgin. Say the maids—
On the top of the topmost spray
The pippin blushes red,
Forgot by the gatherers—nay!
Was it “forgot” we said?
Taws too far overhead!”
Reply the men—
The hyacinth so sweet
On the hills where the herdsmen go
Is trampled ’beneath their feet,
And its purple bloom laid low—”
and there unhappily the record deserts us.
The writing of Sappho was thus in no way dissociated from the surrounding life of Lesbos. Similarly, the Lesbian love of bright and beautiful things—of gold, of roses, of sweet odors and sweet sounds—pervades all that is left of her. The Queen of Love sits on a richly-colored throne; she dispenses the “nectar” of love in “beakers of gold”; she wears a “golden coronal”; the Graces have “rosy arms”; verses are the “rose-wreath of the Muses”; the blessed goddesses shower grace upon those who approach them with garlands on their heads. If maidens dance around the altar, they may dance most pleasantly on the tender grass flecked with flowers. It is sweet to lie in the garden of the Nymphs, where—
Through apple-boughs, with purling sound,
Cool waters creep;
From quivering leaves descends around
The dew of sleep.”
Sweet among sounds is that of the “harbinger of spring, the nightingale, whose voice is all desire.” Sappho does in very truth, as she declares, love daintiness. Above all, she loves love. Love is the “nectar” in the lines—
Come, Cyprian Queen, and, debonair,
In golden cups the nectar bear,
Wherein all festal joy must share
Or be no joy.”
But there is nothing morbid, nothing of the hot house, about all this. It is simply the frank, naïve, half-physical, half-mental, enjoyment of the youth of the world, as fresh and healthy as the love of the trousers, or of Chaucer, for the daisy, and of the balladist for the season when the “shows be sheen and leaves be large and long.”
Unhappily of the nine books of Sappho there have survived only one complete poem, one or two considerable fragments, and several scraps and lines. So far as we possess even these, we must thank ancient critics, such as Aristotle, Dionysius, and Longinus, writers of miscellanies, such as Plutarch and Athens, or grammarians like Hephaestion. We have also to thank those modern scholars, and Bergh, who have acutely and patiently gleaned the scattered remnants from the pages of these ancient authorities. Scanty as they are, we can gather from them as profound a conviction of their creator’s genius as we gather from some fragmentary torso of an ancient masterpiece of sculpture. We may grieve that a torso of Praxiteles is so mutilated; nevertheless, the art of the master speaks in every recognizable line of it. According to the old proverbs, “Hercules may be known from his foot” and “a lion from his toe-nail.” What remains of Sappho is enough to make us fully comprehend the splendor of her poetic reputation in ancient times. That reputation was unique. To the Greeks “the poet” meant Homer; “the poetess” meant Sappho. The story goes that Solon, the Athenian sage and legislator who was her contemporary, hearing his nephew sing one of Sappho’s odes, demanded to be taught it, “So that I may not die without learning it.” Plato consents to praise her, and that, when Plato speaks of a poet, is praise from Sir Hubert. To Aristotle she ranks with Homer and Archilochus. Strabo, the geographer, calls her “a marvelous being,” whom “no woman could pretend to rival in the very least in the matter of poetry.” Plutarch avers that “her utterances are veritably mingled with fire,” and that “the warmth of her heart comes forth from her in her songs.” He confesses also that their dainty charm shamed him to put by the wine-cup. To one writer of epigrams, said to be Plato himself, she is the “Tenth Muse”; to others she is the “pride of Greece” or the “flower of the Graces.” It is recorded that Mytilene stamped her effigy upon its coins. If imitation is the sincerest flattery, she was flattered abundantly. The most genuine lyric poet of Rome, Catullus, and its most skillful artificer of odes, Horace, both freely copied her. They did more than imitate; they plagiarized, they translated, sometimes almost word for word. There is scarcely an intelligible fragment left of Sappho which has not been borrowed or adapted by some modern poet, in English, French, or German.
There is one mutilated ode of hers which no one can translate. It is quoted by Longinus as showing with what vivid terseness she can portray the tumultuous and conflicting sensations of a lover in that bright fierce south. Ambrose Philips makes it wordy; Boileau makes it formal. It displays all the grand Greek directness, but a directness clothed in the grand Greek charm of perfect rhythmical expression. We can preserve, if we will, the directness, but the charm of its medium will inevitably vanish.
In effect, lamentably stripped of its native verbal charm, it may be rendered—
Blest as the gods, methinks, is he
Who sixtieth face to face with thee?
And hears thy sweet voice nigh,
Thy winsome laugh, whereat my heart
Doth in my bosom throb and start;
One glimpse of thee, and I
Am speechless, tongue-tied; subtle flame
Steals in a moment through my frame;
My ears ring; to mine eye
All’s dark; a cold sweat break; all o’er
I tremble, pale as death; anymore,
I seem almost to die.”
When after this we read in the Phaedra of Racine these four lines—
Je le vis, je rougis, je palis à sa vue,
Un trouble s’éleva dans mon âme éperdue ;
Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler,
Je sentais tout mon cœur et transir et brûler :
we recognize their source. We recognize, also, if it were not already confessed, the source of this of Tennyson in his Fatima:
Last night, when someone spoke his name,
From my swift blood, that went and came,
A thousand little shafts of flame
Were shivered in my narrow frame.”
If this physical perturbation seems strange to the more reticent man of northern blood, it was in no way strange to Theocritus, to Catullus, or to Lucretius. Once more, according to the German proverb, “he who would comprehend the poet must travel in the poet’s land.”
And here we are confronted with a supreme difficulty. While mere fact is readily translatable, and thought is approximately translatable, the literary quality, which is warm with the pressure and pulsation of a writer’s mood and rhythmic with his emotional state, is hopelessly untranslatable. It can be suggested, but it cannot be reproduced. The translation is too often like the bare, cold photograph of a scene of which the emotional effect is largely due to color and atmosphere. The simpler and more direct the words of the original, the more impossible is translation. In the original the words, though simple and direct, are poetical, beautiful in quality and association. They contain in their own nature hints of pathos, sparks of fire, which any so-called synonym would lack. They are musical in themselves and musical in their combinations. They flow easily, sweetly, touchingly through the ear into the heart. The translator may seek high and low in his own language for words and combinations of the same timbre, the same ethical or emotional influence, the same gracious and touching music. He will generally seek in vain. In his own language there may exist words approximately answering in meaning, but, even if they are simple and direct, they are often commonplace, sullied with “ignoble use,” harsh in sound, without distinction or charm. He may require a whole phrase to convey the same tone and effect; he becomes diffuse, where terseness is a special virtue of his original. Let a foreigner study to render this—
Had we never loved sea kindly,
Had we never loved sea blindly,
Never met, or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.”
Or this——
Take, O take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn,
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn!
But my kisses bring again,
Seals of love but sealed in vain.”
Is it to be imagined that he could create precisely the effect of either of these stanzas in French or Italian? Is not much of that effect inseparable from the words?
Take a perfectly simple stanza of Heine—
Du bit Wei peine Blum
So, hold und Schön und rein:
Ich schav’ dich an, und Weymouth
Schlaich Mir ins Hers herein.”
Near as English is to German, incomparably easier as it is to render German into English than Greek into English, it may be declared that no English rendering of this verse conveys, or ever will convey, exactly the impression of the German original.
In respect of mere musical sound, what other words could run precisely like those of Coleridge at the opening of Kublai Khan, or like Shelley’s “I arise from dreams of thee”? The case is the same when we turn to a Greek lyric. Actus writes four words which mean simply “I felt the coming of the flowery spring”; but no juxtaposition of English words yet attempted to that effect can recall to the student of Greek the impression of
ρος νθεμεντος πϊον ρχομνοιο.
It is necessarily so with Sappho. She is an embodiment of the typical Greek genius, which demanded the terse and clear, yet fine and noble, expression of a natural thought, free, as Addison well says, from “those little conceits and turns of wit with which many of our modern lyrics are so miserably infected.” True Greek art detests pointless elaboration, strained effects, or effects which must be hunted for. The Greek lyric spirit would therefore have loved the best of Burns and would have recognized him for its own. But you cannot translate Burns. Neither can you translate Sappho. Nevertheless, one attempt may be nearer, less inadequate, than another. Let us take the hymn to Aphrodite. It is quoted by the critic Dionysius for its “happy language and its easy grace of composition.”
The first stanza contains in the Greek sixteen words, big and little. In woeful prose these may be literally rendered “Radiant-thronged immortal Aphrodite, child of Zeus, guile-weaver, I beseech thee, Queen, crush not my heart with griefs or cares.”
In turning Greek poetry into English, and so inserting all those little pronouns and articles and prepositions with which a synthetic language can dispense, it may be estimated that the number of words will be greater by about one half,—the little words making the odd half. But Ambrose Philips makes thirty-four words out of those sixteen—
O Venus, beauty of the skies,
To whom a thousand temples rise,
Gaily false in gentle smiles,
Full of love-perplexing wiles;
O Goddess, from my heart remove
The wasting cares and pains of love.”
The italics should suffice for criticism upon the fidelity of this “translation.” Mr. J. H. Merivale, though more faithful to the material contents, finds forty-three words necessary—
Immortal Venus, thronged above
In radiant beauty, child of Jove,
O skilled in every art of love
And artful snare;
Dread power, to whom I bend the knee,
Release my soul and set it free
From bonds of piercing agony
And gloomy care.”

We may perhaps without presumption ask whether the sense is not given more faithfully, in a more natural English form and rhythm, and in a shape sufficiently reminiscent of the original stanza, in the twenty-three words which follow—
Guile-weaving child of Zeus, who art
Immortal, thronged in radiance, spare,
O Queen of Love, to break my heart
With grief and care.”
Keeping to the same principles of strict compression and strict simplicity we may thus continue with the remainder of the poem—
But hither come, as thou of old,
When my voice reached thine ear afar,
Didst leave thy father’s hall of gold,
And yoke thy car,
And through midair their whirring wing
Thy bonny doves did swiftly ply
O’er the dark earth, and thee did bring
Down from the sky.
Right soon they came, and thou, blest Queen,
A smile upon thy face divine,
Didst ask what ails me, what might mean
That call of mine.
What wouldn't thou have, with heart on fire,
Sappho?’ thou sadist. ‘Whom prey's thou me
To win for thee to fond desire.
Who wronged thee?
Soon shall he seek, who now doth shun;
Who scorns thy gifts, shall gifts bestow;
Who loves thee not, shall love anon,
Wilt thou or no.’
So, come thou now, and set me free
From carking cares; bring to full end
My heart’s desire; thyself O be
My stay and friend!”
The perfection of the Greek style is fine simplicity. We must not say that this characteristic perfection is more absolutely displayed in Sappho than in Homer or Sophocles. It is, however, illustrated by Sappho in that region of verse which pre-eminently demands it, the lyric of personal emotion. There may be, with different persons and at different dates, wide differences of interest regarding the themes and structures of the epic, the drama, or the triumphal ode. Most forms of poetry must some time cease to find full appreciation, because of the peculiar ideas and conventions of their time and place. But the poetry of the primal and eternal passions of the human heart, of its experiences and its emotions, carries with it those touches which make the whole world kin. Love and sorrow are re-born with every human being. Time and civilization make little difference. But those touches are only weakened by far-sought words and elaborate meters, by recondite conceits and ambitious psychology.
Perhaps the woman who seeks to come nearest to Sappho in poetry is Mrs. Browning, but she falls far short of her predecessor, not only through inferior mastery of form, but also through an excessive “bookishness” of thought. The poet moves by—
High and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted.”
In the case of songs whose theme is what Sappho calls the “bitter sweet” of love, their proper style has been determined by the gathering consensus of humanity, and it is a style simple but powerful, with a magic recurring in cadences easy to grasp and too affecting to forget. It is the style of “Ye flowery banks o’ bonnie Don,” not of the Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day. Sappho’s songs fulfil all the conditions, and even of her fragments that is true which her imitator Horace said of her completer poems, as he more happily possessed them—
Still breathes the love, still lives the fire
Imparted to the Lesbian’s lyre.”
The virtue of Sappho is supreme art without artificiality, utter truth to natural feeling wedded to words of utter truth. Let Pausanias, that ancient Baedeker, declare that “concerning love Sappho sang many things which are inconsistent with one another. She is only the more truthful therefor. No human heart, frankly, enjoying or suffering the “bitter-sweet” moods and experiences of love, ever was consistent. Consistency belongs only to the cool and calculating brain. If love is cool and calculating, it is not love.
How much Sappho may have written on other subjects than this, the most engrossing of all, we shall perhaps never know. But we may be sure that one of the most priceless poetical treasures lost to the world has been those other verses which, to quote Shelley on Keats, told of—
All she had loved, and molded into thought
From shape and hue and odor and sweet sound.”
There is, we may add, one quality besides beauty in verse which can never be analyzed. It is charm. Sappho is pervaded with charm. And this suggests that we may conclude by quoting the judgment of Matthew Arnold upon one defect at least which must make Heine rank always lower than Sappho: —
Charm is the glory which makes
Song of the poet divine;
Love is the fountain of charm.
How without charm wilt thou draw?
Poet! the world to thy way?
Not by thy lightnings of wit—
Not by thy thunder of scorn!
These to the world, too, are given;
Wit it possesses and scorn—
Charm is the poet’s alone.”
The St. Abs Press, London

SAPPHO T. G. TUCKER, SAPPHO T. G. TUCKER, Reviewed by bsm on May 01, 2014 Rating: 5

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