Sappho Fr. 96: The moonlit girl

This is perhaps Sappho’s most beautiful fragment. She describes a girl who is as lovely as the moon at night, and yet who is consumed by her love for Atthis. It is a truly beautiful image in which the girl’s sad loneliness is echoed in the quiet, moonlit night.

…But now among the women of Lydia
she shines, as after the sun has set 
the rosy-fingered moon will appear, surpassing

all the stars, bestowing her light alike
upon the waves of the briny sea
and on the fields that sparkle with countless flowers.
Everything is bathed in the lovely dew:
roses take their nourishment, and 
soft chervil, and the blossoming honey-lotus.

Often, as she moves on her daily round,
she’ll be eating her tender heart
when she thinks of her love for gentle Atthis…

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Old age and the Greek lyric poets

Fear of old age was a popular theme among the Greek lyricists. This made for some beautiful poetry that is most touching in its bittersweet admiration of youth. Dating from the 7th to the 6th century BC, these four poems are the first we have in a poetic tradition that stretches across Western literature.
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Sappho 14: Absent Loves

The most beautiful sight in this world is not arms and warriors, it is the thing you love. Sappho is a great authority on love and beauty, and this poem is a moving tribute to their devastating power. Because it is written by a female poet, it is tempting to read this text as setting male against female, as Sappho denouncing the masculine world of warfare as less important than the feminine values of beauty and love. However, Sappho is rather stating a general truth about life, one that she has tragically learnt from her own experience.

In my post Sappho 31: A Lesbian Passion I explained that the popular theory about Sappho is that she was a sort of teacher or leader for young girls, perhaps preparing them for marriage. So is Anaktoria one of her girls that she used to care for, but who now has married and left? That is currently the most likely reading.

Unfortunately this is a fragmentary poem, and so after ‘led astray’ there are some lines missing. However enough remains for us to appreciate the beauty of Sappho’s words.

Some say horsemen, some say warriors,
Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s
What you love.

It’s easy to make this clear to everyone,
Since Helen, she who outshone
All others in beauty, left
A fine husband,

And headed for Troy
Without a thought for
Her daughter, her dear parents…
Led astray….

And I recall Anaktoria, whose sweet step
Or that flicker of light on her face,
I’d rather see than Lydian chariots
Or the armed ranks of the hoplites.

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Sappho 31: A Lesbian Passion

I start with Sappho, a poet whose person shrouded in mystery, but whose voice still rings clearly across the centuries with intensity and passion.

Sappho was writing around 600 BC and came from Lesbos, a Greek island near the east coast of Turkey. She is the only known female poet from classical Greece whose poetry survives. This uniqueness however has not isolated her and she was greatly respected throughout antiquity. She remains one of the most popular Greek poets today.

Despite this very little is known about Sappho and only a few of her poems have survived. We can guess a little about her from these fragments, but nothing is certain. One popular theory is that Sappho taught at a sort of school where girls were sent to prepare for marriage. Most of what remains by her is addressed towards women, perhaps they were once her pupils.

What is most striking about Sappho is her passion , or more specifically, her homoerotic passion. If you haven’t spotted it already, the modern term ‘lesbian’ actually comes from Sappho and her home on Lesbos. In fragment 31 this passion is very powerful, overwhelming the poet’s senses.

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