Sappho is one of the most important of the lyric poets of the ancient Greek world. She probably lived from the middle part of the seventh through the early part of the sixth centuries b.c.e.
Though the exact date of her birth and death are unknown, it is fairly certain that she was born in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, which is located in the eastern Aegean Sea near Turkey. She came from a noble family. Her father’s name was Skamandronymos, her mother’s Kleiss, and her husband’s Kerkylas. She had a daughter named Kleiss and either two or three brothers.
Around the year 600 b.c.e., she, along with the other nobility on Lesbos, were forced into exile to the island of Sicily when a middle-class tyranny, led by Myrsilos, took control of Lesbos. Eventually, she was able to return. Some argue that she taught at a school for young women, others that she was simply at the center of a local poetry clique.
Her reputation was great in the ancient world; Plato, about 200 years after her death, called her the "tenth Muse", referring to the nine Greek goddesses who were the patrons of the arts and sciences and who were the source of inspiration and artistic excellence. Little of her work has survived, but what has is highly praised in the modern world and still has the power to move people.
Lyric poetry in the ancient Greek world refers, first of all, to the fact that a lyre originally accompanied the poetry. Unlike our modern conception of the lyric, Greek lyric poetry fit into at least two major categories: choral ode and monody.
The monody is closest to our modern conception of the lyric, that is, a short, personal poem expressing intense emotion. This was the type of poetry that Sappho wrote. She created the Sapphic stanza and may have been the first to accompany her poems with a harp.
She is known to have written between seven and nine books of poetry, with the last being a book of wedding songs. Her poems are often favorably mentioned in ancient writing (in fact, the ancient world erected at least one statue to her), but during the Byzantine era, Pope Gregory Nazianzus, in 382 c.e., had most of them destroyed.
In 1073 Pope Gregory VII likely burned any of the books that still survived. The problem, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, was that Sappho was likely bisexual, and much of her poetry was erotic and concerned with love between women.
Unlike much of the Greek poetry before her, most of Sappho’s poetry is personal, not social. The worlds of beauty, personal relationships, and love are the typical topics of her poems. Unfortunately, all that is left are mostly scraps, sometimes a line, sometimes a stanza, and in only one or two cases, a complete poem. They come to us as quotes in the writings of authors from antiquity and in strips of papyrus used to wrap mummies in Egypt.
The most recent discovery of her poems was in 2004 in papyrus wrappings from a mummy and was combined with a previous fragment, also written on papyrus and found in 1922, resulting in a new, nearly complete 12-line poem. This particular poem is about growing old and is a type of carpe diem addressed to a group of girls. The Egyptians copied it about 300 years after her death. The 2004 wrappings also contained two other new fragments.
A typical remnant of her poetry is the three lines often titled "The Blast of Love": "Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart." One of her other likely complete poem is called "A Prayer to Aphrodite". It is generally presented as a seven-stanza poem and ends by asking the goddess to "labor for my [Sappho’s] mad heart".
Despite the scarcity of surviving poetry, she has influenced English-speaking writers as diverse as Philip Spencer and Ezra Pound, as well as many writers in other languages. She continues to have the power to fascinate and delight, and her poetry—as fragmentary as it is—is still worth reading.