Alexandrian edition of Sappho's poetry
The Library of Alexandria collected Sappho's poetry into nine books, mostly based on their meter:
- Book I, poems composed in the Sapphic stanza, 330 stanzas in all (Fragments 1–42);
- Book II, poems composed in glyconic lines with dactylic expansion (Fragments 43–52);
- Book III, poems in Greater Asclepiad distichs (Fragments 53–57);
- Book IV, poems in distichs of a somewhat similar meter (Fragments 58–91);
- Book V, probably consisting of poems in various three-line stanzas (Fragments 92–101);
- Book VI (contents unknown);
- Book VII (only two surviving lines in the same meter, Fragment 102);
- Book VIII (see Fragment 103);
- Book IX, epithalamia in other meters, including dactylic hexameter (Fragments 104–117).
Not every surviving fragment can be assigned to a book (Fragments 118–213 are unassigned), and other meters are represented in the fragments.
The surviving proportion of the nine-volume corpus of poetry read in antiquity is small but still constitutes a poetic corpus of major importance. There is a single complete poem, Fragment 1, the Hymn to Aphrodite, quoted in its entirety as a model of the "polished and exuberant" style of composition by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, with admiration of its consummate artistry:
Here the euphonious effect and the grace of the language arise from the coherence and smoothness of the junctures. The words nestle close to one another and are woven together according to certain affinities and natural attractions of the letters.
Other major fragments include three virtually complete poems (in the standard numeration, Fragments 16, 31, and the recently supplemented 58).
A recent addition to the corpus is a virtually complete poem on the topic of old age (fragment 58). The latter parts of the lines were first published in 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus (P.Oxy. XV 1787, Fragment 1) but little could be made of them, since the indications of the ends of each poem, placed at the beginnings of the lines, were lost. Scholars could therefore only guess where one poem ended and another began. Most of the rest of the poem was published in 2004 from a 3rd-century-BC papyrus in the Cologne University collection (P.Köln XI 429). The poem refers to the plight of Tithonus, with whom the goddess Eos fell in love and requested he become immortal, but forgot to ensure that he remained forever young. The Greek text has been reproduced with helpful notes for students of the language.
Parts of two previously unknown poems by Sappho were published in February 2014 in the Times Literary Supplement, in the article "New poems by Sappho", by Dirk Obbink. In the article, Obbink states "[t]he authorship of Sappho was clinched", a conclusion shared by Margaret Williamson, a Classics professor who authored Sappho's Immortal Daughters, but was not part of Obbink's team. According to Albert Henrichs, the source of the poems is "the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt". The first poem mentions "Charaxos" and "Larichos." These two names are described as brothers of Sappho by ancient historians, but did not appear in any of her previously known writings. Thus, the poem is perhaps about her own family, although the loss of the first few lines of it makes the conclusion uncertain. The second poem is highly fragmented, but may have been a request to Aphrodite to guide Sappho in pursuit of a lover.
Qualities of Sappho's poetry
David Campbell has briefly summarized some of the most arresting qualities of Sappho's poetry:
Clarity of language and simplicity of thought are everywhere evident in our fragments; wit and rhetoric, so common in English love-poetry and not quite absent from Catullus' love poems, are nowhere to be found. Her images are sharp—the sparrows that draw Aphrodite's chariot, the full moon in a starry sky, the solitary red apple at the tree-top—and she sometimes lingers over them to elaborate them for their own sake. She quotes the direct words of conversations real or imaginary and so gains immediacy. When the subject is the turbulence of her emotions, she displays a cool control in their expression. Above all, her words are chosen for their sheer melody: the skill with which she placed her vowels and consonants, admired by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, is evidenced by almost any stanza; the music to which she sang them has gone, but the spoken sounds may still enchant.
Sappho's poetry and Greek myth
Out of over 200 remaining remnants of Sappho’s poetry, Fragment 16 and Fragment 44 in particular are considered lyric retellings of Homer epics, as Sappho was known to be very familiar with Homer's poems. Both fragments make direct allusions to scenes in Homer’s Iliad, while Sappho also expands them with her own narrative illustrations. Fragment 16, for instance, serves to characterise Helen, a key figure of Homer's, while Fragment 44 glorifies domestic joy by depicting the events leading to the wedding of Hector and Andromache.
The political atmosphere of Lesbos during Sappho's time paralleled that of Homer’s Troy, as the cities of Lesbos were constantly plagued with threats from Lydia. Whereas Homer focused on depicting beauty through the glory of militarism, however, Sappho focused primarily on the portrayal of beauty through love. As oratory poets, both Homer and Sappho used their work to celebrate and memorialise events for posterity. The exigency of their verses was therefore to preserve information as well as to entertain.
Both discovered during the 1895 Oxyrhynchus excavation, Sappho’s Fragments 16 and 44 are translations from extant 2nd- and 3rd-century BC papyrus scrolls, which made them transcribed records of the lyrics Sappho sang while accompanying herself on a cithara. Her work is known to have been canonized during the 3rd century BC, at which time papyrus copies were held in the House of the Muses, the library in Alexandria. Like the myths woven into her work, a myth surrounds the loss of Sappho’s complete oeuvre as well. The story still circulates that Sappho’s poems were lost due to the repeated attacks on the library in Alexandria.