Biography of Sappho

Sappho was an ancient Greek poet born on the island of Lesbos in the seventh century BCE. Her poetry has been beloved for thousands of years due to their rich sensuality and gripping, stripped-down poetic style. Sappho is also well known for her depiction of love and sensuality between women, and the word lesbian comes from her birthplace, Lesbos. Along with her centrality for feminists and queer women, Sappho influenced numerous male poets including Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ezra Pound.

Despite her fame, it's difficult to write a biography of Sappho. We know few facts about her life, and her person is instead surrounded by hundreds of years of rumor and conjecture—even the dates of her birth and death are bitterly disputed. What we do know about her comes from her poetry and from references to her and her work from classical contemporaries. Even her poetry is not a comprehensive source. Though Sappho's work was once compiled into nine volumes of poetry, and archived at the Library of Alexandria, only two of her poems survive intact. The rest exist now only as fragments, often only a few lines in length, or have been completely lost to history.

Scholars generally agree that Sappho was born to a wealthy, aristocratic family in Lesbos. She was likely married to a man, not only because it would have been nearly impossible for a single woman to survive in ancient Greece, but because she had a daughter, Cleis. Sappho never mentions this husband in any of her surviving poetry. Later in her life, Sappho was exiled to Sicily due to political rivalry between the ruling family and her own. Her poetry tells us that she died with white hair and trembling knees; unlike many Greek women, she had the chance, and the sorrow, of growing old.

Classical sources are spotty in their content, and often carry their own agendas. Though she was quite well-known, no one wrote a biography of Sappho when she was alive, and many Greek thinkers documented her inaccurately, and focused on her appearance and alleged promiscuity. Nevertheless, we know that Plato, who notoriously disliked most poetry, considered her to be the "tenth muse." We know that great effort was taken to record her lyrics, which were transcribed hundreds of years after her death, and that major Roman poets like Catallus and Horus took inspiration from her writings and translated her work into Latin.

For centuries, most of Sappho's original poetry was considered lost to the world, and scholars were often limited to quotes and paraphrases of her work within other writings. The burning of the library of Alexandria, along with Medieval censorship, had lead to the destruction of much of her writing. By the 1600s, some of her poems began to appear in print, and by the end of the 1800s, many more fragments were discovered in Egypt and published. The canon of Sappho's work is still expanding, and new poetry has been discovered as recently as 2014.

Study Guides on Works by Sappho

Usually, love is part of everyday life, a matter of routine devotion and simple joys. But occasionally, love can hit like a storm, ripping you away from the ordinary passage of time, and from yourself. Sappho's "Fragment 31" speaks of this...