Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Works

Sappho probably wrote around 10,000 lines of poetry; today, only about 650 survive.[44] She is best known for her lyric poetry, written to be accompanied by music.[44] The Suda also attributes to Sappho epigrams, elegiacs, and iambics; three of these epigrams are extant, but are in fact later Hellenistic poems inspired by Sappho, as are the iambic and elegiac poems attributed to her in the Suda.[45] Ancient authors claim that Sappho primarily wrote love poetry,[46] and the indirect transmission of Sappho's work supports this notion.[47] However, the papyrus tradition suggests that this may not have been the case: a series of papyri published in 2014 contains fragments of ten consecutive poems from Book I of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho, of which only two are certainly love poems, while at least three and possibly four are primarily concerned with family.[47]

Ancient editions

Sappho's poetry was probably first written down on Lesbos, either in her lifetime or shortly afterwards,[48] initially probably in the form of a score for performers of Sappho's work.[49] In the fifth century, Athenian book publishers probably began to produce copies of Lesbian lyric poetry, some including explanatory material and glosses as well as the poems themselves.[48] Some time in the second or third century, Alexandrian scholars produced a critical edition of Sappho's poetry.[50] There may have been more than one Alexandrian edition – John J. Winkler argues for two, one edited by Aristophanes of Byzantium and another by his pupil Aristarchus of Samothrace.[49] This is not certain – ancient sources tell us that Aristarchus' edition of Alcaeus replaced the edition by Aristophanes, but are silent on whether Sappho's work, too, went through multiple editions.[51]

The Alexandrian edition of Sappho's poetry was based on the existing Athenian collections,[48] and was divided into at least eight books, though the exact number is uncertain.[52] Many modern scholars have followed Denys Page, who conjectured a ninth book in the standard edition;[52] Yatromanolakis doubts this, noting that though testimonia refer to an eighth book of Sappho's poetry, none mention a ninth.[53] Whatever its make-up, the Alexandrian edition of Sappho probably grouped her poems by their metre: ancient sources tell us that each of the first three books contained poems in a single specific metre.[54] Ancient editions of Sappho, possibly starting with the Alexandrian edition, seem to have ordered the poems in at least the first book of Sappho's poetry – which contained works composed in Sapphic stanzas – alphabetically.[55]

Even after the publication of the standard Alexandrian edition, Sappho's poetry continued to circulate in other poetry collections. For instance, the Cologne Papyrus on which the Tithonus poem is preserved was part of a Hellenistic anthology of poetry, which contained poetry arranged by theme, rather than by metre and incipit, as it was in the Alexandrian edition.[56]

Surviving poetry

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The earliest surviving manuscripts of Sappho, including the potsherd on which fragment 2 is preserved, date to the third century BC, and thus predate the Alexandrian edition.[49] The latest surviving copies of Sappho’s poems transmitted directly from ancient times are written on parchment codex pages from the sixth and seventh centuries AD, and were surely reproduced from ancient papyri now lost.[57] Manuscript copies of Sappho's works may have survived a few centuries longer, but around the 9th century her poetry appears to have disappeared,[58] and by the twelfth century, John Tzetzes could write that "the passage of time has destroyed Sappho and her works".[59]

According to legend, Sappho's poetry was lost because the church disapproved of her morals.[18] These legends appear to have originated in the renaissance – around 1550, Jerome Cardan wrote that Gregory Nazianzen had Sappho's work publicly destroyed, and at the end of the sixteenth century Joseph Justus Scaliger claimed that Sappho's works were burned in Rome and Constantinople in 1073 on the orders of Pope Gregory VII.[58] In reality, Sappho's work was probably lost as the demand for it was insufficiently great for it to be copied onto parchment when codices superseded papyrus scrolls as the predominant form of book.[60] Another contributing factor to the loss of Sappho's poems may have been the perceived obscurity of her Aeolic dialect,[61][62][60][63] which contains many archaisms and innovations absent from other ancient Greek dialects.[64] During the Roman period, by which time the Attic dialect had become the standard for literary compositions,[65] many readers found Sappho's dialect difficult to understand[62] and, in the second century AD, the Roman author Apuleius specifically remarks on its "strangeness".[65]

Only approximately 650 lines of Sappho's poetry still survive, of which just one poem – the "Ode to Aphrodite" – is complete, and more than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments. Many of the surviving fragments of Sappho contain only a single word[44] – for example, fragment 169A is simply a word meaning "wedding gifts",[66] and survives as part of a dictionary of rare words.[67] The two major sources of surviving fragments of Sappho are quotations in other ancient works, from a whole poem to as little as a single word, and fragments of papyrus, many of which were discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.[68] Other fragments survive on other materials, including parchment and potsherds.[45] The oldest surviving fragment of Sappho currently known is the Cologne papyrus which contains the Tithonus poem,[69] dating to the third century BC.[70]

Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, only the ancient quotations of Sappho survived. In 1879, the first new discovery of a fragment of Sappho was made at Fayum.[71] By the end of the nineteenth century, Grenfell and Hunt had begun to excavate an ancient rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus, leading to the discoveries of many previously unknown fragments of Sappho.[18] Fragments of Sappho continue to be rediscovered. Most recently, major discoveries in 2004 (the "Tithonus poem" and a new, previously unknown fragment)[72] and 2014 (fragments of nine poems: five already known but with new readings, four, including the "Brothers Poem", not previously known)[73] have been reported in the media around the world.[18]

Style

Sappho clearly worked within a well-developed tradition of Lesbian poetry, which had evolved its own poetic diction, meters, and conventions. Among her famous poetic forebears were Arion and Terpander.[74] Nonetheless, her work is innovative; it is some of the earliest Greek poetry to adopt the "lyric 'I'" – to write poetry adopting the viewpoint of a specific person, in contrast to the earlier epic poets Homer and Hesiod, who present themselves more as "conduits of divine inspiration".[75] Her poetry explores individual identity and personal emotions – desire, jealousy, and love; it also adopts and reinterprets the existing imagery epic poetry in exploring these themes.[76]

Sappho's poetry is known for its clear language and simple thoughts, sharply-drawn images, and use of direct quotation which brings a sense of immediacy.[77] Unexpected word-play is a characteristic feature of her style.[78] An example is from fragment 96: "now she stands out among Lydian women as after sunset the rose-fingered moon exceeds all stars",[79] a variation of the Homeric epithet "rosy-fingered Dawn".[80] Sappho's poetry often uses hyperbole, according to ancient critics "because of its charm".[81] An example is found in fragment 111, where Sappho writes that "The groom approaches like Ares[...] Much bigger than a big man".[82]

Leslie Kurke groups Sappho with those archaic Greek poets from what has been called the "élite" ideological tradition,[h] which valued luxury (habrosyne) and high birth. These elite poets tended to identify themselves with the worlds of Greek myths, gods, and heroes, as well as the wealthy East, especially Lydia.[84] Thus in fragment 2 Sappho describes Aphrodite "pour into golden cups nectar lavishly mingled with joys",[85] while in the Tithonus poem she explicitly states that "I love the finer things [habrosyne]".[86][87][i] According to Page DuBois, the language, as well as the content, of Sappho's poetry evokes an aristocratic sphere.[89] She contrasts Sappho's "flowery,[...] adorned" style with the "austere, decorous, restrained" style embodied in the works of later classical authors such as Sophocles, Demosthenes, and Pindar.[89]

Traditional modern literary critics of Sappho's poetry have tended to see her poetry as a vivid and skilled but spontaneous and naive expression of emotion: typical of this view are the remarks of H. J. Rose that "Sappho wrote as she spoke, owing practically nothing to any literary influence," and that her verse displays "the charm of absolute naturalness."[90] Against this essentially romantic view, one school of more recent critics argues that, on the contrary, Sappho's poetry displays and depends for its effect on a sophisticated deployment of the strategies of traditional Greek rhetorical genres.[91]


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