Sappho and Lyric Love Poetry
 
 Biographical Information
 
    "Burning Sappho," as Byron memorably called her, was born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. At Mytilene, a sunny resort community and trade center on the island's eastern coast, she started a women's school or artistic community devoted to the muses. It was there that she wrote the luminous love poems that established her reputation. Of her original nine volumes of verse only a scattering of fragments and one complete poem remain. The date and circumstances of her death remain obscure.

     Such, in brief, are the acknowledged "facts" of Sappho's life. Virtually everything else we know--or think we know--about this fascinating woman is rumor, legend, speculation, or gossip. She was "The Poetess"--the founder of Western love poetry and the foremost lyricist of the ancient world; a brilliant innovator who practically invented the entire language and psychology of romantic love. Yet she remains as unknown and as cloaked in myth and folklore as Homer, as elusive and mysterious as true love itself.  (For further information on Sappho's life and legend, click here.)


    Sappho and the Modern Love Lyric

    Lyric poetry is so called because in ancient Greece poems of this type were originally set to music and recited or sung to the accompaniment of a hand-held harp called a "lyre." The earliest lyrics were of two kinds: the religious lyric, a hymn or songlike prayer addressed to a god or goddess (cf. the Psalms of the Old Testament); and the so-called "drinking song" or "song of the table," a brash, robust, and merry sort of effort, often boastful, misogynistic, or pornographic, of the kind commonly performed by men at hearty gatherings or drinking parties. The religious lyric was typically marked by its earnestness, emotional intensity, and passion. The drinking song was more notable for its air of jollity and raucous amusement.

    Out of these two separate (yet distantly related and parallel) traditions the modern love lyric was born. It was Sappho who first fused the two forms. By taking the emotional depth, confessional tone, and ornate style of the religious lyric and combining it with the ribaldry, mockery, and  high-spiritedness of the traditional drinking song, she effectively created a new hybrid: a poem at once intimate and satirical, serious yet light. This adroit blend of passion and humor (packaged in a sparkling and colorful style) has been a hallmark of the sophisticated love lyric ever since. As a result, poets as different as Swinburne, Whitman, Adrienne Rich, and Ezra Pound can all in one respect or another be considered sons and daughters of Sappho. Her legacy shines from Catullus and Ovid to Donne and Marvell, from Shakespeare to the lyrics of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern. Remarkable the blaze of cultural light that has been generated from just a few glimmering fragments of Sapphic verse.


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  Questions:  David L. Simpson (dsimpson@condor.depaul.edu) 
The School for New Learning, DePaul University, Chicago, IL 60604 
 © David L. Simpson 1998