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First, we have the witness of her contemporaries. Sappho was at the
height of her career about six centuries before Christ, at a period
when lyric poetry was peculiarly esteemed and cultivated at the
centres of Greek life. Among the Molic peoples of the Isles, in
particular, it had been carried to a high pitch of perfection, and its
forms had become the subject of assiduous study. Its technique was
exact, complex, extremely elaborate, minutely regulated; yet the
essential fires of sincerity, spontaneity, imagination and passion were
flaming with undiminished heat behind the fixed forms and restricted
measures. The very metropolis of this lyric realm was Mitylene of
Lesbos, where, amid the myrtle groves and temples, the sunlit silver
of the fountains, the hyacinth gardens by a soft blue sea, Beauty and
Love in their young warmth could fuse the most rigid forms to fluency.
Here Sappho was the acknowledged queen of song—revered,
studied, imitated, served, adored by a little court of attendants and
disciples, loved and hymned by Alcaeus, and acclaimed by her fellow
craftsmen throughout Greece as the wonder of her age. That all the
tributes of her contemporaries show reverence not less for her
personality than for her genius is sufficient answer to the calumnies
with which the ribald jesters of that later period, the corrupt and
shameless writers of Athenian comedy, strove to defile her fame. It is
sufficient, also, to warrant our regarding the picturesque but scarcely
dignified story of her vain pursuit of Phaon and her frenzied leap from
the Cliff of Leucas as nothing more than a poetic myth, reminiscent,
perhaps, of the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis—who is, indeed, called
Phaon in some versions. The story is further discredited by the fact
that we find no mention of it in Greek literature— even among those
Attic comedians who would have clutched at it so eagerly and given it
so gross a turn—till a date more than two hundred years after
Sappho's death. It is a myth which has begotten some exquisite
literature, both in prose and verse, from Ovid's famous epistle to
Addison's gracious fantasy and some impassioned and imperishable
dithyrambs of Mr. Swinburne; but one need not accept the story as a
fact in order to appreciate the beauties which flowered out from its
coloured unreality.
The applause of contemporaries, however, is not always justified by
the verdict of after-times, and does not always secure an immortality