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of renown. The fame of Sappho has a more stable basis. Her work
was in the world's possession for not far short of a thousand years—a
thousand years of changing tastes, searching criticism, and familiar
use. It had to endure the wear and tear of quotation, the commonizing
touch of the school and the market-place. And under this test its glory
grew ever more and more conspicuous. Through those thousand
years poets and critics vied with one another in proclaiming her verse
the one unmatched exemplar of lyric art. Such testimony, even
though not a single fragment remained to us from which to judge her
poetry for ourselves, might well convince us that the supremacy
acknowledged by those who knew all the triumphs of the genius of
old Greece was beyond the assault of any modern rival. We might
safely accept the sustained judgment of a thousand years of Greece.
Fortunately for us, however, two small but incomparable odes and a
few scintillating fragments have survived, quoted and handed down in
the eulogies of critics and expositors. In these the wisest minds, the
greatest poets, and the most inspired teachers of modern days have
found justification for the unanimous verdict of antiquity. The tributes
of Addison, Tennyson, and others, the throbbing paraphrases and
ecstatic interpretations of Swinburne, are too well known to call for
special comment in this brief note; but the concise summing up of her
genius by Mr. Watts-Dunton in his remarkable essay on poetry is so
convincing and illuminating that it seems to demand quotation here:
"Never before these songs were sung, and never since did the
human soul, in the grip of a fiery passion, utter a cry like hers; and,
from the executive point of view, in directness, in lucidity, in that high,
imperious verbal economy which only nature can teach the artist, she
has no equal, and none worthy to take the place of second."
The poems of Sappho so mysteriously lost to us seem to have
consisted of at least nine books of odes, together with epithalamia,
epigrams, elegies, and monodies. Of the several theories which have
been advanced to account for their disappearance, the most plausible
seems to be that which represents them as having been burned at
Byzantium in the year 380 Anno Domini, by command of Gregory
Nazianzen, in order that his own poems might be studied in their
stead and the morals of the people thereby improved. Of the efficacy
of this act no means of judging has come down to us.