Sappho: the great poet of the personal

Over at The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins ponders introducing her poetry group to the pleasures and challenges of reading the fragmentary poems of Sappho, the most famous woman poet of Classical antiquity:

What will I be saying about her? Well, to me one of the most interesting things about Sappho is the way she’s been read: the transmission of her works, and her reception. She was massively admired in antiquity, and her works were edited into nine books (ie papyrus rolls) in the great library at Alexandria. She was known variously as “the tenth muse” and “the female Homer”. She was a huge influence on Roman lyric poets: Catullus famously translated a poem of hers, Horace wrote in her distinctive “Sapphic” stanzas, and Ovid in his Heroides (a collection of poems purporting to be love letters by jilted lovers to their ex-boyfriends) has one by Sappho to her certainly apocryphal lover, Phaon, on account of whom she was legendarily supposed to have killed herself.

Now, hardly any of Sappho’s work remains.

There’s the rub. Yet, the careful work of papyrologists continues to bring more Sappho to light, as in 2004 when a new, perhaps complete, poem emerged:

In 2004, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel announced the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century bc, not much more than 300 years after she wrote (M.W. West. “A New Sappho Poem” TLS 6/21/2005).

Click here for more on the “New Sappho”.

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