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Thread: Sappho

  1. #1
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    Sappho, the Greek woman poet, is said to have been at the zenith of her fame about the year 610 B.C.

    During her lifetime Jeremiah first began to prophesy (628 B.C.), Nebuchadnezzar besieged and captured Jerusalem (587 B.C.), Solon was legislating at Athens, and Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king, is said to have been reigning over Rome.

    It can hardly be expected that the lapse of twenty-five centuries should have left many authentic records of the history of Sappho. Yet her writings seem to have been preserved intact till at least the third century of our era, for Athenaeus, who wrote about that time, applies to himself the words of the Athenian comic poet Epicrates (about 360 B.C.), saying that he too:

    “Had learned by heart completely all the songs,
    Breathing of love, which sweetest Sappho sang.”

    Sappho belonged to the wealthy aristocratic class & had two brothers, Charaxus and Larichus. She married one Cercōlas, a man of great wealth, and she had a daughter by him, named Cleïs. That she was a native of Lesbos, an island in the Aegean sea, is universally admitted.

    The Aeolians occupied the very foreground of Greek literature. There seems to have been something passionate and intense in their temperament, which made the emotions of the Dorian and the Ionian feeble by comparison. Lesbos, (the centre of Aeolian culture), was the island of overmastering passions; the personality of the Greek race burned there with a fierce and steady flame of concentrated feeling.

    The energies which the Ionians divided between pleasure, politics, trade, legislation, science, and the arts, and which the Dorians turned to war and statecraft and social economy, were restrained by the Aeolians within the sphere of individual emotions, ready to burst forth volcanically.

    Nowhere in any age of Greek history, or in any part of Hellas, did the love of physical beauty, the sensibility to radiant scenes of nature, the consuming fervour of personal feeling, assume such grand proportions or receive so illustrious an expression as they did in Lesbos.

    At first this passion blossomed into the most exquisite lyrical poetry: this was the flower-time of the Aeolians, their brief and brilliant spring. But the fruit it bore was bitter and rotten. Lesbos became a byword for corruption, a mere furnace of sensuality, from which no expression of the divine in human life could be expected.

    In this the Lesbian poets were not unlike the Provençal troubadours, who made a literature of Love; or the Venetian painters, who based their art upon the beauty of colour, and the voluptuous charms of the flesh. In each case the motive of enthusiastic passion sufficed to produce a dazzling result. But as soon as its freshness was exhausted there was nothing left for art to live on, and mere decadence to sensuality ensued.

    Several circumstances contributed to aid the development of lyric poetry in Lesbos. The customs of the Aeolians permitted more social and domestic freedom than was common in Greece. Aeolian women were not confined to the harem like Ionians, or subjected to the rigorous discipline of the Spartans. While mixing freely with male society, they were highly educated, and accustomed to express their sentiments. The Lesbian ladies applied themselves successfully to literature. They formed clubs for the cultivation of poetry and music. They studied the art of beauty. Unrestrained by public opinion, and passionate for the beautiful, they cultivated their senses and emotions, and developed their wildest passions. All the luxuries and elegances of life which that climate and the rich valleys of Lesbos could afford, were at their disposal: exquisite gardens, in which the rose and hyacinth spread perfume; olive-groves and fountains, where the cyclamen and violet flowered; pine-shadowed coves, where they might bathe in the calm of a tideless sea; fruits such as only the southern sea and sea-wind can mature; marble cliffs, starred with jonquil and anemone in spring, aromatic with myrtle and lentisk and samphire and wild rosemary through all the months; nightingales that sang in May; temples dim with dusky gold and bright with ivory; statues and frescoes of heroic forms.

    In such scenes as these the Lesbian poets lived, and thought of Love. When we read their poems, we seem to have the perfumes, colours, sounds, and lights of that luxurious land distilled in verse.

    One interesting aspect of the story of Sappho, is her perported love for Phaon, and her leap from the Leucadian rock in consequence of his disdaining her, which though it has been so long implicitly believed, does not seem to rest on any firm historical basis.

    Still Phaon, for all the myths that cluster round his name, for his miraculous loveliness and his insensibility to love, may yet have been a real personage.
    He is said to have been a boatman of Mitylene who was endowed by Aphrodite with youth and extraordinary beauty as a reward for his having ferried her for nothing.

    Servius, who wrote about 400 A.D. says she gave him an alabaster box of ointment, the effect of which was to make all women fall in love with him; and that one of these threw herself in despair from the cliff of Leucas.

    Six comedies are known to have been written under the title of “Sappho” and that her history furnished material for at least four more.

    In a later and debased age she became a sort of stock character of the licentious drama. The fervour of her love and the purity of her life, and the very fact of a woman having been the leader of a school of poetry and music, could not have failed to have been misunderstood by the Greek comedians at the close of the fifth century B.C.

    The society and habits of the Aeolians at Lesbos in Sappho's time were, in complete contrast to those of the Athenians; just as the unenviable reputation of the Lesbians was earned long after the date of Sappho.

    It is not surprising, that the early Christian writers against heathenism should have accepted a misrepresentation which the Greeks themselves had invented.

    Sappho seems to have been the centre of a society in Mitylene, a kind of æsthetic club, devoted to the service of the Muses. Around her gathered maidens from even comparatively distant places, attracted by her fame, to study under her guidance all that related to poetry and music; much as at a later age, students resorted to the philosophers of Athens.

    The names of fourteen of her girl-friends and pupils are preserved. The most celebrated was Erinna of Telos, a poetess of whose genius too few lines are left.

    Such was the unique renown of Sappho that she was called “The Poetess,” just as Homer was “The Poet.” Plutarch speaks of the grace of her poems acting on her listeners like an enchantment, and says that when he read them, he set aside the drinking-cup in very shame. Knowledge of her writings were held to be an essential of culture among the Greeks.

    Let me give an example:

    “My Atthis, although our dear Anaktoria lives in distant Sardis, she thinks of us constantly, and of the life we shared in days when for her you were a splendid goddess, and your singing gave her deep joy.

    Now she shines among Lydian women as when the red-fingered moon rises after sunset, erasing stars around her, and pouring light equally across the salt sea and over densely flowered fields; and lucent dew spreads on the earth to quicken roses and fragile thyme and the sweet-blooming honey-lotus.

    Now while our darling wanders she thinks of lovely Atthis's love, and longing sinks deep in her breast.

    She cries loudly for us to come! We hear, for the night's many tongues carry her cry across the sea.”

  2. #2
    It wasn't me Jerrybaldy's Avatar
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    With respect, is this not posted in the wrong place ?

    For those who believe,
    no explanation is necessary.
    For those who do not,
    none will suffice.

  3. #3
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    Jerry. You are right.

    Not thinking straight. For some strange reason, in this last stage of my life, I actually started to read and appreciate poetry. Hence my going back to the beginning in historical terms ( Early Anglo Saxon, Greek etc).

    Excuse the misplacement section wise.

    Best regards

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