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Title: Sappho
Author: Tucker, T. G. (Thomas George)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  A Lecture delivered before
  the Classical Association
  of Victoria, 1913.



  Professor of Classical Philology in the University of



  _First Edition, May 1914._


It is hardly possible to realise and judge of Sappho without realising
her environment. The picture must have its background, and the
background is Lesbos about the year 600 B.C. One may well regret never
to have seen the island now called Mytilini, but known in ancient times
as Lesbos. There are, however, descriptions not a few, and with these
we must perforce be satisfied. On the map it lies there in the Ægean
Sea, a sort of triangle with rounded edges, pierced deeply on the south
by two deep lochs or fiords, while toward each of its three angles it
rises into mountains of from two to three thousand feet in height. One
way it stretches some thirty-five miles, the other some twenty-five.

It is twenty-five centuries ago since this island was the home of
Sappho, of Alcæus, and of a whole school of the most finished lyric
poetry and music ever heard in Greece. From its northern shore, across
only seven miles of laughing sea, the poetess might every day look upon
the Troad, the land of Homeric legend; and in the North-East distance,
over the broadening strait, rose the storied crest of “many-fountained
Ida.” The air was clear with that translucency of which Athens also
boasted, and in which the Athenian poet rightly or wrongly found one
cause of the Athenian intellectual brilliancy. The climate was, and
still is, famous for its mildness and salubrity. The Lesbian soil was,
and still is, rich in corn and oil and wine, in figs and olives, in
building-wood and tinted marble. It was eminently a land of flowers and
aromatic plants, of the rose and the iris, the myrtle and the violet,
and the Lesbians would seem to have loved and cultivated flowers much
as they are loved and cultivated in Japan.

Such was the land. The Greeks who inhabited it belonged apparently to
that Achæan-Æolian branch which was the first to cross from Europe
to the north-west Ægæan and to oust, or plant colonies among, the
older nameless--perhaps “Pelasgian”--occupants. This is not the place
to discuss the tribal or even racial differences which once existed
between Æolian, Ionian, and Dorian Greeks. Their divergence of
character was great; it was of the first significance as exhibited in
war, in social life, in art. The fact that each division spoke the
Greek tongue, though with various accents and idioms, is no longer held
as proof that their racial origin and capacity were the same. Between
the Greek of Lesbos and the Greek of Sparta there were differences in
temper, in adaptability, and in taste, as great as those between the
English-speaking Irishman, with his nimble sympathies and his ready
eloquence and wit, and the slower if surer Saxon of Mid-lothian. If
we touch upon this question here, it is merely because it casts some
measure of light upon those social and literary characteristics of the
Lesbians in which Sappho fortunately shared. Almost beyond a doubt
the Æolian Greeks who first made Lesbos their home were the nearest of
kin to those fair-haired Achæans who, in the _Iliad_, followed their
feudal lords to the siege of Troy. Socially a distinguishing mark of
these people was the liberty and high position enjoyed by the women in
the household, by the Penelopes as well as by the Helens. This fact
has hardly been sufficiently considered in dealing with that peculiar
position of Sappho and her coterie, concerning which something will be
said later on. Artistically their distinguishing mark, as represented
first in Homer, was their clear, open-eyed, original observation
of essentials, their veracity of description, their dislike of the
indefinite and the mystic. This too is clearly reflected in the work of
Sappho and her compatriots.

We must not, it is true, make too much of this racial derivation and
its consequences. The population of Lesbos doubtless became mixed; the
lapse of centuries, the passing away of the feudal relation, increasing
ease and wealth in a softening climate, long intercourse with the trade
and culture of the neighbouring Asiatic coast--all these had their
inevitable effects. Nevertheless, among it all, the frank genius of
earliest Greece is still discernible in the classic poetry of Lesbos.

The island naturally possessed its characteristic speech. The dialect
of Lesbos was strongly marked. It is altogether unsafe to specify at
this distance of time the particular qualities of softness or sonority
which belonged to Greek dialects; but, if one may venture where doubt
must always be so great, it would not be unreasonable to speak of
Lesbian Greek as perhaps the most “singable” of them all. In several
ways it is peculiarly like Italian. The aspirate is gone, the double
consonants are brought out with an Italian clarity unique in Greece,
the vowels are firm and musical. And here we must remember that a
local Greek dialect must never be looked upon as a provincial _patois_
simply because it is not Attic. Neither Attic nor any other one speech
possessed a pre-eminence in Greece in the year 600 B.C. The poet of
every little independent Grecian state was free to compose in his own
idiom, with no more hesitation or self-consciousness than would have
occurred to a Provençal troubadour, an early _trouvère_ of Normandy,
or a Sicilian poet before the age of Dante. The half-doubts of Burns
when writing his native Scots would find no sympathy in Sappho or
Alcæus. No poetry that profoundly stirs the heart was ever written with
effort in an alien speech. Burns perhaps had some reason to be tempted
to write in English. The Lesbian singers had no temptation to write in
anything but Lesbian. Sappho may indeed be called the Burns of Greece,
but if her dialect, like his, was local, it was at the same time the
genuine and recognised language of the most cultured men and women of
her people.

Having thus spoken of Lesbos, its people, and its language, we may
proceed to the social and ethical surroundings into which Sappho was
born. The island contained, after the usual Greek fashion, perhaps
half-a-dozen little communities independent of each other. All
these had their “little summer wars” and their little revolutions;
but it is with Mitylene, the chief and largest town, that the life
of Sappho is identified. The history of such a town at this period
may be compared to that of an Italian city in the later thirteenth
century. It was the history of a struggle between a despotism, or an
oligarchy of aristocrats, and the rights of the citizens. The _grandi_
and _popolari_ of Florence in the time of Dante find their analogues
in the conflicts of nobles like Alcæus and his brother Antimenidas
against the champions of the common folk of Mitylene. There were also
feuds less immediately explainable, just as there were feuds of Guelfs
and Ghibellines, of Blacks and Whites. We need not inquire into the
usurpations of Melanchrus and Myrsilus or the dictatorship of Pittacus.
Men carried to power by favour of one party might drive their opponents
into banishment, just as Dante was exiled to Verona and Ravenna. Among
those who thus left their country for a space were the poet Alcæus and
his greater contemporary Sappho. Particularly haughty and turbulent
were the nobly born, and these often elected to roam abroad and serve
as _condottieri_ in foreign armies rather than condescend to obey the
rule of the commons at home. It may be mentioned in passing that the
brother of the poet Alcæus took service under King Nebuchadnezzar, and
in his wars killed a Goliath, who “lacked but a hand’s-breath of five

Yet these are after all but surface incidents, of which history
often makes too much. As in modern times, the little wars and little
revolutions caused but an inconsiderable suspension of social and
industrial life. Commerce and art went on very much as before. The
vines of Lesbos were pruned, the ships of Lesbos went trading down the
coast, the poets and musicians of Lesbos played and sang. We know that
while Guelfs were quarrelling with Ghibellines and Florentines were
fighting with Pisans or Genoese, the festive processions went with song
across the Arno, Giotto’s tower rose from the ground, Guido Cavalcanti
composed his sonnets, and Dante, for all that he must fight in the
front ranks at Campaldino, found time and hearers for his _Donne ch’
avete intelletto d’amore_. So it was at Mitylene. We need not therefore
picture Sappho and her society of maidens as living perpetually among
war’s alarms or fluttering in daily expectation of battle, murder, and
sudden death. Life in Lesbos must have been passing cheerful, as life

When we proceed next to speak of the lively enthusiasm of this Lesbian
folk for beauty in all its forms, and in especial for the beauty of
music and poetry, we must guard against a misconception. Under all
the love of art which ruled in Lesbos, amid all its eager cultivation
of the Muses and the Graces, this isle of Greece “where burning
Sappho loved and sung” carried on its daily work as strenuously as
any Greeks were wont. Its farmers and fishermen, its quarriers and
vine-dressers, laboured like others in sun or cold. There was no doubt
plenty of envy, hatred, and malice, and no little that was coarse and
gross. Nevertheless the love of art and beauty and the spontaneous
appreciation of them penetrated far deeper into a Greek people
than it does with us. It was not an artificial outgrowth, a dainty
efflorescence of leisure and luxury. It was no private possession of
the _virtuoso_, or sequestered playground of the amateur. Even now the
popular songs of the village Greeks are in literary grace and thought
of a higher quality than many songs familiar to our drawing-rooms.
Life without song and dance upon the sward was unimaginable in old

The special pride of Lesbos was in its music and poetry. In the
language of the legend, when that magic singer Orpheus had been torn to
pieces in Thrace, his head--with, as some say, his lyre--was carried
“down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.” On the coins of Mitylene,
as on the flag of Ireland, may be seen a harp. The first great name
in the musical history of Greece is that of the Lesbian Terpander.
It is not indeed a probable story that he was the first to increase
the strings of the lyre from four to seven, but it is practically
certain that he both improved that instrument and invented new forms
of composition to embody a lyrical idea. Another world-known poet and
musician who shed glory on Lesbos was Arion. Of him in later days the
story grew that, when he was thrown overboard by pirates, a dolphin,
which had been charmed by his melodies, bore him upon its back safe to
the Tarentine shore.

In Lesbos, as in every part of Greece, there were abundant demands upon
musician and poet. Every occasion of worship, festivity, and grief
required its song. The gods were hymned by groups at their altars
and by white-robed maidens in processions; at weddings the hymeneal
chorus was chanted along the street, and the epithalamion before the
doors of the bridal home; at every banquet were sung lively catches and
jocund songs of Bacchus; every season--spring, summer, harvest--had
its popular ditty, exultant or pathetic; almost every occupation, of
herdsman, boatman, gardener, was beguiled with melody; at the coming
of the first swallow, as on the old English Mayday, the children sang
the “swallow-song” from house to house. And let it be remembered that
the Greeks had none of our modern tolerance for a song of which the
words were nought and the tune everything. To them the thought, the
sentiment, was first; the melody was simply its proper vehicle. Italian
opera, when not a word is intelligible, would have seemed to them a
strange anomaly. To them _mousikê_ was the “art of the Muses,” and this
meant literature no less than minstrelsy. The poet, unless, like Burns,
he wrote his verses to existing tunes, was his own composer. In either
case he was poet first and foremost.

Now for generations the songs for special purposes had been shaping
themselves on special lines. To use a phrase of Aristotle, experience
had found out the right species to fit the case. There were sundry
recognised stanzas and metres for a processional, a hymeneal, or a
dirge. In most cases, therefore, the task of a new poet was to write
new words; the melody would, as in the case of Burns, almost find
itself. Nevertheless the complete poet could not dispense with an
elaborate training in music. To invent beautiful variations of existing
tunes was part of his glory; he must at least write words which should
sing themselves to the melody he selected. “Melodies” is the word,
for the Greeks knew practically nothing of harmonies. Their songs were
sung in unison, or simply with an octave interval when men sang with
women or with boys. The accompanying instrument was generally the
lyre, or one of many stringed instruments akin thereto; sometimes it
was the so-called flute, which was in truth a clarinet. Whatever their
musical deficiencies, it has been maintained by competent authorities
that in nicety of ear for pitch and time the training of the Greeks
incomparably surpassed the modern. Be that as it may, it must never be
left out of sight that, when a Lesbian wrote a song, it was in the
first place as perfect a poem as he could create, and in the second
it was meant to be sung, not merely to be read. Shelley’s _Ode to a
Skylark_ is consummate literature. Yet we may doubt if it could ever
be sung, and assuredly it was not written to that end. On the other
hand, the songs of Moore are often but sickly stuff to read, but they
lend themselves perfectly to those touching Irish airs, to which, by
the way, the Lesbians seem to have been akin in a peculiar tone of
plaintiveness. A Greek lyric aimed at combining the literary _mousikê_
of Shelley’s _Ode_ with the songful _mousikê_ of Moore. It is in the
perfection of this combination that Sappho excels all women who have
ever written verse.

Where song was for generations so abundant, it follows that there was
floating about among the people many an old ballad or favourite ditty
whose author had been long forgotten. Numbers of these _Volkslieder_,
or snatches of them, lay, sometimes with consciousness and sometimes
unrealised, in the memory of every child of Lesbos. The artistic poet
did not scorn them; he feared no charge of plagiarism if he adopted
and adapted them; he often acted as Burns acted with the ballads of
Scotland; he took them, gave them that marvellous and inexplicable
touch of finality which only genius can impart, and so made them his
for ever. This also did Sappho do, and her verses, when she deals with
well-worn themes, are beyond question often fed with the hints of older
nameless songsters.

There is one department of lyric verse in which Lesbos stood supreme,
and Sappho supreme in Lesbos. It is the poetry, not of religion or
marriage, of the banquet or the seasons, but of personal emotion; the
verse of the “lyric cry,” which tells of the writer’s own passion, its
waves of joy and sorrow, love and hate. It is the monody, the verse
sung, not by a gathered company, but from the one overflowing heart,
the song best represented at Rome by Catullus, and in modern times by
Burns or Heine. For most of her poems in this kind there is no reason
to suppose that Sappho relied upon any promptings but those of her own
soul. She took the floating rhythms of the ballads, modified them, and
into their mould she poured verse which, as George Sand said of her own
writings, came from “the real blood of her heart and the real flame of
her thought.”

And here at length we come to the poetess herself. Into this land,
devoted to poetry, to music, to flowers, and so regardful of loveliness
that a public “prize of beauty” was annually competed for in the
temple of Hera, was Sappho--or Psappha, as she apparently called
herself--born in the latter part of the seventh century before Christ.
Our ancient authorities are sufficiently in agreement as to her date,
and we may lay it down that she was in her prime about the year 600
B.C., or nearly a hundred and fifty years before that great period of
Athenian literary culture which is represented by Æschylus, Sophocles
and Euripides. The ascertainable facts of her career are miserably
few, and concerning those matters which are in debate as to her life
and character the present exponent must be permitted to express simply
his own views, premising that they have been formed with all due and
deliberate care.

Whether the names of her parents were or were not Scamandronymus and
Clêis is an unimportant question. We may simply remark that both
those names are of aristocratic colour, and both are more or less
authenticated. Whether again she was born at Mitylene itself, or at the
smaller town of Eresos, is of little moment, since we know that at any
rate Mitylene was the scene of her life’s work. That she belonged to
the ranks of the well-born, and that good looks were in the family, is
proved by the choice of her brother Larichus as cup-bearer of Mitylene,
an office which was bestowed only on handsome and noble youth. That
at least one member of the family possessed considerable means is
known from the rather romantic history of a second brother, Charaxus.
This young man sailed away in his ship, laden with the famous Lesbian
wine--the _innocentis pocula Lesbii_ of Horace--as far as Egypt.
There he traded in that merchandise at the Pan-Grecian free-town of
Naucratis, which had been established in the Delta under a permission
somewhat similar to that by which settlement was first allowed in
the treaty-ports of China. Here, however, he fell in love with the
world-famed _demi-mondaine_ whose name, Doricha, is less familiar than
her sobriquet Rhodôpis--“complexion of a rose”--and his gains were
spent in chivalrously ransoming that lady from a degrading slavery. It
is of interest to know, though the verses are not preserved to us, that
his poetess sister reproved him sharply for this conduct. Her “love of
love” did not blind her to the claims of family honour and dignity.
It is gratifying to learn that at a later time she expresses her
reconciliation to her brother in a poem which, like those of Herondas
and Bacchylides, has but recently been disgorged, though in a sadly
mutilated state, by the omnivorous sands of Egypt. Sappho herself is
said to have married a wealthy islander of Andros, and to have had at
least one daughter, whose name, according to Greek custom, was the name
of the grandmother, Clêis. It is apparently this Clêis whom she is
addressing in a fragment which we may venture to translate thus----

  “I have a maid, a bonny maid,
     As dainty as the golden flowers,
   My darling Clêis. Were I paid
     All Lydia, and the lovely bowers
   Of Cyprus, ’twould not buy my maid.”

An inscription on the Parian marbles informs us that, at some uncertain
date, Sappho fled, or was driven, into banishment to Sicily. There
is nothing unlikely in the circumstance, and it is worth noting that
more than 500 years later, in the days of Cicero, Verres, the governor
of that island, appropriated a bronze statue of Sappho, wrought by a
Grecian master and greatly prized at Syracuse.

As _Aberglaube_ which has gathered about Sappho’s history, there are
two strange legends, or rather there is one strange legend in two
parts, which must here be told briefly.

The story goes that once upon a time Aphrodite, goddess of love,
disguised as an aged woman, was gallantly ferried across to Lesbos by
a young waterman of the name of Phaon. In reward she bestowed upon him
marvellous beauty and irresistible charm. Of him, the fable tells,
Sappho became enamoured to the point of frenzy, and, unable to win his
heart, she resolved to attempt the last and most desperate cure known
for her disease. Away in the Ionian Sea was the jutting rock of Leucas,
and it was believed that those who cast themselves down from that
cliff into the sea either ended their miseries in death or rose from
the waters cured of their malady. What became of Sappho when she took
that “lover’s leap” may be found narrated by Hephæstion. It is given in
Addison’s 233rd _Spectator_. “Many who were present related that they
saw her fall into the sea, from whence she never rose again; there were
others who affirmed that she never came to the bottom of her leap, but
that she was changed into a swan as she fell, and that they saw her
hovering in the air under that shape. But whether or no the whiteness
and fluttering of her garments might not deceive those who looked upon
her, or whether she might not really be metamorphosed into that musical
and melancholy bird, is still a doubt among the Lesbians.” Well, let
us share the Lesbian doubt, and a little more. Suffice it to say that,
though this story, which has been elaborated by the fancy of Ovid,
appears to have been known in some shape to Menander and other comic
poets of Athens, there is absolutely no trace of the name of Phaon or
of anything connected with him in any fragment of Sappho. Nor was there
likely to be, seeing that he is in all probability but another _avatar_
of the mythical youth Adonis. More interesting is it to observe that
the rock of desperation is called “Sappho’s Leap” unto this day.
Unfortunately we do not know when or by whom it was so baptized.

Of Sappho’s personal appearance we have no certain knowledge. More
than four centuries later a philosopher named Maximus Tyrius says that
she was considered beautiful, “though” short and dark, and hence is
prompted Swinburne’s assumption--

  “The small dark body’s Lesbian loveliness
   That held the fire eternal.”

If this be true, she was sufficiently unlike the conventional ideal of
Lesbian beauty. Her contemporary Alcæus speaks of her “sweet smile,”
and Anacreon, in the next generation, of her “sweet voice.” Later
writers of epigrams, who can hardly have known much about the matter,
call her “bright-eyed,” or “the pride of the lovely-haired Lesbians,”
but those are as likely as not mere descriptive guesses of the kind
in which poetical fancy may pardonably indulge. If we meet with the
untranslatable adjective _kalê_ applied to her by Plato, we have to
remember that it is a stock epithet of admiration for a writer of
charm and genius, and in such cases contains no reference whatever to
beauty of person.

What we really know best of Sappho’s life is that she was acknowledged
the choicest spirit of her time in music and poetry, and that,
whether as friendly guide or professional teacher or something of
both, she gathered about her what may be variously called a coterie,
academy, conservatorium, or club, of young women, not only from Lesbos
itself but from other islands, and even from Miletus and the distant
Pamphylia. Sometimes they were called her “companions,” sometimes her
“disciples.” One of them, Erinna of Telos, herself became famous, but
unhappily survives for us as a lyrist only in an inconsiderable line or

Sappho appears to have taught these damsels music and also the art of
poetry, so far as that art is teachable. She appears, moreover, to
have taught them whatever charms and graces of bearing and behaviour
were most desired by women, whether in their social life or in
their frequent appearances in religious or secular processions and
ceremonies. There exists a short fragment in which she derides the
rusticity of the woman who has no idea how to hold up her train about
her ankles. In another place she bids one of her maidens--

  “Take sprigs of anise fair
     With soft hands twined,
   And round thy bonny hair
     A chaplet bind;
   The Muse with smiles will bless
     Thy blossoms gay,
   While from the garlandless
     She turns away.”

It has often been observed that the relations of Sappho with the young
women Erinna and Atthis and Anactoria resembled those of Socrates
with the young men Alcibiades and Charmides and Phædrus. But it has
apparently not been also pointed out as a parallel that, three
centuries later, there similarly gathered about the _maître_ Philêtas,
in the isle of Cos, a school of young poets, among whom were no less
persons than Theocritus, Asclepiades and Aratus.

The peculiarity of Sappho’s coterie lay to the general mind in the fact
that it was a club of women. And here we must handle with brief and
gentle touch, but with no false reserve, a topic which no discourse
on Sappho can shrink from facing. The reputation of Sappho and her
comrades has long been made to suffer from what is probably, and almost
certainly, a cruel injustice. Partly through the social depravity of
the later Greek and Roman, partly through taking too seriously the
scurrilous humours of the comic dramatists of Athens, many ancients
and most moderns have formed concerning that Lesbian school a notion
which in all likelihood does bitter wrong to Sappho, wrong to art,
and wrong to human nature. At Athens, as among all the Ionian Greeks,
and later on among Greeks almost everywhere, a woman of character was
kept in a seclusion suggestive of the oriental. The woman most to be
praised, Pericles declared, was “she of whom least is said among men
whether for good or evil.” This, as we have seen, was not the way of
the older Æolian Lesbos, where woman still enjoyed much of the Homeric
freedom and independence to go and come and live her life. What more
natural than for Athenians to imagine that the famous coterie of Sappho
consisted of women of the same class as the brilliant Aspasia? Their
very talent was proof enough, for the Athenian housekeeper who passed
for wife made no pretensions to literature and art. What more natural
also than for an Athenian playwright, like him of the _Ecclesiazusæ_,
or “_Women in Parliament_,” to find scandalous comedy in the
_Précieuses_ of Lesbos? Again, the poems of Sappho are nearly all poems
of love, and to the ordinary Greek, especially of a later date, it was
unseemly for modest women to acknowledge so positive a passion. An
Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have received no countenance from the
Athenian Mrs. Grundy. The truth seems to be that Lesbos in the year 600
B.C. was in this respect socially and ethically almost as different
from the Athens of two hundred years later as the emancipated young
woman of America is different from the dragon-guarded Spanish maiden of

We may pass by other considerations which might be urged, but it is
no surprise that the false notion of Sappho, constructed by decadent
Greeks and refined upon by the vice of the Romans, should do her
special harm in the days when paganism gave way to Christianity. Among
the many works destroyed by the unco’ guid in the early Byzantine days
were the poems of Sappho--destroyed the more savagely because that
particular pagan, who so passionately invoked the Queen of love, was a
woman, and woman’s ideal place was then the cloister. Unhappily certain
moderns, who are anything but unco’ guid, have carried on the wrong in
a different way, and, for example, the title _Sapho_ of Daudet’s sketch
of _mœurs Parisiennes_ is a choice which may pardonably stir the ire of
any Hellenist.

The few fragments of Sappho which have been preserved are not those
which have been spared by the saints or which have been culled for
special innocence. They simply happen to be quoted here and there by
ancient critics, grammarians, and even lexicographers, to illustrate
some æsthetic doctrine, the use of some word, or even some peculiarity
of grammar. And no understanding man or woman can read them without
feeling that what we find is sheer poetry, sound and true, free
from dross in either form or thought. Says Sappho herself, “I love
daintiness, and for me love possesses the brightness and beauty of the
sun.” To Alcæus, her fellow-countryman and acquaintance, she was the
“violet-weaving, pure, sweetly-smiling Sappho.” To Plato, who judged
even art by ethical standards, she is “beautiful and wise.” Her reply
to her fellow-poet, when he was too bashful to say something which was
in his mind, was this--

  “Had your desire been right and good,
     Your tongue perplex’d with no bad thought,
   With frank eye unabashed you would
     Have spoken of the thing you ought.”

To some lover she says--if she is speaking in her own person--

  “As friends we’ll part:
     Win thee a younger bride;
   Too old, I lack the heart
     To keep thee at my side.”

Nay, we may go further and say that, after reading and re-reading
and translating and commenting on her poems, so far as we possess
them, we find her verse full indeed of warmth and colour, full of
poignant feeling, but never riotous, always sane, always controlled
by the truest sense of art. Obedience to the central Greek motto
μηδὲν ἄγαν--“nothing too much”--was never better exemplified. The
Greeks would never have set her on such a pedestal if she had been
the poetical mænad who seems to exist in the mind of Swinburne, when
he writes of her, in that vicious exaggeration of phrase which he too
often affects, as--

  “Love’s priestess, mad with pain and joy of song,
   Song’s priestess, mad with joy and pain of love.”

No writer so lacking in _sophrosyne_ could assert, as Swinburne
elsewhere in his finer and truer style makes her assert--

  “I Sappho shall be one ...
   ... with all high things for ever.”

There is not a line of Sappho of which you do not feel that, glow as
it may with feeling, it is constructed with such art as--unconscious
though it may possibly be--can only be sustained in a mind of perfect

There is something else which is too often strangely overlooked in
judging a poet from his writings alone. It is particularly liable to be
forgotten when the writings which have been preserved are but fragments
severed from their context. The poet is not always writing in his
own person; he is not always revealing his own feelings. He is often
dramatising; and his verses then utter the sentiments and passions
suited to the character concerned. No one will accept a passage culled
from Shakespeare as proof of the ethical views of Shakespeare himself.
It may express only the whim of Falstaff, or the snarl of Shylock, or
the banter of Benedick, or the melancholy humour of Hamlet. Allowing
for all the difference between lyric poetry and dramatic, the lyrist
also has his passages in which he is speaking for another. He may be
actually writing _for_ another. _In Memoriam_ doubtless represents the
heart of Tennyson himself. But suppose posterity to retain but a few
fragments of his other works. What shall we say of those who might take
the isolated words “I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead” as
a proof of the settled pessimism of our poet? We know that the speaker
was Mariana. We do not always know who is the speaker in the fragments
of Sappho. But, even if we did know, there still remains not a verse
which betrays the too much, or which passes beyond the pathetic into
the reckless, the hysterical, still less the dissolute.

Behind Sappho, as behind Burns before he wrote “Green grow the rushes
O” or “Auld Lang Syne,” lay a mass of popular ballads and a wealth
of lyrical ideas to be seized upon and shaped when the perfect mood
arrived. When she sings--

  “Sunk is the moon;
     The Pleiades are set;
   ’Tis midnight; soon
     The hour is past; and yet
   I lie alone”--

it is probable that she is setting one such prehistoric lyrical idea to
new words or recasting one such vagrom ditty. It is practically certain
that she is doing so in that quatrain which begins “Sweet mother mine,
I cannot ply my loom.” That thought is embodied in English folksong
also--“O mother, put my wheel away; I cannot spin to-night”--as well as
in German and other tongues.

Let us then sweep aside from the memory of Sappho the myths of Phaon
and the Leucadian leap, and the calumnies of Athenian worldlings in
the comic theatre; let us reject all that Swinburnian hyperbole which
makes her “mad” in any sense whatever; and let us simply take her upon
the strength of the “few passages, but roses” which are left to us,
and upon the word of Alcæus that she was the “violet-weaving, pure,
sweetly-smiling Sappho.”

Her life as teacher and æsthetic guide in Lesbos evidently did not pass
without a cloud. Her talent, like talent everywhere, found jealous
rivals and detractors. A certain Andromeda seems to have caused her
special vexation by luring away her favourite pupil Atthis. There
were also, then as now, rich but uncultured women who had little love
for art and its votaries, particularly if these latter were all too
charming. To one such woman Sappho, who, like a true Æolian, looked
with horror on a life without poetry and a death unhonoured by song,

  “When thou art dead, thou shalt lie, with none to remember or mourn,
     For ever and aye; for thy head no Pierian roses adorn;
   But e’en in the nether abodes thou shalt herd thee, unnoted, forlorn,
     With the dead whom the great dead scorn.”

Her work as poetess, though of everlasting value for what it touches in
universal humanity, naturally bears many marks of her country and her
time. Besides her songs of personal emotion, she wrote in several of
the various forms of occasional verse which we found reason to mention
as existing in Lesbos. Of her wedding songs and epithalamia we possess
a number of short fragments. Among them is one in the accepted amœbæan
or antiphonic style, in which a band of girls mock the men with failure
to win some dainty maiden, and the men reply with a taunt at the
neglected bloom of the unprofitable virgin. Say the maids--

  “On the top of the topmost spray
     The pippin blushes red,
   Forgot by the gatherers--nay!
     Was it “forgot” we said?
   ’Twas too far overhead!”

Reply the men--

  “The hyacinth so sweet
     On the hills where the herdsmen go
   Is trampled ’neath their feet,
     And its purple bloom laid low--”

and there unhappily the record deserts us.

The writing of Sappho was thus in no way dissociated from the
surrounding life of Lesbos. Similarly the Lesbian love of bright
and beautiful things--of gold, of roses, of sweet odours and sweet
sounds--pervades all that is left of her. The Queen of Love sits on a
richly-coloured throne; she dispenses the “nectar” of love in “beakers
of gold”; she wears a “golden coronal”; the Graces have “rosy arms”;
verses are the “rose-wreath of the Muses”; the blessed goddesses shower
grace upon those who approach them with garlands on their heads. If
maidens dance around the altar, they may dance most pleasantly on the
tender grass flecked with flowers. It is sweet to lie in the garden of
the Nymphs, where--

  “Through apple-boughs, with purling sound,
     Cool waters creep;
   From quivering leaves descends around
     The dew of sleep.”

Sweet among sounds is that of the “harbinger of spring, the
nightingale, whose voice is all desire.” Sappho does in very truth, as
she declares, love daintiness. Above all, she loves love. Love is the
“nectar” in the lines--

  “Come, Cyprian Queen, and, debonair,
     In golden cups the nectar bear,
   Wherein all festal joy must share
     Or be no joy.”

But there is nothing morbid, nothing of the hot-house, about all this.
It is simply the frank, naïve, half-physical, half-mental, enjoyment
of the youth of the world, as fresh and healthy as the love of the
_trouvères_, or of Chaucer, for the daisy, and of the balladist for
the season when the “shaws be sheen and leaves be large and long.”

Unhappily of the nine books of Sappho there have survived only one
complete poem, one or two considerable fragments, and a number of
scraps and lines. So far as we possess even these we have to thank
ancient critics, such as Aristotle, Dionysius, and Longinus, writers
of miscellanies, such as Plutarch and Athenæus, or grammarians like
Hephæstion. We have also to thank those modern scholars, and particular
Bergk, who have acutely and patiently gleaned the scattered remnants
from the pages of these ancient authorities. Scanty as they are, we can
gather from them as profound a conviction of their creator’s genius
as we gather from some fragmentary torso of an ancient masterpiece of
sculpture. We may grieve that a torso of Praxiteles is so mutilated;
nevertheless the art of the master speaks in every recognisable line
of it. According to the old proverbs, “Hercules may be known from his
foot” and “a lion from his toe-nail.” What remains of Sappho is enough
to make us fully comprehend the splendour of her poetic reputation in
ancient times. That reputation was unique. To the Greeks “the poet”
meant Homer; “the poetess” meant Sappho. The story goes that Solon,
the Athenian sage and legislator who was her contemporary, hearing
his nephew sing one of Sappho’s odes, demanded to be taught it, “So
that I may not die without learning it.” Plato consents to praise her,
and that, when Plato speaks of a poet, is praise from Sir Hubert. To
Aristotle she ranks with Homer and Archilochus. Strabo, the geographer,
calls her “a marvellous being,” whom “no woman could pretend to rival
in the very least in the matter of poetry.” Plutarch avers that “her
utterances are veritably mingled with fire,” and that “the warmth of
her heart comes forth from her in her songs.” He confesses also that
their dainty charm shamed him to put by the wine-cup. To one writer of
epigrams, said to be Plato himself, she is the “Tenth Muse”; to others
she is the “pride of Greece” or the “flower of the Graces.” It is
recorded that Mitylene stamped her effigy upon its coins. If imitation
is the sincerest flattery, she was flattered abundantly. The most
genuine lyric poet of Rome, Catullus, and its most skilful artificer of
odes, Horace, both freely copied her. They did more than imitate; they
plagiarised, they translated, sometimes almost word for word. There
is scarcely an intelligible fragment left of Sappho which has not been
borrowed or adapted by some modern poet, in English, French, or German.

There is one mutilated ode of hers which no one can translate. It is
quoted by Longinus as showing with what vivid terseness she can portray
the tumultuous and conflicting sensations of a lover in that bright
fierce south. Ambrose Philips makes it wordy; Boileau makes it formal.
It displays all the grand Greek directness, but a directness clothed
in the grand Greek charm of perfect rhythmical expression. We can
preserve, if we will, the directness, but the charm of its medium will
inevitably vanish.

In effect, lamentably stripped of its native verbal charm, it may be

  “Blest as the gods, methinks, is he
   Who sitteth face to face with thee
     And hears thy sweet voice nigh,
   Thy winsome laugh, whereat my heart
   Doth in my bosom throb and start;
     One glimpse of thee, and I
   Am speechless, tongue-tied; subtle flame
   Steals in a moment through my frame;
     My ears ring; to mine eye
   All’s dark; a cold sweat breaks; all o’er
   I tremble, pale as death; nay more,
     I seem almost to die.”

When after this we read in the _Phèdre_ of Racine these four lines--

  Je le vis, je rougis, je palis à sa vue,
  Un trouble s’éleva dans mon âme éperdue;
  Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler,
  Je sentais tout mon cœur et transir et brûler:

we recognise their source. We recognise, also, if it were not already
confessed, the source of this of Tennyson in his _Fatima_:

  “Last night, when some one spoke his name,
   From my swift blood, that went and came,
   A thousand little shafts of flame
   Were shivered in my narrow frame.”

If this physical perturbation seems strange to the more reticent man of
northern blood, it was in no way strange to Theocritus, to Catullus, or
to Lucretius. Once more, according to the German proverb, “he who would
comprehend the poet must travel in the poet’s land.”

And here we are confronted with a supreme difficulty. While mere fact
is readily translatable, and thought is approximately translatable,
the literary quality, which is warm with the pressure and pulsation of
a writer’s mood and rhythmic with his emotional state, is hopelessly
untranslatable. It can be suggested, but it cannot be reproduced. The
translation is too often like the bare, cold photograph of a scene of
which the emotional effect is largely due to colour and atmosphere. The
simpler and more direct the words of the original, the more impossible
is translation. In the original the words, though simple and direct,
are poetical, beautiful in quality and association. They contain in
their own nature hints of pathos, sparks of fire, which any so-called
synonym would lack. They are musical in themselves and musical in
their combinations. They flow easily, sweetly, touchingly through the
ear into the heart. The translator may seek high and low in his own
language for words and combinations of the same _timbre_, the same
ethical or emotional influence, the same gracious and touching music.
He will generally seek in vain. In his own language there may exist
words approximately answering in meaning, but, even if they are fairly
simple and direct, they are often commonplace, sullied with “ignoble
use,” harsh in sound, without distinction or charm. He may require a
whole phrase to convey the same tone and effect; he becomes diffuse,
where terseness is a special virtue of his original. Let a foreigner
study to render this--

  “Had we never loved sae kindly,
   Had we never loved sae blindly,
   Never met, or never parted,
   We had ne’er been broken-hearted.”

Or this----

  “Take, O take those lips away,
     That so sweetly were forsworn,
   And those eyes, the break of day,
     Lights that do mislead the morn!
   But my kisses bring again,
   Seals of love, but sealed in vain.”

Is it to be imagined that he could create precisely the effect of
either of these stanzas in French or Italian? Is not much of that
effect inseparable from the words?

Take a perfectly simple stanza of Heine--

  “Du bist wie eine Blume
   So hold und schön und rein:
   Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmuth
   Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.”

Near as English is to German, incomparably more easy as it is to render
German into English than Greek into English, it may be declared that no
English rendering of this verse conveys, or ever will convey, exactly
the impression of the German original.

In respect of mere musical sound, what other words could run precisely
like those of Coleridge at the opening of _Kubla Khan_, or like
Shelley’s “I arise from dreams of thee”? The case is exactly the same
when we turn to a Greek lyric. Alcæus writes four words which mean
simply “I felt the coming of the flowery spring”; but no juxtaposition
of English words yet attempted to that effect can recall to the student
of Greek the impression of

  ἦρος ἀνθεμόεντος ἐπάϊον ἐρχομένοιο.

It is necessarily so with Sappho. She is an embodiment of the typical
Greek genius, which demanded the terse and clear, yet fine and noble,
expression of a natural thought, free, as Addison well says, from
“those little conceits and turns of wit with which many of our modern
lyrics are so miserably infected.” True Greek art detests pointless
elaboration, strained effects, or effects which have to be hunted for.
The Greek lyric spirit would therefore have loved the best of Burns
and would have recognised him for its own. But you cannot translate
Burns. Neither can you translate Sappho. Nevertheless one attempt may
be nearer, less inadequate, than another. Let us take the hymn to
Aphrodite. It is quoted by the critic Dionysius for its “happy language
and its easy grace of composition.”

The first stanza contains in the Greek sixteen words, big and little.
In woeful prose these may be literally rendered “_Radiant-throned
immortal Aphrodite, child of Zeus, guile-weaver, I beseech thee, Queen,
crush not my heart with griefs or cares._”

In turning Greek poetry into English, and so inserting all those little
pronouns and articles and prepositions with which a synthetic language
can dispense, it may be estimated that the number of words will be
greater by about one half,--the little words making the odd half. But
Ambrose Philips makes thirty-four words out of those sixteen--

  “O Venus, _beauty of the skies,
   To whom a thousand temples rise,
   Gaily false in gentle smiles_,
   Full of love-perplexing wiles;
   O Goddess, from my heart remove
   The wasting cares and pains of love.”

The italics should suffice for criticism upon the fidelity of this
“translation.” Mr. J. H. Merivale, though more faithful to the material
contents, finds forty-three words necessary--

  “Immortal Venus, throned above
   In radiant beauty, child of Jove,
   O skilled in every _art of love
     And_ artful snare;
   _Dread power, to whom I bend the knee,
   Release_ my soul and set it free
   From _bonds_ of _piercing_ agony
     And _gloomy_ care.”

We may perhaps without presumption ask whether the sense is not given
more faithfully, in a more natural English form and rhythm, and in
a shape sufficiently reminiscent of the original stanza, in the
twenty-three words which follow--

  “Guile-weaving child of Zeus, who art
   Immortal, throned in radiance, spare,
   O Queen of Love, to break my heart
     With grief and care.”

Keeping to the same principles of strict compression and strict
simplicity we may thus continue with the remainder of the poem--

  “But hither come, as thou of old,
   When my voice reached thine ear afar,
   Didst leave thy father’s hall of gold,
     And yoke thy car,
   And through mid air their whirring wing
   Thy bonny doves did swiftly ply
   O’er the dark earth, and thee did bring
     Down from the sky.
   Right soon they came, and thou, blest Queen,
   A smile upon thy face divine,
   Didst ask what ail’d me, what might mean
     That call of mine.
   ‘What would’st thou have, with heart on fire,
   Sappho?’ thou saidst. ‘Whom pray’st thou me
   To win for thee to fond desire?
     Who wrongeth thee?
   Soon shall he seek, who now doth shun;
   Who scorns thy gifts, shall gifts bestow;
   Who loves thee not, shall love anon,
     Wilt thou or no.’
   So come thou now, and set me free
   From carking cares; bring to full end
   My heart’s desire; thyself O be
     My stay and friend!”

The perfection of the Greek style is fine simplicity. We must not
say that this characteristic perfection is more absolutely displayed
in Sappho than in Homer or Sophocles. It is, however, illustrated by
Sappho in that region of verse which pre-eminently demands it, the
lyric of personal emotion. There may be, with different persons and
at different dates, wide differences of interest in regard to the
themes and structures of the epic, the drama, or the triumphal ode.
Most forms of poetry must some time cease to find full appreciation,
because of the peculiar ideas and conventions of their time and place.
But the poetry of the primal and eternal passions of the human heart,
of its experiences and its emotions, carries with it those touches
which make the whole world kin. Love and sorrow are re-born with every
human being. Time and civilisation make little difference. But those
touches are only weakened by far-sought words and elaborate metres, by
recondite conceits and ambitious psychology.

Perhaps the woman who seeks to come nearest to Sappho in poetry is Mrs.
Browning, but she falls far short of her predecessor, not only through
inferior mastery of form, but also through an excessive “bookishness”
of thought. The poet moves by--

  “High and passionate thoughts
   To their own music chanted.”

In the case of songs whose theme is what Sappho calls the “bitter
sweet” of love, their proper style has been determined by the gathering
consensus of humanity, and it is a style simple but powerful, with a
magic recurring in cadences easy to grasp and too affecting to forget.
It is the style of “Ye flowery banks o’ bonnie Doon,” not of the Ode on
St. Cecilia’s Day. Sappho’s songs fulfil all the conditions, and even
of her fragments that is true which her imitator Horace said of her
completer poems, as he more happily possessed them--

  “Still breathes the love, still lives the fire
   Imparted to the Lesbian’s lyre.”

The virtue of Sappho is supreme art without artificiality, utter truth
to natural feeling wedded to words of utter truth. Let Pausanias,
that ancient Baedeker, declare that “concerning love Sappho sang many
things which are inconsistent with one another.” She is only the more
truthful therefor. No human heart, frankly enjoying or suffering the
“bitter-sweet” moods and experiences of love, ever was consistent.
Consistency belongs only to the cool and calculating brain. If love is
cool and calculating, it is not love.

How much Sappho may have written on other subjects than this, the most
engrossing of all, we shall perhaps never know. But we may be sure that
one of the most priceless poetical treasures lost to the world has been
those other verses which, to quote Shelley on Keats, told of--

  “All she had loved, and moulded into thought
   From shape and hue and odour and sweet sound.”

There is, we may add, one quality besides beauty in verse which can
never be analysed. It is charm. Sappho is pervaded with charm. And this
suggests that we may conclude by quoting the judgment of Matthew Arnold
upon one defect at least which must make Heine rank always lower than

  “Charm is the glory which makes
   Song of the poet divine;
   Love is the fountain of charm.
   How without charm wilt thou draw,
   Poet! the world to thy way?
   Not by thy lightnings of wit--
   Not by thy thunder of scorn!
   These to the world, too, are given;
   Wit it possesses and scorn--
   Charm is the poet’s alone.”


Transcriber’s Note

Punctuation and spelling were made consistent when a predominant
preference was found in the original book; otherwise they were not

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