The voyager in the Ægean Sea, who has grown weary of the prevailing barrenness of the Grecian Isles, finds at length, when in sight of Lesbos, something that fulfils his dreams of beauty. The village of Mitylene, which now gives its name to the island, is built upon a rocky promontory, with a harbor on either hand. Behind it there are softly wooded hills, swelling to meet the abrupt bases of the loftier mountains. These hills are clothed in one dense forest of silvery olive and darker pomegranate, and as you ascend their paths, the myrtle, covered with delicate white blossoms, and exhaling a sweet perfume, forms a continuous arch above your head. The upper mountain-heights rise above vegetation, but their ravines are dyed crimson with fringing oleanders. From the summits of their passes you look eastward upon the pale distances of Asia Minor, or down upon the calm Ægean, intensely blue, amid which the island rests as if inlaid in lapis lazuli.
This decaying Turkish village of Mitylene marks the site of what was, twenty-five centuries ago, one of the great centres of Greek civilization. The city then covered the whole breadth of the peninsula, and the grand canal, that separated it from the mainland, was crossed. by bridges of white marble. The great theatre of Mitylene was such a masterpiece of architecture, that the Roman Pompey wished to copy it in the metropolis of the world. The city was classed by Horace with Rhodes, Ephesus, and Corinth. Yet each of those places we now remember for itself, while we think of Lesbos only as the home of Sappho.
It was in the city of Mitylene that she lived and taught and sang. But to find her birthplace you must traverse nearly the length of the island, till you come to Ereso or Eresus, a yet smaller village, and Greek instead of Turkish. To reach it you must penetrate aromatic pine forests, where the deer lurk, and must ascend mountain paths like rocky ladders, where the mule alone can climb. But as you approach the village, you find pastoral beauty all around you; though the Æolian lyric music is heard no more, yet the hillsides echo with sheep-bells and with the shepherds cries. Among the villagers you find manners more simple and hospitable than elsewhere in the Greek islands; there are more traces of the ancient beauty of the race; and the women on festal days wear white veils edged with a crimson border, and falling to the waist, so that they look, as they follow one another to church, like processional figures on an antique urn. These women are permitted to share the meals of their husbands, contrary to the usual practice of rural Greece; and as a compensation, they make for their husbands such excellent bread, that it has preserved its reputation for two thousand years. The old Greek poet Archestratus, who wrote a work on the art of cookery, said that if the gods were to eat bread, they would send Hermes to Eresus to buy it; and the only modern traveller, so far as I know, who has visited the village, reports the same excellent receipt to be still in vogue.
It was among these well-trained women that the most eminent poetess of the world was born. Let us now turn and look upon her in her later abode of Mitylene; either in some garden of orange and myrtle, such as once skirted the city, or in that marble house which she called the dwelling of the Muses. Let us call around her, in fancy, the maidens who have come from different parts of Greece to learn of her. Anactoria is here from Miletus, Eunica from Salamis, Gongyla from Colophon, and others from Pamphylia and the isle of Telos. Erinna and Damophyla study together the complex Sapphic metres; Atthis learns how to strike the harp with the plectron, Sappho’s invention; Mnasidica embroiders a sacred robe for the temple. The teacher meanwhile corrects the measures of one, the notes of another, the stitches of a third, then summons all from their work to rehearse together some sacred chorus or temple ritual; then stops to read a verse of her own, or—must I say it?—to denounce a rival preceptress. For if the too fascinating Andromeda has beguiled away some favorite pupil to one of those rival feminine academies that not only exist in Lesbos, but have spread as far as illiterate Sparta, then Sappho may at least wish to remark that Andromeda does not know how to dress herself. “And what woman ever charmed thy mind,” she says to the vacillating pupil, “who wore a vulgar and tasteless dress, or did not know how to draw her garments close about her ankles?”
Out of a long list of Greek poetesses there were seven women who were, as a poem in the Greek Anthology says, “divinely tongued” or “spoke like gods.” Of these Sappho was the admitted chief. Among the Greeks “the poet” meant Homer, and “the poetess” equally designated her. “There flourished in those days,” said Strabo, writing a little before our era, “Sappho, a wondrous creature; for we know not any woman to have appeared, within recorded time, who was in the least to be compared with her in respect to poesy.”
The dates of her birth and death are alike uncertain, but she lived somewhere between the years 628 and 572 B. C.; thus flourishing three or four centuries after Homer, and less than two centuries before Pericles. Her father’s name is variously given, and we can only hope, in charity, that it was not Scamandronimus. We have no better authority than that of Ovid for saying that he died when his daughter was six years old. Her mother’s name was Cleis, and Sappho had a daughter of the same name. The husband of the poetess was probably named Cercolas, and there is a faint suspicion that he was a man of property. It is supposed that she became early a widow, and won most of her poetic fame while in that condition. She had at least two brothers: one being Larichus, whom she praises for his graceful demeanor as cup-bearer in the public banquets, — an office which belonged only to beautiful youths of noble birth; the other was Charaxus, whom Sappho had occasion to reproach, according to Herodotus, for buying and marrying a slave of disreputable antecedents.
Of the actual events of Sappho’s life almost nothing is known, except that she once had to flee for safety from Lesbos to Sicily, perhaps to escape the political persecutions that prevailed in the island. It is not necessary to assume that she had reached an advanced age when she spoke of herself as “one of the elders,” inasmuch as people are quite as likely to use that term of mild self-reproach while young enough for somebody to contradict them. It is hard to ascertain whether she possessed beauty even in her prime. Tradition represents her as having been “little and dark,” but tradition describes Cleopatra in the same way; and we should clearly lose much from history by ignoring all the execution done by small brunettes. The Greek Anthology describes her as “the pride of the lovely haired Lesbians”; Plato calls her “the beautiful Sappho” or “the fair Sappho,” — as you please to render the phrase more or less ardently, — and Plutarch and Athenæus use similar epithets. But when Professor Felton finds evidence of her charms in her portraits on the Lesbian coins, as engraved by Wolf I must think that he is too easily pleased with the outside of the lady’s head, however it may have been with the inside.
The most interesting intellectual fact in Sappho’s life was doubtless her relation to her great townsman Alcæus. These two will always be united in fame as the joint founders of the lyric poetry of Greece, and therefore of the world. Anacreon was a child, or perhaps unborn, when they died; and Pindar was a pupil of women who seem to have been Sappho’s imitators, Myrtis and Corinna. The Latin poets Horace and Catullus, five or six centuries after, drew avowedly from these Æolian models, to whom nearly all their metres have been traced back. Horace wrote of Alcæus: “The Lesbian poet sang of war amid the din of arms, or when he had bound the storm-tossed ship to the moist shore, he sang of Bacchus, and the Muses, of Venus and the boy who clings forever by her side, and of Lycus, beautiful with his black hair and black eyes.” But the name of the Greek singer is still better preserved to Anglo-Saxons through an imitation of a single fragment by Sir William Jones, — the noble poem beginning “What constitutes a state?” It is worth while to remember that we owe these fine lines to the lover of Sappho. And indeed the poems of Alcæus, so far as they remain, show much of the grace and elegance of Horace, joined with a far more heroic tone. His life was spent amid political convulsions, in which he was prominent, and, in spite of his fine verses, it is suspected, from the evidence remaining, that he was a good deal of a fop and not much of a soldier; and it is perhaps as well that the lady did not smile upon him, even in verse.
Their loves rest, after all, rather on tradition than on direct evidence; for there remain to us only two verses which Alcæus addressed to Sappho. The one is a compliment, the other an apology. The compliment is found in one graceful line, which is perhaps her best description: —
Violet-crowned, pure, sweetly smiling Sappho.
The freshness of those violets, the charm of that smile, the assurance of that purity, all rest upon this one line, and rest securely. If every lover, having thus said in three epithets the whole story about his mistress, would be content to retire into oblivion, and add no more, what a comfort it would be! Alcæus unhappily went one phrase further, and therefore goes down to future ages, not only as an ardent lover, but as an unsuccessful one. For Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, records that this poet once addressed Sappho as follows
I wish to speak, but shame restrains my tongue.
Now this apology may have had the simplest possible occasion. Alcæus may have undertaken to amend a verse of Sappho’s and have spoiled it; or he may have breakfasted in the garden, with her and her maidens, and may have spilled some honey from Hymettus on a crimson-bordered veil from Eresus. But it is recorded by Aristotle that the violet-crowned thus answered: “If thy wishes were fair and noble, and thy tongue designed not to utter what is base, shame would not cloud thine eyes, but thou wouldst freely speak thy just desires.” Never was reproof more exquisitely uttered than is this in the Greek; and if we take it for serious, as we probably should, there is all the dignity of womanhood in the reply, so that Sappho comes well out of the dialogue, however it may be with her wooer. But if, as is also possible, the occasion was but trivial, it is rather refreshing to find these gifted lovers, in the very morning of civilization, simply rehearsing just the dialogue that goes on between every village school-girl and her awkward swain, when he falters and “fears to speak,” and says finally the wrong thing, and she blushingly answers, “I should think you would be ashamed.”
But whether the admiration of Alcæus was more or less ardent, it certainly was not peculiar to him. There were hardly any limits to the enthusiasm habitually expressed in ancient times for the poetry of Sappho. In respect to the abundance of laurels, she stands unapproached among women, even to the present day. Ælian preserves the tradition that the recitation of one of her poems so affected the great lawgiver Solon, that he expressed the wish that he might not die till he had learned it by heart. Plato called her the tenth Muse. Others described her as uniting in herself the qualities of Muse and Aphrodite; and others again as the joint foster-child of Aphrodite, Cupid, and the Graces. Grammarians lectured on her poems and wrote essays on her metres; and her image appeared on at least six different coins of her native land. And it has generally been admitted by modern critics that “the loss of her poems is the greatest over which we have to mourn in the whole range of Greek literature, at least of the imaginative species.”
Now why is it that, in case of a woman thus famous, some cloud of reproach has always mingled with the incense? In part, perhaps, because she was a woman, and thus subject to harsher criticism in coarse periods of the world’s career. More, no doubt, because she stood in a transition period of history, and, in a contest between two social systems, represented an unsuccessful effort to combine the merits of both. In the Homeric period the position of the Greek woman was simple and free. In the Iliad and Odyssey she is always treated with respect; unlike the great poems of modern Europe, they do not contain an indelicate line. But with the advancing culture of the Ionian colonies, represented by Athens, there inevitably arose the question, what to do with the women. Should they be admitted to share this culture, or be excluded? Athens, under the influence of Asiatic models, decided to exclude them. Sparta and the Dorian colonies, on the other hand, preferred to exclude the culture. It was only the Æolian colonies, such as Lesbos, that undertook to admit the culture and the women also. Nowhere else in Greece did women occupy what we should call a modern position. The attempt was premature, and the reputation of Lesbos was crushed in the process.
Among the Ionians of Asia, according to Herodotus, the wife did not share the table of her husband; she dared not call him by his name, but addressed him with the title of “Lord”; and this was hardly an exaggeration of the social habits of Athens itself. But among the Dorians of Sparta, and probably among the Æolians as well, the husband called his wife “mistress,” not in subserviency, but after the English peasant fashion; Spartan mothers preserved a power over their adult sons such as was nowhere else seen; the dignity of maidenhood was celebrated in public songs, called “Parthenia,” which were peculiar to Sparta; and the women took so free a part in the conversation, that Socrates, in a half-sarcastic passage in the Protagoras, compares their quickness of wit to that of the men. The Spartan women, in short, were free, though ignorant, and this freedom the Athenians thought bad enough. But when the Æolians of Lesbos carried the equality a step further, and to freedom added culture, the Athenians found it intolerable. Such an innovation was equivalent to setting up the Protestant theory of woman’s position as against the Roman Catholic, or the English against the French.
It is perhaps fortunate for historic justice that we have within our reach an illustration so obvious, showing the way in which a whole race of women may be misconstrued. If a Frenchman visits America and sees a young girl walking or riding with a young man, he is apt to assume that she is of doubtful character. Should he hear a married woman talk about “emancipation,” he will infer either that her marriage is not legal, or that her husband has good reason to wish it were not. Precisely thus did an Athenian view a Lesbian woman; and if she collected round her a class of young pupils for instruction, so much the worse. He could no more imagine any difference between Sappho and Aspasia, than could a Frenchman between Margaret Fuller and George Sand. To claim any high moral standard, in either case, would merely strengthen the indictment by the additional count of hypocrisy. Better Aspasia than a learned woman who had the effrontery to set up for the domestic virtues. The stories that thus gradually came to be told about Sappho in later years—scandal at longer and longer range—were simply inevitable, from the point of view of Athens. If Aristophanes spared neither Socrates nor Euripides, why should his successors spare Sappho?
Therefore the reckless comic authors of that luxurious city, those Pre-Bohemians of literature, made the most of their game. Ameipsias, Amphis, Antiphanes, Diphilus, Ephippus, Timocles, all wrote farces bearing the name of a woman who had died in excellent repute, so far as appears, two centuries before. With what utter recklessness they did their work is shown by their naming as her lovers Archilochus, who died before she was born, and Hipponax, who was born after she died. Then came, in later literature, the Roman Ovid, who had learned from licentious princesses to regard womanly virtue as only a pretty fable. He took up the tale of Sappho, conjured up a certain Phaon, with whom she might be enamored, and left her memory covered with stains such as even the Leucadian leap could not purge. Finally, since Sappho was a heathen, a theologian was found at last to make an end of her; the Church put an apostolic sanction upon these corrupt reveries of the Roman profligate, and Tatian, the Christian Father, fixed her name in ecclesiastical tradition as that of “an impure and lovesick woman who sings her own shame.”
The process has, alas! plenty of parallels in history. Worse, for instance, than the malice of the Greek comedians or of Ovid—since they possibly believed their own stories was the attempt made by Voltaire to pollute, through twenty-one books of an epic poem, the stainless fame of his own virgin countrywoman, Joan of Arc. In that work he revels in a series of impurities so loathsome that the worst of them are omitted from the common editions, and only lurk in appendices, here and there, as if even the shameless printing-presses of Paris were ashamed of them. Suppose, now, that the art of printing had remained undiscovered, that all contemporary memorials of this maiden had vanished, and posterity had possessed no record of her except Voltaire’s “Pucelle.” In place of that heroic image there would have remained to us only a monster of profligacy, unless some possible Welcker had appeared, long centuries after, to right the wrong.
The remarkable essay of Welcker, from which all modern estimates of Sappho date, was first published in 1816, under the title, “Sappho vindicated from a prevailing Prejudice.” It was a remarkable instance of the power of a single exhaustive investigation to change the verdict of scholars. Bishop Thirlwall, for instance, says of it: “The tenderness of Sappho, whose character has been rescued, by one of the happiest efforts of modern criticism, from the unmerited reproach under which it had labored for so many centuries, appears to have been no less pure than glowing.” And Felton, who is usually not more inclined than becomes a man and a professor to put a high estimate on literary women, declares of her that “she has shared the fortunes of others of her sex, endowed like her with God’s richest gifts of intellect and heart, who have been the victims of remorseless calumny for asserting the prerogatives of genius, and daring to compete with men in the struggle for fame and glory.” Indeed, I know of no writer since Welcker who has seriously attempted to impugn his conclusions, except Colonel Mure, an Edinburgh advocate, whose onslaught upon Sappho is so vehement that Felton compares it to that of John Knox on Mary Stuart, and finds in it proof of a constitutional hostility between Scotch Presbyterians and handsome women.
But Mure’s scholarship is not high, when tried by the German standard, whatever it may be according to the English or American. His book is also somewhat vitiated in this respect by being obviously written under a theory, namely, that love, as a theme for poetry, is a rather low and debasing thing; that the subordinate part it plays in Homer is one reason why Homer is great; and that the decline of literature began with lyric poetry. “A ready subjection,” he says, “to the fascinations of the inferior order of their species can hardly be a solid basis of renown for kings or heroes.” Such a critic could hardly be expected to look with favor upon one who not only chose an inferior order of themes, but had the temerity to belong to an inferior order herself.
Apart from this, I am unable to see that this writer brings forward anything to disturb the verdict of abler scholars. He does not indeed claim to produce any direct evidence of his proposition that Sappho was a corrupt woman, and her school at Lesbos a nursery of sins; but he seeks to show this indirectly, through a minute criticism of her writings. Into this he carries, I regret to say, an essential coarseness of mind, like that of Voltaire, which delights to torture the most innocent phrases till they yield a double meaning. He reads these graceful fragments as the sailors in some forecastle might read Juliet’s soliloquies, or as a criminal lawyer reads in court the letters of some warm-hearted woman; the shame lying not in the words, but in the tongue. The manner in which he gloats over the scattered lines of a wedding song, for instance, weaving together the phrases and supplying the innuendoes, is enough to rule him out of the class of pure-minded men. But besides this quality of coarseness, he shows a serious want of candor. For though he admits that Sappho first introduced into literature (in her epithalamia) a dramatic movement, yet he never gives her the benefit of this dramatic attitude except where it suits his own argument. It is as if one were to cite Browning into court and undertake to convict him, on his own confession, of sharing every mental condition he describes.
What, then, was this Lesbian school that assembled around Sappho? Mure pronounces it to have been a school of vice. The German professors see in it a school of science. Professor Felton thinks that it may have resembled the Courts of Love in the Middle Ages. But a more reasonable parallel, nearer home, must occur to the minds of those of us who remember Margaret Fuller and her classes. If Sappho, in addition to all that the American gave her pupils, undertook the duty of instruction in the most difficult music, the most complex metres, and the profoundest religious rites, then she had on her hands quite too much work to be exclusively a troubadour or a savante or a sinner. And if such ardent attachments as Margaret Fuller inspired among her own sex were habitually expressed by Sappho’s maiden lovers, in the language of Lesbos instead of Boston, we can easily conceive of sentimental ardors which Attic comedians would find ludicrous and Scotch advocates nothing less than a scandal.
Fortunately we can come within six centuries of the real Lesbian society in the reports of Maximus Tyrius, whom Felton strangely calls “a tedious writer of the time of the Antonines,” but who seems to me often to rival Epictetus and Plutarch in eloquence and nobleness of tone. In his eighth dissertation he draws a parallel between the instruction given by Socrates to men and that afforded by Sappho to women. “Each,” he says, “appears to me to deal with the same kind of love, the one as subsisting among males, the other among females.” “What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phœdrus are with Socrates, that Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria are with the Lesbian. And what those rivals Prodicus, Gorgias, Thrasymachus, and Protagoras are to Socrates, that Gorgo and Andromeda are to Sappho. At one time she reproves, at another she confutes these, and addresses them in the same ironical language with Socrates.” Then he draws parallels between the writings of the two. “Diotima says to Socrates that love flourishes in abundance, but dies in want. Sappho conveys the same meaning when she calls love ‘sweetly bitter’ and ‘a painful gift.’ Socrates calls love ‘a sophist,’ Sappho ‘a ringlet of words.’ Socrates says that he is agitated with Bacchic fury through the love of Phœdrus; but she that ‘love shakes her mind as the wind when it falls on mountain-oaks.’ Socrates reproves Xantippe when she laments that he must die, and Sappho writes to her daughter, ‘Grief is not lawful in the residence of the Muse, nor does it become us.’”
Thus far Maximus Tyrius. But that a high intellectual standard prevailed in this academy of Sappho’s may be inferred from a fragment of her verse, in which she utters her disappointment over an uncultivated woman, whom she had, perhaps, tried in vain to influence. This imaginary epitaph warns this pupil that she is in danger of being forgotten through forgetfulness of those Pierian roses which are the Muses’ symbol. This version retains the brevity of the original lines, and though rhymed, is literal, except that it changes the second person to the third: —
Dying she reposes;
Oblivion grasps her now;
Since never Pierian roses
Were wreathed round her empty brow;
She goeth unwept and lonely
To Hades’ dusky homes,
And bodiless shadows only
Bid her welcome as she comes.
To show how differently Sappho lamented her favorites, I give Elton’s version of another epitaph on a maiden, whom we may fancy lying robed for the grave, while her companions sever their tresses around her, that something of themselves may be entombed with her.
This dust was Timas’; ere her bridal hour
She lies in Proserpina’s gloomy bower;
Her virgin playmates from each lovely head
Cut with sharp steel their locks, the strewments for the dead.
These are only fragments; but of the single complete poem that remains to us from Sappho, I shall venture on a translation, which can only claim to be tolerably literal, and to keep, in some degree, to the Sapphic metre. Yet I am cheered by the remark of an old grammarian, Demetrius Phalereus, that “Sappho’s whole poetry is so perfectly musical and harmonious, that even the harshest voice or most awkward recital can hardly render it unpleasing to the ear.” Let us hope that the Muses may extend some such grace, even to a translation.
HYMN TO APHRODITE.
Beautiful-throned, immortal Aphrodite!
Daughter of Zeus, beguiler, I implore thee,
Weigh me not down with weariness and anguish,
O, thou most holy!
Come to me now! if ever thou in kindness
Hearkenedst my words, — and often hast thou hearkened,
Heeding, and coming from the mansions golden
Of thy great Father,
Yoking thy chariot, borne by thy most lovely
Consecrated birds, with dusky-tinted pinions,
Waving swift wings from utmost heights of heaven
Through the mid-ether:
Swiftly they vanished; leaving thee, O goddess,
Smiling, with face immortal in its beauty,
Asking what I suffered, and why in utter longing
I had dared call thee;
Asking what I sought, thus hopeless in desiring,
’Wildered in brain, and spreading nets of passion
Alas, for whom? and saidst thou, “Who has harmed thee?
O my poor Sappho!
“Though now he flies, erelong he shall pursue thee;
Fearing thy gifts, he too in turn shall bring them;
Loveless to-day, to-morrow he shall woo thee,
Though thou shouldst spurn him.”
Thus seek me now, o holy Aphrodite!
Save me from anguish, give me all I ask for,
Gifts at thy hand; and thine shall be the glory,
It is safe to say that there is not a lyrical poem in Greek literature, nor in any other, which has, by its artistic structure, inspired more enthusiasm than this. Is it autobiographical? The German critics, true to their national instincts, hint that she may have written some of her verses in her character of pedagogue, as exercises in different forms of verse. It is as if Shakespeare had written his sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” only to show young Southampton where the rhymes came in. Still more difficult is it to determine the same question—autobiographical or dramatic?—in case of the fragment next in length to this poem. It has been well engrafted into English literature through the translation of Ambrose Phillips, as follows: —
TO A BELOVED WOMAN.
Blest as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee, all the while,
Softly speak and sweetly smile.
’T was that deprived my soul of rest,
And raised such tumult in my breast;
For while I gazed, in transport tost,
My breath was gone, my voice was lost.
My bosom glowed; the subtile flame
Ran quick through all my vital frame;
On my dim eyes a darkness hung;
My ears with hollow murmurs rung.
With dewy damps my limbs were chilled;
My blood with gentle horrors thrilled;
My feeble pulse forgot to play;
I fainted, sunk, and died sway.
The translation would give the impression that this is a complete poem; but it is not. A fragment of the next verse brings some revival from this desperate condition, but what exit is finally provided does not appear. The existing lines are preserved by Longinus in the eighth chapter of his famous book, “On the Sublime”; and his commentary is almost as impassioned as the poem. “Is it not wonderful how she calls at once on soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, color, — as on so many separate deaths, — and how in self-contradiction and simultaneously she freezes, she glows, she raves, she returns to reason, she is terrified, she is at the brink of death? It is not a single passion that she exhibits, but a whole congress of passions.” The poem thus described, while its grammatical formations show it to have been addressed by a woman to a woman, is quite as likely to have been dramatic as autobiographical in its motive. It became so famous, at any rate, as a diagnosis of passion, that a Greek physician is said to have “copied it bodily into his book, and to have regulated his prescriptions accordingly.”
All that remains to us of Sappho, besides, is a chaos of short fragments, which have been assiduously collected and edited by Wolf, Blomfield, Neue, and others. Among the spirited translations by our own poet Percival, there are several of these fragments; one of which I quote for its exceeding grace, though it consists only of two lines: —
Sweet mother, I can weave the web no more;
So much I love the youth, so much I lingering love.
But this last adjective, so effective to the ear, is, after all, an interpolation. It should be: —
So much I love the youth, by Aphrodite’s charm.
Percival also translates one striking fragment whose few short lines seem to toll like a bell, mourning the dreariness of a forgotten tryst, on which the moon and stars look down. I should render it thus: —
The moon is down;
And I’ve watched the dying
Of the Pleiades;
’T is the middle night,
The hour glides by,
And alone I’m sighing.
Percival puts it in blank verse, more smoothly: —
The moon is set; the Pleiades are gone;
’Tis the midnoon of night; the hour is by
And yet I watch alone.
There are some little fragments of verse addressed by Sappho to the evening star, which are supposed to have suggested the celebrated lines of Byron; she says, —
O Hesperus, thou bringest all things,
Thou bringest wine, thou bringest [home] the goat,
To the mother thou bringest the child.
Again she says, with a touch of higher imagination, —
Hesperus, bringing home all that the light-giving morning has scattered.
Grammarians have quoted this line to illustrate the derivation of the word Hesperus; and the passage may be meant to denote, not merely the assembling of the household at night, but the more spiritual reuniting of the thoughts and dreams that draw round us with the shadows and vanish with the dawn.
Achilles Tatius, in the fifth century, gave in prose the substance of one of Sappho’s poems, not otherwise preserved. It may be called “The Song of the Rose.”
“If Zeus had wished to appoint a sovereign over the flowers, he would have made the rose their king. It is the ornament of the earth, the glory of plants, the eye of the flowers, the blush of the meadows, a flash of beauty. It breathes of love, welcomes Aphrodite, adorns itself with fragrant leaves, and is decked with tremulous petals, that laugh in the zephyr.”
Indeed, that love of external nature, which is so often mistakenly said to have been wanting among the Greeks, is strongly marked in Sappho. She observes “the vernal swallow and the melodious nightingale, Spring’s herald.” “The moon,” she elsewhere says, “was at the full, and they [the stars] stood round her, as round an altar.” And again, “The stars around the lovely moon withdraw their splendor when, in her fulness, she most illumines earth.”
Of herself Sappho speaks but little in the fragments left to us. In one place she asserts that she is “not of malignant nature, but has a placid mind,” and again that her desire is for “a mode of life that shall be elegant and at the same time honest,” the first wish doing credit to her taste, and the other to her conscience. In several places she confesses to a love of luxury, yet she is described by a later Greek author, Aristides, as having rebuked certain vain and showy women for their ostentation, while pointing out that the pursuits of intellect afford a surer joy. It is hardly needful to add that not a line remains of her writings which can be charged with indecency; and had any such existed, they would hardly have passed unnoticed or been forgotten.
It is odd that the most direct report left to us of Sappho’s familiar conversation should have enrolled her among those enemies of the human race who give out conundrums. Or rather it is in this case a riddle of the old Greek fashion, such as the Sphinx set the example of propounding to men, before devouring them in any other manner. I will tender it in plain prose.
There is a feminine creature who bears in her bosom a voiceless brood; yet they send forth a clear voice, over sea and land, to whatsoever mortals they will; the absent hear it; so do the deaf.
This is the riddle, as recorded by Antiphanes, and preserved by Athenæus. It appears that somebody tried to guess it. The feminine creature, he thought, was the state. The brood must be the orators, to be sure, whose voices reached beyond the seas, as far as Asia and Thrace, and brought back thence something to their own advantage; while the community sat dumb and deaf amid their railings. This seemed plausible, but somebody else objected to the solution; for who ever knew an orator to be silent, he said, until he was put down by force? All of which sounds quite American and modern. But he gave it up, at last, and appealed to Sappho, who thus replied: —
A letter is a thing essentially feminine in its character. It bears a brood in its bosom named the alphabet. They are voiceless, yet speak to whom they will; and if any man shall stand next to him who reads, will he not hear?
It is not an exciting species of wit. Yet this kind of riddle was in immense demand in Greek society, and “if you make believe very hard, it’s quite nice.” But it seems rather a pity that this memorial of Sappho should be preserved, while her solemn hymns and her Epithalamia, or marriage-songs, which were, as has been said, almost the first Greek effort toward dramatic poetry, are lost to us forever.
And thus we might go on through the literature of Greece, peering after little grains of Sappho among the rubbish of voluminous authors. But perhaps these specimens are enough. It remains to say that the name of Phaon, who is represented by Ovid as having been her lover, is not once mentioned in these fragments, and the general tendency of modern criticism is to deny his existence. Some suppose him to have been a merely mythical being, based upon the supposed loves of Aphrodite and Adonis, who was called by the Greeks Phæthon or Phaon. It was said that this Phaon was a ferryman at Mitylene, who was growing old and ugly till he rowed Aphrodite in his boat, and then refused payment; on which she gave him for recompense youth, beauty, and Sappho. This was certainly, “Take, O boatman, thrice thy fee,” as in Uhland’s ballad; but the Greek passengers have long since grown as shadowy as the German, and we shall never know whether this oarsman really ferried himself into the favor of goddess or of dame. It is of little consequence; Sappho doubtless had lovers, and one of them may as well have been named Phaon as anything else.
But to lose her fabled leap from the Leucadian promontory would doubtless be a greater sacrifice; it formed so much more effective a termination for her life than any novelist could have contrived. It is certain that the leap itself; as a Greek practice, was no fable; sometimes it was a form of suicide, sometimes a religious incantation, and sometimes again an expiation of crime. But it was also used often as a figure of speech by comfortable poets who would have been sorry to find in it anything more. Anacreon, for instance, says in an ode, “Again casting myself from the Leucadian rock, I plunge into the gray sea, drunk with love”; though it is clear that he was not a man to drown his cares in anything larger than a punch-bowl. It is certainly hard to suppose that the most lovelorn lady, residing on an island whose every shore was a precipice. and where her lover was at hand to feel the anguish of her fate, would take ship and sail for weary days over five hundred miles of water to seek a more sensational rock. Theodor Kock, the latest German writer on Sappho, thinks it is as if a lover should travel from the Rhine to Niagara to drown himself. “Are not Abanar and Pharpar rivers of Damascus?” More solid, negative proof is found in the fact that Ptolemy Hephæstion, the author who has collected the most numerous notices of the Leucadian leap, entirely omits the conspicuous name of Sappho from his record. Even Colonel Mure, who is as anxious to prove this deed against her as if it were a violation of all the ten commandments, is staggered for a moment by this omission; but soon recovering himself; with an ingenuity that does him credit as attorney for the prosecution, he points out that the reason Ptolemy omitted Sappho’s name was undoubtedly because it was so well known already; a use of negative evidence to which there can be no objection, except that under it any one of us might be convicted of having died last year, on the plea that his death was a fact too notorious to be mentioned in the newspapers.
But whether by the way of the Leucadian cliff or otherwise, Sappho is gone, with her music and her pupils and most of the words she wrote, and the very city where she dwelt, and all but the island she loved. It is something to be able to record that, twenty-five centuries ago, in that remote nook among the Grecian Isles, a woman’s genius could play such a part in moulding the great literature that has moulded the world. Colonel Mure thinks that a hundred such women might have demoralized all Greece. But it grew demoralized at any rate; and even the island where Sappho taught took its share in the degradation. But if the view taken by modern criticism be correct, a hundred such women might have done much to save it. Modern nations must take up again the problem where Athens failed and Lesbos only pointed the way to the solution; to create a civilization where the highest culture shall be extended to woman also. It is not enough that we should dream, with Plato, of a republic where man is free and woman but a serf. The aspirations of modern life culminate, like the greatest of modern poems, in the elevation of womanhood. Die ewige Weibliche sieht uns hinan.
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