The Ancient Library

Scanned text contains errors.


lived in the strictest seclusion, and that hence the free intercourse of women of ability, such as Sappho and her numerous friends, would lead to the opinion among Athenians that she pursued an immoral life. Plaus­ible, however, as this reasoning is, it is very far from being satisfactory; and it is impossible to read the fragments which remain of Sappho's po­etry without being forced to come to the conclusion that a female who could write such verses could not be the pure and virtuous woman which her modern apologists pretend.1

But whatever doubt there may be as to the moral character of Sappho, there can be only one opinion as to her poetic genius. It is almost super­fluous to refer to the numerous passages in which the ancient writers have expressed their unbounded admiration of her productions. In true poetic genius she appears to have been fully equal to Alceeus, and far su­perior to him in grace and sweetness. Of all Greek lyric poets, she is the one, perhaps, who, in her own peculiar branch of inspiration, was held to have attained most nearly to perfection. She was complimented with the title of the " Tenth Muse," and already in her own age, if we may believe an interesting tradition, the recitation of one of her poems so af­fected Solon that he expressed an earnest desire to learn it before he died (iVa fj-adkv avrb a.TroOdvco').2 Strabo speaks of her as i&auftaaWj/ ri xp?}-jtca,3 and the praises and imitations of her by Catullus and Horace are too well known to require any mention here. The fragments that survive of her poetry, though some of them are exquisite, barely furnish a sample of the surpassing beauty of the whole. They are chiefly of an erotic character ; and at the head of this .class must be placed that splendid ode to Venus, of which we possess the whole, and next to it the shorter one to a beloved female.

Sappho is described, by the only authors who have transmitted any distinct notices on the subject, as not distinguished for personal beauty, but as short in stature, and of dark, it may be understood swarthy, com­plexion. The laudatory commonplace of /caA.4 or " fair," wiiich Plato and others connect with her name, implies nothing more, perhaps less, than does the English term by which the Greek epithet has here been rendered, and which is as frequently bestowed, in familiar usage, on plain as on handsome women. Alceeus describes her simply as " dark-haired," and sweetly smiling.

The lyric .poems of Sappho formed nine books. She appears also to have composed a large number of hymeneals, or nuptial songs, of which we possess some very beautiful fragments. Her hymns invoking the gods (ol K\f)TLKo\ vfj.voi) are mentioned by the rhetorician Menander,* who tells

1 Consult, on this subject, Welcker, Sappho von einem herrsch. Vorurth. befreyet, Gott., 1816, and in his Kleine Schr., vol. ii., p. 80, seqq.; Mutter, Hist. Gr. Lit., p. 172, seqq. Bode, Gesch. der Hell. Dichtk., vol. ii., pt. ii., p. 411, seqq.; Neue, Sapphonis Fragmenta; Vlriti, Gesch. der Hell. Dichtk., vol. ii., p. 359, seqq.; Richter, Sappho und Erinna. We have adopted in the text the views of Mure, who gives the whole matter a very careful and fair examination (Crit. Hist., vol. iii., p. 290, seqq., and Appendix F, p. 497, seqq.'). In the larger Biographical Dictionary of Smith, Sappho's character is warmly defended, in the abridgment of the same work it is condemned.

'•"• Milan, ap. Stob-.Sfrm., xxix,, 58, 3 Strab,, xiii., p. 617. * Encom., i., 2,

About | Preface | Contents | Index



page #  
Search this site
All non-public domain material, including introductions, markup, and OCR © 2005 Tim Spalding.