Sappho’s poetic fragments


7th-6th centuries BC

(The tenth muse expresses beauty, love, and the contents of her heart.)


Detail from "Woman with wax tablets and stylus", a fresco from about 50 AD, discovered in Pompei in 1760, commonly called "Sappho".  Courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.


Αιαι.  Aiai!  If only our dinner hosts still upheld the custom of ordering beautiful recitations over the wine!  So it was in the days when some, at least, still believed in the Muses.  On one of these evenings, Solon the Athenian stopped his nephew Execestides, who had just sung a song.  “Teach it to me,” he said.  Then he turned to an inquiring fellow guest.  “I want to learn it and die.” (Aelian, in Stobaeus’ Anthology 29.58).  The ancients spoke of only one poet in such tones: Sappho (Σαπφώ, spelled in her dialect Ψάπφω).  Strabo called her the greatest poetess (Geography 13.617).  Her people the Mytilenaeans engraved her on their coins (Pollux, Vocabulary 9.84).  Plato called her the tenth muse (Palatine Anthology 9.506).  We can surmise, then, how precious her works must have been to these many admirers through the centuries, these classical devotees of expression and imagery.  Once, a volume of her poetry was taken from the town hall of Syracuse.  “How sorely this stolen Sappho was missed," moaned Cicero, “is almost more than words can tell” (Orations against Verres 2.4.57).  Who would have thought that anything could even "almost" leave our eloquent Tully at a loss for words!  But just imagine how his tongue would have failed him if not just one volume but her entire works had been stolen, and not just from a town library but from the whole world!  For we are in this very state today, by some unhappy accident of history.  All we have of her nine books of poetry are a couple hundred fragments, most of them mere words or phrases that scholars have gleaned painstakingly from quotations throughout Greek and Latin literature.  A great irony lies in the epitaph Pinytus wrote for her, whose promise has sadly failed:  “This tomb hath the bones and the dumb name of Sappho, but her wise utterances are immortal” (Palatine Anthology 7.16).

As a consolation for the loss of her works, we can perhaps be excused for inordinate attention to what others have said of her.  We know very little about her life, so one biography says it as well as any:


“Daughter of Simon or of Eunominus, or of Eurygyus, or of Ecrytus, or of Semus, or of Scamon, or of Euarchus, or of Scamandronymus; mother’s name Cleïs.  A Lesbian of Eresus, a lyric poetess; flourished in the 42nd Olympiad [B.C. 612-609] along with Alcaeus, Stesichorus, and Pittacus.  She had three brothers, Larichus, Charaxus, Eurygyus.  She was married to a very rich man named Cercolas (or Cercylas) who came from Andros, and had by him a daughter named Cleïs.  She had three companions or friends, Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara, to whom she was slanderously declared to be bound by an impure affection.  Her pupils or disciples were Anagora of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon, Euneica of Salamis.  She wrote nine Books of Lyric Poems, and was the inventor of the quill for striking the lyre.  She wrote also ‘inscriptions,’… She threw herself from the Leucadian Cliff for love of Phaon the Mytilenaean.”  (Suidas, Lexicon)

During the last century another strange accident of history occurred.  A second barrier has fallen inexplicably between this poet and us.  Given the reverence with which so many regarded the beauty and wisdom of her thought, we should not be surprised that her name, and the name of her island, would be memorialized in our culture, two and a half millennia after she lived.  The surprising turn is that these names do not, in our modern usage, refer to or remind us at all of the master poet’s work or thought! Sapphic and Lesbian have been reduced in popular culture to the so-called “slander” Suidas mentioned.  This must half-tempt us to believe again in those old gods—surely this is typical Olympian wrangling!  Which of those hypersensitive deities, we may well wonder, felt threatened enough by Sappho’s brilliance to bribe or coerce Tyche, goddess of fortune, to obscure her name for all history?  If Tyche was at all voluntary in this, she got her just deserts in Roman times, when she too was reduced to a sexual epithet.

So what is this beauty that has been lost?  What moved the philosophers and embittered the titans?  In poetry as in other literature it is satisfying to rely on one’s own reading as much as possible.  And, fortunately, the fragments are sufficient for us to see for ourselves at least part of the answer.  However, in this case extraordinary value lies in the descriptions of those who have read what we never will.  Statements on her life and work by her fellow Greeks (and some Romans) are a valuable complement to her fragments.  Her commentators tell a fairly consistent story.  Here are some high points:

 “The Romans tell how Cacus son of Vulcan sent forth fire and flames from his mouth; and Sappho utters words really mingled with fire, and gives vent through her song to the heat that consumes her heart, thus ‘healing’ in the words of Philoxenus ‘the pain of love with the melodies of the Muse.’”

-Plutarch, Amatorius 18.


“The verbal beauty and the charm… lie in the cohesion and smoothness of the joinery.  Word follows word inwoven according to certain natural affinities and groupings of the letters…”

-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Literary Composition 23.


“…we should find the source of sublimity in the invariable choice of the most suitable ideas, and the power to make these a single whole by combining them together”.

- Longinus, On the Sublime 10.


“…when Sappho sings of beauty her words are full of beauty and sweetness, and the same when she sings of love and springtime and the halcyon, and the pattern of her poetry is inwoven with every beautiful word there is, some of them made by herself.”

-Demetrius, On Style 166.

The beauty of Sappho’s poetry for me, I think—for what I like about poetry often eludes me—lies in the convergence of three qualities that balance and holistically reinforce each other.  There are poets of skillful evocation; and then there are poets of wisdom and insight; and then there are poets of intense vulnerability.  Sublime rhetoric can seem at odds with the quiet inwardness of discernment, which in turn can seem too dry and objective for an open heart.  Yet Sappho has all three of these qualities, drawing from each of them in turn or even in a single phrase.  (I suppose it is not too surprising that many of the phrases that have happened to be preserved allow us to see her voice so clearly, since that would have been a good reason for another author to quote her.)

Surely part of her facility with words lies in her wonderful figures of speech, such as the repetition of words for effect (anaphora); as well as her ability to say two things at once with a well-placed word.  But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of her craft is what several of her commentators above refer to as inweaving or joinery of words and ideas.  She accomplishes description not only by the individual meanings of the words she uses, but also by an effect, quite separate from the component words, resulting from their combination.  When something is too beautiful to trample with a word, she frames it elegantly with several so that she need not say the thing itself:  when feet are “pressing the soft smooth bloom of the grass” (book VI, fragment 114), she shows us much about the feet and those who are stepping, seemingly without describing them at all.

In Sappho, this descriptive skill is put to good use with a penetrating eye of the mind.  Her beautiful words are not cast away on middling sentiments, but are the worthy messengers of beautiful ideas.  Those of us who relish the stately aesthetic of the Greek outlook and the emphasis on excellence in our aims and behaviors, might wish in vain to have been one of her hetairai (ἐταίραι), her peer-devotees, engaged in long fervent discussions on love, goodness, and probably especially, beauty.  Sappho was captivated by beauty, and quick to love it wherever it manifested itself, especially in people.  Love itself was another focus of her thought, and even a single short line about it in her poetry is telling, as in III.69 when she mentions that Love (romantic love, the god Ἔρως) “comes from heaven and throws off his purple mantle”.  This is the entire fragment, but from it we are reminded (if indeed we have felt this) that despite the earthly abode of love, one feels as though it comes from elsewhere, from Above.  It is no wonder that some worship it, and that so many believe it to be the most wonderful thing in the universe.  Love, it seems, has set aside claims of royalty to deign to fraternize with mere plebes like us… and thus, it deserves better than our treatment of it.  All this from one line?  Luckily we can support this interpretation with other fragments.  In III.75 she concurs with a Platonic character Diotima in an idea that Eros is not the child but the servant (θεράπων) of Aphrodite.  Romantic love is not divine itself, it serves divinity.  And in V.92 she criticizes prostitution, and by extension promiscuity.  How can something be precious if it is merely that “which any man may have for the asking”?

Not all of her thought is devoted to beauty and love, however.  A couple of striking (and very typically Greek!) fragments are III.71, where she warns that both earthly remembrance and happiness in the afterlife depend on how we have educated and edified ourselves in this life; and V.100 where she speaks of wealth (πλουτος, ploutos) as dangerous by itself, but most fortunate along with virtue (ἀρετή, arete).

Much more common in Sappho’s fragments than her general thoughts on any subject, even love, are the direct expressions of her soul, her own elation or suffering, her ardent affection or bitter jealousy.  In fragment I.12 she does not surprise us when she claims to sing “for the delight of my comrades”, as so many of her poems seem to admit us to her private circle.  Her personality and emotions speak in many of her surviving lines, even though these would probably not be the lines that Greek philosophers and historians would have considered the most memorable (although today’s might).  We might therefore speculate that Sappho’s poetry was even more personal in tone than the fragments or her commentators reveal.  Some of the more endearing of these kinds of fragments are her admissions of vulnerability or human foibles, such as wanting a husband older than she is (V.99), praying that she escapes wrinkles (VI.113), or even missing her virginity (IX.159).  With respect to old age, as recently as 2004 a new manuscript discovery revealed several more lines of an intimate poem of Sappho’s on this subject (additions to fragment 118): heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
...that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.
This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

She laments, then looks backward beautifully at the romance of youth, and finally trudges back to the present with frank clumsy phrases like an old cane hitting the floor with every step.  But surely even the beauty of her expression recedes somewhat from our attention when, in her openness to us, she draws us to love her.
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GLEANINGS  (Sapphisms?)

Sappho clearly delighted in inventing words, especially compounds.

The standard Liddell & Scott Lexicon of Ancient Greek attributed at least a couple to her:

  • ποικιλόθρον' (poikilothron), “splendor-throned”, of Aphrodite (fragment 1)
  • δολοπλόκας (doloplokas), “wile-weaving”, also of Aphrodite (134)

But, with due respect, I must point out that they get a couple of others wrong:

  • μαψυλάκαν (mapsylakan), “idly-barking”, a wagging of the tongue (137). (This word is attributed to Pindar in the Lexicon, but here we see it over a century earlier in Sappho!)
  • πολυστέφανος (polystephanos), “many-garlanded”, attributed figuratively to the earth (133).  (The Lexicon credits Aeschylus with this, but nope, Sappho said it first!)

One of my favorite words is:

  • χρυσοπέδιλλος (chrysopedillos), “golden-sandaled”, used of the dawn (19).  (Granted, golden sandals are mentioned of Artemis and Hermes in the Odyssey and of Hera in the Theogony, but the beauty of its use here is as a compound and metaphorical descriptor, and this is all Sappho’s.)

Here are a good bunch the Lexicon’s word-hunters apparently missed—

  • ἀχρυσόφανες (chrysophanes), “golden-shining”, of Aphrodite’s handmaid (24)
  • ἀλγεσίδωρον (algesidoron), “pain-giver”, of Love (28)
  • μυθόπλοκον (mythoplokon), “tale-weaver”, also of Love! (28)
  • μελλιχοφώναις (melichophonais), “gentle-voiced”, of maidens (30) (Aristaenetus in his Letters calls this “Sappho’s most delightful word”)
  • θελξίμβροτον (thelximbroton), “man-beguiling”, of Persuasion, daughter of Aphrodite (33)
  • ἀπαλοσφύρων (apalosphyron), “dainty-ankled”, of maidens (66)
  • ὐμνοχέτος (hymnochetos), “hymn-outpouring”, of the attitude of a soul in worship (86A)
  • ἀϊπάρθενος (aiparthenos), “evermaiden” (152)

Let’s bring some of these into English!  How about “She walked with apalosphyrine steps” of “sang a melichophonaic aria” or “stuck out her lip in that thelximbrotic way”.  Maybe not.  Perhaps compounds, even beautiful ones, work best in their original language, where people can keep track of the concatenated meanings.  At the very least they should be inducted into the Lexicon.

(By the way, the ancient Greek alphabet and pronunciation can be learned pretty easily.  See, for example,
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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE (translated from ancient Greek by J. M. Edmonds.  Roman numerals refer to the books (the first eight organized by meter and the ninth containing Epithalamies, or wedding songs).  Arabic numerals refer to the extant fragments as Edmonds numbered them in 1922, reprinted in the Loeb Classical Library, from 1 to 192).


The words I begin are words of air, but, for all that, good to hear.

-1a (Introductory poem).


 Aphrodite splendour-throned immortal, wile-weaving child of Zeus, to thee is my prayer.



It is to be a God, methinks, to sit before you and listen close by to the sweet accents and winning laughter which have made the heart in my breast beat fast, I warrant you.  When I look on you, Brocheo, my speech comes short or fails me quite, I am tongue-tied; in a moment a delicate fire has overrun my flesh, my eyes grow dim and my ears sing, the sweat runs down me and a trembling takes me altogether, till I am as green and pale as the grass, and death itself seems not very far away



Around the fair moon the bright beauty of the stars is lost them when her silver light illumes the world at its fullest.



And by the cool waterside the breeze rustles amid the apple-branches, and the quivering leaves shed lethargy



But I have received true prosperity from the golden Muses, and when I die I shall not be forgotten.

-I.11 (a conjectural construction).


...those I have done good to, do me the greatest wrong.



Dearest Offspring of Earth and Heaven

-I.31, “To Love”.


Man-beguiling daughter of Aphrodite

-I.33, “To Persuasion” (a conjectural construction).


…and as for thee, thou black and baleful she-dog, thou mayst set that evil snout to the ground and go a-hunting other prey.

-I.36, “To the Nereids” (these lines to Doricha or Rhodopis, a famous courtesan whom Sappho’s brother loved).


The fairest thing in all the world some say is a host of foot, and some again a navy of ships, but to me ‘tis the heart’s beloved.

-I.38, “To Anactoria”.


Gentle dames, how you will evermore remember till you be old, our life together in the heyday of youth!  For many things did we then together both pure and beautiful.  And now that you depart hence, love wrings my heart with very anguish.



I would render your beauty the sacrifice of all my thoughts and worship you with all my feelings.



I could not expect to touch the sky with my two arms.



As for me, love has shaken my wits as a down-rushing whirlwind that falls upon the oaks.

-II.54 (a conjectural construction).


He that is fair is fair to outward show; He that is good will soon be fair also.



…come from heaven and throw off his purple mantle.

-III.69 (of Love).


Stir not the jetsam.

-IV.78 (i.e., let sleeping dogs lie).


Up my lute divine, and make thyself a thing of speech



Lo!  Love the looser of limbs stirs me, that creature irresistible, bitter-sweet



Death is an ill; the Gods at least think so, Or else themselves had perished long ago.



Wealth without worth is no harmless housemate; but the blending of the two is the top of fortune.



I will have neither honey nor bees

-V.106  (i.e., if I can’t get honey without a sting, I’d rather not have it at all).


Gold is a child of Zeus; no moth nor worm devours it, and it overcomes the strongest of mortal hearts.

-V.110  (a conjectural construction).


 The Moon is gone

And the Pleiads set,

Midnight is nigh;

Time passes on,

And passes; yet

Alone I lie.



Thus of old did the dainty feet of Cretan maidens dance pat to the music beside some lovely altar, pressing the soft smooth bloom of the grass.



When anger swells in the heart, restrain the idly-barking tongue.



Like the hyacinth which the shepherd tramples underfoot on the mountain, and it still blooms purple on the ground.



Can it be that I still long for my virginity?



To what, dear bridegroom, may I well liken thee?

To a slender sapling do I best liken thee.


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…you are curious about an ancient poetess whose work was much loved and praised, but is largely lost;

or, wish to sample tantalizing fragments of expressive beauty.



(For the hetairoi, the faithful comrades, of Greek lyric poetry:)

  • Alcman, poems and fragments (7th century BC)
  • Alcaeus of Mytilene, poems and fragments (7th-6th century BC)
  • Anacreon, Odes (570–488 BC)
  • Pindar, Odes (522–443 BC)

For the admirers of female poetic expressions of love, beauty, and emotion:

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), poems
  • Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), poems
  • Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), poems
  • Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), poems



I cannot tell a lie: I am partial to the Loeb edition as usual, for its scholarly excellence and Greek & English on facing pages.

But here is a more recent translation that has received good reviews:


Stanley Lombardo's translation, known for evoking Sappho's tone:

English and Greek on facing pages, translated by classicist and poet Anne Carson:

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