In Search of Sappho

In a fragment of a Hellenistic elegy called “Loves, or the Beautiful Boys,” by a certain Phanocles, we are told that after the legendary poet Orpheus was torn to pieces by the women of Thrace, his head and his lyre—the instrument from which lyric poetry derives its name—were borne by the waves to the island of Lesbos, where they were subsequently buried. This geography was hardly casual. By Phanocles’ time, Lesbos had long been associated with exceptional achievement in the lyric arts. The reputation of a poet called Terpander, for instance, who came from the Lesbian city of Antissa and is listed on an extant monument as the winner of a song competition that occurred in the 670s BC, was such that he was credited—apocryphally, undoubtedly—with having invented the seven-stringed lyre. (He is also said to have founded music schools in Sparta.)

Two generations later, Arion, another Lesbian poet, served as a kind of artist-in-residence at the court of the Corinthian tyrant Periander, where he was responsible for raising the genre known as dithyramb to new expressive heights. It is this same Arion, as Herodotus charmingly relates, who is said to have been rescued by a dolphin after being mugged and thrown overboard by hooligans during a voyage home from Syracuse.

But no Lesbian poets were more famous or influential in antiquity than two who, of Arion’s contemporaries, were most renowned for their lyric songs: Alcaeus and Sappho. Both came from the hothouse social milieu of the Lesbian aristocracy, which was known as much for its political intrigues as for its love of pleasure and beauty, a love that in the classical Greek imagination was associated with the slightly decadent cultures that flourished in the coastal cities of Asia Minor, just across a narrow strip of water from Lesbos. The two poets, not surprisingly, seem to have known each other. (There is a fragment of Sappho, quoted by Aristotle, which has often been taken to be a playful dialogue between the two.)

And yet the surviving poems and fragments of these two bespeak wildly divergent interests. Those of Alcaeus suggest a person, or at least a poetic persona, along the lines of an Elizabethan rake: there are drinking songs, war songs, and quite a few verses, often bitter ones, about the tumultuous political situation in Mytilene, Lesbos’s largest city and the two poets’ hometown. The first-century-BC scholar and critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who taught Greek to Romans, dryly noted that without the meter, certain of Alcaeus’ poems read like political speeches.

The poems of Sappho, whose reputation a scant century after her death was such that Plato could refer to her as “the Tenth Muse,” are famously preoccupied, on the other hand, almost solely by erotic yearning for young women. If Sappho’s extraordinary gifts bring to mind the rich lyric tradition of her homeland, and thus suggest why Phanocles had Orpheus end up there, it is her subject matter that explains why the …

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