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Definition: Sappho from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The Greek poetess of Lesbos, known as the TENTH MUSE. She lived c.600 bc, and is fabled to have thrown herself into the sea from the Leucadian promontory in consequence of her advances having been rejected by the beautiful youth Phaon.

Alexander Pope used the name in his Moral Essays (II) for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) . See also ATOSSA; SAPHO.


A four-lined stanza-form of classical lyric poetry, named after SAPPHO of Lesbos, who employed it, the fourth line being an Adonic. There must be a caesura after the fifth syllable of each of the first three lines which run thus:

- ∪ | - - | - | | ∪ ∪ | - ∪ | - ∪

The Adonic is:

- ∪ ∪ | - ∪ or - -

The first and third stanzas of the Ode of Horace, Integer vitae, i (1st century bc), may be translated thus, preserving the metre:

He of sound life, who ne'er with singers wendeth,

Needs no Moorish bow, such as malice bendeth,

Nor with poisoned darts life from harm defendeth.

Fuscus, believe me.

Once I, unarmed, was in a forest roaming,

Singing love lays, when i’ the secret gloaming

Rushed a huge wolf, which though in fury foaming

Did not aggrieve me.

Probably the best example of Sapphics in English is George Canning's ‘Needy Knife-grinder’ (1797), which begins:

Needy Knife-grinder! whither are you going?

Rough is the road, your wheel is out of order -

Bleak blows the blast; - your hat has got a hole in't.

So have your breeches.


Another name for lesbianism. See also LESBIAN.

Sappho of Toulouse, The

Clémence Isaure (c.1450-c.1500), a lady of Toulouse who composed an Ode to Spring and who is legendarily supposed to have founded and endowed the Jeux Floraux, the Toulouse Academy, which gives an annual prize of poetry. In fact the Academy was founded by the TROUBADOURS in 1323 and originally known as the Consistoire du Gai Savoir (‘Consistory of the Gay Science’).

Summary Article: Sappho
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Sappho of Lesbos (late seventh/early sixth century BCE) was the most famous woman poet of antiquity. We have almost no reliable data about her life, except that she may have had a daughter named Kleis (fr. 132) and a brother (fr. 5), called Charaxos by Herodotus (Histories 2.135). The Marmor Parium records that she went to Sicily as an exile; if correct, this might reflect involvement in the political struggles of early sixth-century Mytilene. Sappho was said, most improbably, to have languished in love for the (mythical) ferryman Phaon and to have ended her life with a lover's leap.

Her songs, in a variety of lyric meters, including the four-line "Sapphic stanza," use a literary version of the Aiolic Greek spoken on Lesbos. Almost all her works survive only as fragments. Like other Archaic Greek lyric poems, some texts were excerpted or paraphrased by later writers, and others have been recovered in tattered papyrus rolls from Greco-Roman Egypt. How the different kinds of songs were first performed (whether by a chorus or a solo performer, and for what kinds of audience) is a matter of lively controversy. In the third century BCE, Alexandrian scholars collected the works transmitted under Sappho's name and edited them in nine (or ten) books, the divisions based largely on meter.

Sappho's extant work is diverse. It includes wedding songs, personal (but not necessarily autobiographical) poems that correspond to the modern notion of "lyric," and an extended mythological narrative (fr. 44, on the wedding of Hektor and Andromache). A number of poems are addressed to gods, especially Aphrodite and the Muses; the extent to which these were performed as actual cult songs (most likely for women's cults) is debated. Her work includes many mythological examples, such as the love of Dawn that could not save Tithonus from old age (fr. 58, recently expanded by an important papyrus find: Greene and Skinner 2009). Sappho is best known for poems poignantly describing the speaker's symptoms of erotic love for a male or (especially) female subject – especially fr. 31, which brilliantly describes the psychological and physiological effects of watching a desired woman.

Portrait of Sappho from Pompeii, holding a writing-stylus and tablets (fresco, 62-69 CE, Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Naples). Photograph © Mimmo Jodice/Corbis.

Ever controversial is the question of Sappho's, or the poetic Sappho-persona's, relationship to the many "girls" (paides) mentioned in her songs, whether with affection, desire, or contempt. It is plausible that such poems were a means to induct young women, who perhaps performed the songs themselves, into adulthood, a passage also marked with ritual activities centered on Aphrodite. Homosexual liaisons may have been part of this process, as was the case with young men in a number of Greek cities. Sappho's work gives oblique but valuable insights into the culture of Archaic Lesbos, including its aristocratic familial rivalries and its close ties to Asia Minor (especially Sardis, frr. 96, 98), and into an otherwise almost unattested world of female relationships and sensibilities.


Alkaios of Mytilene; Homosexuality (female); Homosexuality (male).

References and Suggested Readings
  • Campbell, D. A., ed. (1982) Greek lyric, vol. 1. Cambridge, MA.
  • Greene, E.; Skinner, M., eds. (2009) The new Sappho on old age: textual and philosophical issues. Cambridge, MA.
  • Lardinois, A. (1996) Who sang Sappho's songs? In Greene, E. , ed., Reading Sappho: contemporary approaches: 150-72. Berkeley.
  • Voigt, E.-M., ed. (1971) Sappho et Alcaeus. Amsterdam.
  • Williamson, M. (1995) Sappho's immortal daughters. Cambridge, MA.
  • Deborah Boedeker
    Wiley ©2012

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