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Sappho and the Lyric Poets

Extracts from J. A. Symonds' The Greek Poets  *

Several circumstances contributed to aid the development of lyric poetry in Lesbos. The customs of the Aeolians permitted more social and domestic freedom than was common in Greece. Aeolian women were not confined to the harem like Ionians, or subjected to the rigorous discipline of the Spartans. While mixing freely with male society, they were highly educated, and accustomed to express their sentiments to an extent unknown elsewhere in history - until, indeed, the present time. The Lesbian ladies applied themselves successfully to literature. They formed clubs for the cultivation of poetry and music. They studied the arts of beauty, and sought to refine metrical forms and diction. Nor did they confine themselves to the scientific side of art. Unrestrained by public opinion, and passionate for the beautiful, they cultivated their senses and emotions, and indulged their wildest passions. All the luxuries and elegances of life which that climate and the rich valleys of Lesbos could afford were at their disposal; exquisite gardens, where the rose and hyacinth spread perfume; river-beds ablaze with the oleander and wild pomegranate; olive-groves and fountains, where the cyclamen and violet flowered with feathery maiden-hair; pine-tree- shadowed coves, where they might bathe in the calm of a tideless sea; fruits such as only the southern sun and sea-wind can mature; marble cliffs, starred with jonquil and anemone in spring, aromatic with myrtle and lentisk and samphire and wild rosemary through all the months; nightingales that sang in May; temples dim with dusky gold and bright with ivory; statues and frescos of heroic forms. In such scenes as these the Lesbian poets lived, and thought of love. When we read their poems, we seem to have the perfumes, colors, sounds, and lights of that luxurious land distilled in verse. Nor was a brief but biting winter wanting to give tone to their nerves, and, by contrast with the summer, to prevent the palling of so much luxury on sated senses. The voluptuousness of Aeolian poetry is not like that of Persian or Arabian art. It is Greek in its self-restraint, proportion, tact. We find nothing burdensome in its sweetness. All is so rhythmically and sublimely ordered in the poems of Sappho that supreme art lends solemnity and grandeur to the expression of unmitigated passion.

The world has suffered no greater literary loss than the loss of Sappho's poems. So perfect are the smallest fragments preserved in Bergk's Collection - the line, for example (p. 890), eros angelos himerophônos aêdôn,(1) which Ben Jonson fancifully translated, "the dear glad angel of the spring, the nightingale" - that we muse in a sad rapture of astonishment to think what the complete poems must have been. Among the ancients Sappho enjoyed a unique renown. She was called "The Poetess," as Homer was called "The Poet." Aristotle quoted without question a judgment that placed her in the same rank as Homer and Archilochus. Plato in the Phaedrus mentioned her as the tenth muse. Solon, hearing one of her poems, prayed that he might not see death till he had learned it. Strabo speaks of her genius with religious awe. Longinus cites her love-ode as a specimen of poetical sublimity. The epigrammatists call her Child of Aphrodite and Eros, nursling of the Graces and Persuasion, pride of Hellas, peer of Muses, companion of Apollo. Nowhere is a hint whispered that her poetry was aught but perfect. As far as we can judge, these praises were strictly just. Of all the poets of the world, of all the illustrious artists of all literatures, Sappho is the one whose every word has a peculiar and unmistakable perfume, a seal of absolute perfection and inimitable grace. In her art she was unerring. Even Archilochus seems commonplace when compared with her exquisite rarity of phrase.

About her life - her brother Charaxus, her daughter Cleis, her rejection of Alcaeus and her suit to Phaon, her love for Atthis and Anactoria, her leap from the Leucadian cliff - we know so very little, and that little is so confused with mythology and turbid with the scandal of the comic poets, that it is not worth while to rake up once again the old materials for hypothetical conclusions. There is enough of heart-devouring passion in Sappho's own verse without the legends of Phaon and the cliff of Leucas. The reality casts all fiction into the shade; for nowhere, except, perhaps, in some Persian or Provençal love-songs, can be found more ardent expressions of overmastering emotion. Whether addressing the maidens, whom even in Elysium, as Horace says, Sappho could not forget; or embodying the profounder yearnings of an intense soul after beauty, which has never on earth existed, but which inflames the hearts of noblest poets, robbing their eyes of sleep and giving them the bitterness of tears to drink-these dazzling fragments,

Which still, like sparkles of Greek fire,
Burn on through time and ne'er expire,

are the ultimate and finished forms of passionate utterance, diamonds, topazes, and blazing rubies, in which the fire of the soul is crystallized forever. Adequately to translate Sappho was beyond the power of even Catullus: that love-ode which Longinus called "not one passion, but a congress of passions," and which a Greek physician copied into his book of diagnoses as a compendium of all the symptoms of corroding emotion, appears but languid in its Latin dress of "Ille mi par." Far less has any modern poet succeeded in the task: Rossetti, who deals so skilfully with Dante and Villon, is comparatively tame when he approaches Sappho. Instead of attempting, therefore, to interpret for English readers the charm of Sappho's style,* it is best to refer to pp. 874-924 of Bergk, where every vestige that is left of her is shrined.

Beside Sappho, Alcaeus pales. His drinking-songs and war-songs have, indeed, great beauty; but they are not to be named in the same breath, for perfection of style, with the stanzas of Sappho. ...

(Vol. I., pp 308-311)

Sappho and the love poems of Alcaeus

Of the erotic poems of Alcaeus, only a very few and inconsiderable fragments have survived. Horace says of them, addressing his lyre (De Nat. Deorum, i. 28.):

Thou, stung by Lebos' minstrel hand,
The bard who 'mid the clash of steel,
Or haply mooring to the strand,
      His battered keel,

Of Bacchus and the Muses sung,
      And Cupid, still at Venus' side,
And Lycus, beautiful and young,
      Dark-haired, dark eyed.
Lesbio primum civi,
Qui ferox bello, tamen inter arma,
Sive jactatam religârat udo
Littore navim,

Liberum et Musas Veremque et illi
Semper haerentem puer canebat;
Et Lycum nigris oculis nigroque
Crine decorum.

Of Lycus we only know, on the authority of Cicero (De Nat. Decorum, i. 28.) that he had a wart on his finger, which Alcaeus praised in one of his poems. It has also been conjectured that the line oinos, hô phile pai, kai alathea - "wine, dear boy, and truth" - which Theocritus quotes as a proverb at the beginning of his Aeolic Idyl, was addressed to Lycus. A fragment of far greater interest is the couplet preserved by Hephaestion, in which Alcaeus calls on Sappho by her name: "Violet-crowned, pure, sweet-smiling Sappho! I want to say something, but shame prevents me." To this declaration Sappho replied: "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 speak thy just desires." This is all we know about the love-passages between the greatest lyrists of the Aeolian school. In this way do the ancient critics tantalize us. Aristotle (Rhet. i. 9), in order to illustrate a moral proposition, Hephaestion, with a view to proving a metrical rule, fling these scraps of their wealth forth, little dreaming that after twenty centuries the men of new nations and other thoughts will eagerly collect the scraps, and long for more of that which might have been so freely lavished. Whether Sappho wrote her reply in maidenly modesty because the advances of Alcaus were really dishonorable, or whether she affected indignation to conceal a personal dislike for the poet, we cannot say. Aristotle or Hephaestion might, probably, have been able to tell us. But the one was only thinking of the signs of shame, while the attention of the other was riveted upon the "so-called dodecasyllable Alcaic."

(Vol. I., pp. 314-15).

Between the temperaments of Horace and of Alcaeus, as between those of Catullus and of Sappho, there were marked similarities and correspondences. The poetry of both Horace and Alcaeus was polished rather than profound, admirably sketched rather than richly colored, more graceful than intense, less passionate than reflective. In Sappho and Catullus, on the other hand, we meet with richer and more ardent natures: they are endowed with keener sensibilities, with a sensuality more noble because of its intensity, with emotions more profound, with a deeper faculty of thought, that never loses itself in the shallows of "Stoic Epicurean acceptance," but simply and exquisitely apprehends the facts of human life.

(Vol. 1, pp. 316)

Sappho and Anacreon

To the list of Aeolian poets, Anacreon, though an Ionian by birth and an Ionian in temperament, is generally added, because he cultivated the lyrical stanza of personal emotion. Into the Aeolian style Anacreon introduced a new and uncongenial element. His passion had none of Sappho's fiery splendor, none of the haughtiness and restlessness which distinguished Alcaeus. There was a vein of levity, almost of vulgarity, in the Ionians, which removed them from the altitudes of Dorian heroism and Aeolian enthusiasm. This tincture of flippancy is discernible in Anacreon. Life and love come easily to him. The roses keep no secrets for his ears, such as they told to Sappho: they serve very well for garlands when he drinks, and have a pleasant smell, especially in myrrh. The wine-cup does not suggest to him variety of seasons - the frozen streams of winter, the parched breath of the dog-star - as with Alcaeus: he tipples and gets drunk. His loves, too, are facile - neither permanent nor tempestuous. The girls and boys of whom he sings were flute-players and cup-bearers, servants of a tyrant, instrumenta libidinis, chosen for their looks, as the poet had been selected for the sweetness of his lyre with twenty chords. He never felt the furnace of Sappho, whose love, however criminal in the estimation of modern moralists, was serious and of the soul. The difference between the lives of these three lyrists is very striking. Alcaeus was a politician and party leader. Sappho was the centre of a free society of female poets. Anacreon was the courtier and laureate of tyrants.

(Vol. 1, pp. 317-318)

Sappho and Ibycus

Ibycus was regarded in antiquity as a kind of male Sappho. His odes, composed for birthday festivals and banquets, were dedicated chiefly to the praise of beautiful youths; and the legends which adorned them, like those of Ganymede or Tithonus, were appropriate to the erotic style. Aristophanes, in this Thesmophoriazusae, makes Agathon connect him with Anacreon and Alcaeus, as the three refiners of language. It is clear, therefore, that in his art Ibycus adapted the manner of Dorian poetry to the matter of Aeolian or Ionian love chants. The following seems to strike the keynote of his style: "Love once again looking upon me from his cloud-black brows, with languishing glances, drives me by enchantments of all kinds to the endless nets of Cypris: verily I tremble at his onset, as a chariot-horse, who hath won prizes, in old age goes grudgingly to try his speed in the swift race of cars." In another piece he Ibycus compares the onset of Love to a downrush of the Thracian north wind armed with lightning. This fragment, numbered first in Bergk's Collection, is taken from Athenaeus, who quotes it to prove the vehement emotion of the poet

In spring Cydonian apple-trees,
Watered by fountains ever flowing
Through crofts unmown of maiden goddesses,
And young vines, 'neath the shade
Of shooting tendrils, tranquilly are growing.
Meanwhile for me Love never laid
In slumber, like a north-wind glowing
With Thracian lightnings, still doth dart
Blood-parching madness on my heart,
From Kupris hurtling, stormful, wild,
Lording the man as erst the child.

It is interesting to compare the different metaphors whereby the early lyrists imaged the assaults of the Love-god. Sappho describes him in one place as a youth arrayed with a flame-colored chlamys descending from heaven; in another she calls him "a limb-dissolving, bitter-sweet, impracticable wild beast;" again, she compares the state of her soul under the influence of love to oak-trees torn and shaken by a mountain whirlwind. Anacreon paints a fine picture of Love like a blacksmith, forging his soul and tempering it in icy torrents. The dubious winged figure armed with a heavy sword, which is carved upon the recently discovered column from the Temple of Ephesus, if he be the Love-god, and not, as some conjecture, Death, seems to have been conceived in the spirit of these energetic metaphors. The Greeks, at the period of Anacreon and Ibycus, were far from having as yet imagined the baby Cupid of Moschus, the Epigrammatists, and the Alexandrian Anacreontics. He was still a terrible and passion-stirring power - no mere malicious urchin coming by night with drenched wings and unstrung bow to reward the poet's hospitality by wounding him; no naughty boy who runs away from his mother and steals honeycombs, no bee-like elf asleep in rosebuds.

(Vol. I., pp. 326-27)

1. Compare Simonides (Bergk, vol. iii. p. 1143)

angele kluta hearos aduomou,
kuania chelidoi

Blithe angel of the perfume-breathing spring,
Dark-vested swallow.

Extracts are from John Addington Symonds, The Greek Poets (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1901). This web version uses italicized headings that are not in the original, and intertwines all but one of Symonds' footnotes into the body of the text. Scanned for Peithô's Web by Agathon (RSB).

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