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Woirld Poetry Project: Mytilene Lyricists

Updated on December 28, 2011
The isle of Lesbos
The isle of Lesbos
Sappho and Alcaeus on ancient Athenian pottery
Sappho and Alcaeus on ancient Athenian pottery
Sappho and Erinne in a Victorian era representation
Sappho and Erinne in a Victorian era representation

Before I begin, I feel I should say a few things about ancient history and our liabilities in pursuing it. We speak of figures of ancient history as if we know them, but often we know little or nothing about them. We possess scraps of knowledge from which we work whole tapestries. We tend to stress differences that appear important to us, now, in our social conditions, but these same differences might have had little meaning, or a very different meaning, in their own day. In dealing with one of the poets of today's entry, Sappho, we will have to address sexuality in ancient Greece, specifically with lesbianism. This is a highly charged political and social issue in our day, but it does not appear to have been one in Sappho's time, at least, there is no evidence that her homoerotic themes hindered her popularity in any way or affected the way in which she was treated as a member of Mytilene society. It is our problem with homosexuality and female eroticism that create the problem with Sappho. She has nothing to do with it, and neither does ancient Greece.

Today, I am looking at the selections from Mytilene's great ancient lyric poets, Alcaeus and Sappho, contained in World Poetry . Alcaeus and Sappho were contemporaries, and they knew of one another, if they did not have personal contact. They lived during a period of disturbance. Alcaeus as a man, a citizen, and therefore a participant in the polis suffered more directly from these disturbances than did Sappho, as changes in the polis directly impinged on his career prospects, but they are both producing very personal poetry at a time of public disorder on the island of Lesbos. The appearance of two such gifted lyricists at the same time on this small island was explained by the ancients by the following myth: after the Thracian women tore apart Orpheus, the father of song, his head and his lyre were buried on Lesbos.

Sappho, an aristocratic woman, possibly married, though some scholars say not, saying that her supposed husband's name was no more than an off-color joke, lived at the center of a school of women, either a cult devoted to Aphrodite or a more casual association of ancient Greek blue-stockings seeking to serve the Muses (the Arts). She does not write of politics or war, but of her loves and her life within the walls of a solid, respectable house. It is for her lyrics of love and desire that she is remembered.

The objects of Sappho's desire are women, the girls of her household. Legend has it that she threw herself into the sea when rejected by an arrogant man named Phaon, but her lyrics do not show a passion for men or an eye for their beauty. She is jealous, not desirous, of her friends husbands. Men are the beings like gods that take away her loves, uprooting them and planting them far from her.

He seems to be a god, that man

Facing you, who leans to be close,

Smiles, and, alert and glad, listens

To your mellow voice

Note that here Sappho details the behavior of the man, whose presence in her love's gaze makes into a god, with the jealous details regarding posture and intimacy a lover has for one who has taken her place in the attention and affection of the beloved. It is the undetailed love, the woman, who is the center around which both Sappho and the new man orbit, Sappho at a greater distance than the man.

My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,

Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,

My eyes cannot see and my aching ears

Roar in their labyrinths.

Here is the agony of love pushed aside, spurned, of love defeated and favor granted to another. It is a physical agony, with physical symptoms and affects. And it is not different from a man's suffering in the same situation. Love is love, dark and dangerous, fiery and passionate, sweet and sure, for both men and women.

Sappho's loves are a litany of losses, for the demands of Grecian society for suitable women to bear suitable heirs to the oikos makes all residents of her home temporary. These are young women destined to leave her behind. The following is to another of her loves, "Anaktoria":

Anaktoria so far away, remember me,

Who had rather

Hear the melody of your walking

And see the torch flare of your smile

Than the long battle line of Lydia's charioteers,

Round shields and helmets.

The hunger of the heart, of love, is here surpasses the hunger of the battlefield: Aphrodite surpasses Ares.

It is not only in depicting the heart's conditions of passion and loss that Sappho is gifted, however. These descriptive lines from "Horses in Flowers" are hers as well:

Where Leaf melody

In the apples

Is a crystal crash,

And the water is cold,

All roses and shadow,

This place, and sleep

Like dusk sifts down

From trembling leaves.

Sappho's eroticism is frank without being pornographic, and this is something that poets will have to struggle with long after she is gone. How does one successfully portray the body's desires without crossing the line from art into vulgarity?

Percussion, salt and honey,

A quivering in the thighs;

He shakes me all over again,

Eros who cannot be thrown,

Who stalks on all fours

Like a beast.

We have less of Alcaeus' poetry than we do Sappho's, testifying to her popularity in ancient times. She was preserved, while most of Alcaeus was lost. His poetry reflects his more complex relations with the world outside the home, the complications that came upon him as a citizen, as a warrior, as a member of the political community. Sappho could devote her attention to the joys and sorrows of love alone, but Alcaeus's world was wider and he could not. This might have made him a lesser poet. Certainly he does not, I believe, achieve the power of Sappo's lyrics in his own. However, his world is a world of consequences, of payments, immediate and delayed, for actions taken.

Listen to both the poets on the character of Helen. First, Sappho from "Anaktoria":

Heart's hunger all can understand.

Did not she up and leave the best of men,

Helen that beautifullest of all womankind?

Now, Alcaeus:

And now how many brothers of Paris

lie planted in black earth

across the plains of Troy?

All for that woman, chariots ground to dust,

noble, olive-skinned men all slaughtered

on her behalf.

Sappho takes the woman's part, the bravery and heroism of Helen in rising to the call of love. Alcaeus takes the man's part, speaking for the dead who were slain in her cause, to get her back within the established relationships of contract and possession that governed the political world.

Sappho's ability to find goods at market were compromised by the instability of Lesbos during her lifetime. What of Alcaeus? How did political instability affect his life?

I long for the call to council

that I will never hear.

Driven from the land that was my father's,

from the land that was his father's before him,

the citizens bicker and battle

as I enter my exile, a wolf in his thicket…

wandering the scorched, black world…

Here we have the dissolution of an oikos , the death of a household that had long stood, its last son cast out and bitter. The polis is shaken, and from it fall the young men of the houses. The answer to such instability, to such loss, is wine:

Come drink, and celebrate

while we are young. Later,

whatever sufferings we undergo

we will…the north wind blows.

What cannot be fixed can be let go. Alcaeus does not see a solution to suffering, only feels its presence and retreats into indifference before fate, into surrender to what will come when it comes. Until then, drink, forget.

Acknowledging Sappho's passion for women does not help us judge her as a poet. Only the force of her lyrics can do that. Does she evoke the mood of passion? Yes, and very well. Alcaeus evokes despair, and he does so well. They are lyricists on different emotional registers, but the lyrics of each are strong. Alcaeus lacks the solitude afforded Sappho. He has no bier to retreat into, no grove to walk on his own, but is by his position and his gender involved in social and political relationships and expectations that shape his reactions to events and guide his subject matter. Sappho gives her all to life behind the walls.


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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very well done, both from a historical viewpoint and in terms of explaining and interpreting the poetic qualities of their writing. I spent three years in Greece as a young girl and I love the map and pictures. Hope to read more in the future. Nice work

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you very much Deborah. A happy new year to you as well.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      Excellent.. I love reading this.. Great History lesson..

      I voted up and awesome

      Happy New Year.