Sappho's Poetry: Implications for Classical Greece Research Proposal

Pages: 6 (2025 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature

Sappho's Poetry:

Implications for Classical Greece and Modern Times

Throughout history, artists have reflected and offered commentary on the society of which they are a part. Because their works become immortal, people can have an understanding of different societies centuries after civilizations have disappeared. The works of poets, musicians, novelists, essayists, and the like allow readers across time to form opinions both about the societies in which the works are written and modern times. Sappho, the early Greek poet, gives readers that opportunity. Sappho, who wrote in the area of 630 B.C., was a wealthy lyrist who influenced both modern music and poetry. Because of her privileged family situation she was able to study the arts in the cultural center of Lesbos, becoming a revered poet who made a transition in lyric poetry that has impacted the great poetry of the years following her work. Sappho was "one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally."

Before Sappho, many poems were written as if by the gods

. This and other lasting contributions to poetry and music, as well as the cannon of literature, suggest Sappho's importance and application to today. A study of her poetry has implications for both her own society, as well as today's social construction.

In her own society, Sappho's poetry allows readers to draw conclusions about women's roles, homosexuality, and the values of her culture. The fact that North calls Sappho "one of the few known female poets of the ancient world" suggests that an emphasis was placed on male patrons of the arts and artists in ancient Greece

. Still, the fact that she was able to write poetry, study art, and become a famous and respected poet even in her time suggests that women were not barred from recognition. Indeed, North writes that though she was expelled from Lesbos "for a time because of political activities in her family, she spent this time in Sicily," where she was so accepted that a statue was commissioned in her honor

. As most of Sappho's poetry was written about women and to women, it can be used to further dissect their role in society

. For instance, Sappho's poem, "Hymn to Aphrodite," suggests that goddesses were revered and held great amounts of power, just as gods did in Sappho's time. To illustrate this, Sappho's poem invokes the name of the goddess to end her suffering. Sappho calls the goddess, "immortal Aphrodite," and reaches out to her with impassioned, pleading words. Aphrodite responds by showing Sappho her own strength, saying that she could make the one who has alluded Sappho in love give her gifts and love her.

The speed with which Aphrodite answers Sappho's plea and the distress with which the poem's narrator cries out to the goddess implies that women during Sappho's time felt very strongly about love and romantic relationships. Further, the poem implies that women were sincere in their desires for such relationships. At least the narrator in Sappho's poem feels anguish when her love is not reciprocated.

Another implication that can be gleaned from Sappho's poetry is the camaraderie that women shared. In "Hymn to Aphrodite," the reader can gauge the relationship between the mortal and goddess as a confidential relationship, almost one that implies the women were friends. The narrator of Sappho's poem gives the reader a pretense of familiarity when she says -- "Hither come as once before thou camest." Indeed, Sappho goes on to show that Aphrodite not only came to the speaker before, but also proved to extinguish her grief, saying that Aphrodite came "When from afar thou heard'st my voice lamenting."

This suggests that the goddess Aphrodite and the narrator of Sappho's poem share a bond in which Aphrodite is happy to heal Sappho's longing heart.

This female bond is also expressed in Sappho's other works. North states that most of the subjects of her poems were, indeed, female, and she often invokes female gods, such as Aphrodite.

In the short poem, "Before They Were Mothers," Sappho suggests that this female bond might be one that ends with marriage and/or childrearing.

Indeed, North argues that Sappho's relationship with the women that she was writing to did not conform to the modern standard of traditional friendship. Instead, homosexual relationships were implied. North suggests that the lovers that Sappho mentions were "often one of the many women sent to her for education in the arts." He notes that Sappho "wrote poems of love and adoration to them, and…composed their wedding songs" when they planned to marry.

This implies not only that homosexuality was accepted in Sappho's culture, but that her love for the women was genuine, since she agreed to let them go with such impunity. The best textual example of this can be seen in a fragment translated by Mary Barnard. In this poem, Sappho begins by writing:

I have not had one word from her

Frankly I wish I were dead.

She goes on to narrate the parting remarks of a woman with whom Sappho had a romantic relationship, implied by sensual images that the poem's narrator called "our gifts to Aphrodite."

The woman had fiercely declared her love for the narrator, suggesting an acceptance to this homosexual relationship. Further, the fact that Sappho wrote about the subject so openly certainly suggests that it was accepted during this time.

While Sappho's poetry certainly suggests that women played an important, if underestimated role, in her society, that they valued romantic love, chose each other for confidantes, and often experienced sexual relationships with each other, the verses also reinforced traditional Greek values. Sappho's collection of poems and fragments makes clear that if homosexual relationships were normalized, heterosexual relationships were still the more common, perhaps even the permanent relationship that women would enter after experimenting with homosexuality among their female peers. Williamson suggests that heterosexual marriage was still the main social institution that defined women during ancient Greek times, as these marriages served as social cohesion by uniting the right families. Further, Williamson suggests the importance of a pure, or virgin, bride.

Perhaps, women's sexual relationships with other women were not considered damaging to the virginity, which is why they were viewed with normalcy.

The importance of the gods, music and the lyre, and warfare and heroism are also widely established in the collection. Thus, Sappho's poetry gives the reader great insight about the norms of her time. Because she is one of the few female Greek poets whose works can be studied, regardless of how fragmented they are, Sappho's poetry gives the reader great insight where women fell on the social ladder during her time period, in addition to how love and homosexuality were treated, while still emphasizing the traditional values of ancient Greek culture.

Despite the fact that Sappho's poetry allows the reader to experience so much of ancient culture, her words also have great implications for today. This is especially true in the areas of gender and homosexuality. On the discovery of a new poem by Sappho, one in which she discusses aging with her students, the poet discusses her growing age in terms of her hair, which is beginning to turn white and her aching knees, Altman writes of the poet's universality and ability to apply to modern times. She writes that Sappho's "voice seems to speak to us so directly that we have to resist the temptation to immediately cover the text with our own preoccupations."

Although Altman suggests that the reader should avoid this when considering Sappho's text, using a poem to encompass one's own thoughts and feelings is exactly what good poetry is intended to do. The fact that Sappho's words about getting older continue to apply to women in the 21st century is rather remarkable. Thus, Sappho's poetry is universal and timeless. It has implications to today's woman because today's woman can feel what Sappho describes in her work -- love, longing, erotic fantasy or pining, and distress. The implications of this are that struggles have been remarkably similar for women, and human kind, across time. Despite the fact that Sappho's poetry might have emphasized the Greek values of war and heroism, it also touched upon the fact that women, from time to time, have longings that hurt so terribly that they cry out to a deity, are distracted by a good looking man, or long for friendships that have long passed. Viewed in this way, Sappho's poetry suggests that while cultures change, human nature remains remarkably untouched.

Further, Altman argues that Sappho's poetry has feminist implications. In the newly discovered poem describing old age and referencing the story of Tithonos, the scholar suggests that "feminists will be particularly interested by the way Sappho reverses gender roles in picking up [the story of Tithonos]."

That is, Sappho, after suggesting that she, herself, is getting old, discusses the aging of Tithonos. She not only identifies with the man, but also "seems… [END OF PREVIEW]

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