Sappho of Lesbos

Sappho was born about 630 B.C on the island of Lesbos off the coast of Asia Minor and spent most of her life there; she was married and had a daughter. “Sappho’s poems give us the most vivid evocation of the joys and sorrows of love in all Greek literature.” (336) Her themes are those of a woman’s world –girlhood, marriage, and love, especially the love of young women for each other:

“Swiftly then they came, and you, blessed lady, smiling on me out of immortal beauty, asked me what affliction was on me, why I called thus upon you, what beyond all else I would have befall my tortured heart: ‘Whom then would you have Persuasion force to serve desire in your heart? …’

Sappho lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, where women often congregated and, among other social activities, shared poetry they\'d written. Sappho\'s poems usually focus on the relationships among women. This focus has given rise to speculation that Sappho\'s interest in women was what today would be called homosexual or lesbian. (The word "lesbian" comes from the island of Lesbos and the communities of women there.) This may be an accurate description of Sappho\'s feelings towards women, but it may also be accurate that it was more acceptable in the past for women to express strong passions towards one another, whether the attractions were sexual or not.

Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite" is a prayer to Aphrodite to intercede and "set [her] free from doubt and sorrow." The woman Sappho desires has not returned her love. Sappho calls on Aphrodite to descend with her chariot drawn by sparrows as she did before, and repair her \'tortured heart" by smiling on her and assuring her that her love will return her love even if unwillingly. The beauty of this poem lies in both the craft and the comfortable conversational tone.

"Like the very gods in my sight is he" depicts Sappho again in despair because the object of her love is directing her attention elsewhere. She describes the man sitting next to her love as a god, yet he seems godlike primarily because he is the object of her attentions, because he can see her and hear her soft, sweet voice and her laughter. The first half of the poem, then, reveals her jealousy of the man who is receiving the attentions and love of the woman Sappho desires. The second part of the poem echoes the first in the negative. While the man who can feel, see, and hear the woman is elevated to a god, she who can not is left near death. She is unable to speak, unable to feel, unable to hear, unable to see. She becomes so physically ill, that she believes she is close to death. Her agony reduces her (to death, to annihilation) in proportion to the way in which love elevates the man (to the stature of a god).