Know Your School of Athens Poets: Sappho

7:00 AM

Raphael, School of Athens, 1510

I have no complaint 
prosperity that 

the golden Muses 
gave me was no 
delusion: dead, I 
won't be forgotten
-Sappho

Sappho: poet, lyricist, lesbian? It’s astonishing that a female intellectual from 620 B.C. is most renowned for her sexual preferences. Many of her poems chronicle the angst and frustrations of love. Sappho married a merchant and lived a comfortable life studying the arts and writing poetry on the island of Lesbos. She taught many female students in the ways of the art, and more often than not had affairs with them. Many of her students are the subjects of her more, shall we say, affectionate poems. For centuries, scholars and gossips alike focused more on the homoeroticism in her poems and social life than her genius. While this aspect of her life may be the most provocative, I don’t think it’s quite what Sappho meant when she said she wouldn’t be forgotten.

I love Sappho’s poetry, though I have seen little of it. The few works that have withstood time are only fragments of a larger collection. Too many poems have been lost entirely or almost, but we can tell from the remains that Sappho was rightly ranked among the best. Her use of lyric made her poetry accessible and beautiful, and she has been hailed as one of the greatest female poets in Greece. Plato called her the tenth Muse (he has the power to do that, apparently.) Sappho was the first poet to write in the first person. Her poems are personal and honest, and her messages of love, loss, and self still ring true today. It is comforting to know that, even in 600 B.C., the drama of love and life is still pretty standard.

Raphael recognized Sappho’s talent and timelessness in “School of Athens.” She stands next to Plato among the other great scholars of the age. Actually, and I’ll be honest here, no one is positive that it is Sappho next to Plato, but history scholars are pretty sure. To me, there is no disputing that it is Sappho standing there. She enriched the world and deserved to be recognized. Not many people can have a reputation that includes both sexual scandal and a vast body of intelligence. Even though only a few fragments and verses have survived the centuries, Sappho will not be forgotten.

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