2515772Masterpieces of Greek Literature — Sappho1902Sappho


Sappho, living near the time of Alcaeus, and composing verses in similar metrical and musical forms, far surpassed him. In both ancient and modern times she has been regarded as the greatest love poet of Greece. As Homer is called "The Poet," so is she "The Poetess," and Plato has an epigram—

"Some thoughtlessly proclaim the Muses nine;
A tenth is Lesbian Sappho, maid divine."

Little is known of her life, and the stories told of her are so inconsistent that we must rely for our knowledge of her upon her verses. She lived in Mytilene near the beginning of the sixth century before Christ, and was the leader of a coterie of women devoted to the pursuit of music and poesy. Tradition tells of her rejection of Alcaeus' love, and of her own unrequited passion for Phaon, for whose sake she leaped from the Leucadian cliff into the sea. False as these stories probably are, it is at least certain that her verses are written chiefly on one theme—that of love.


Immortal Venus, throned above
In radiant beauty, child of Jove,
Ο skilled in every art of love
And artful snare;
Dread power, to whom I bend the knee, 5
Release my soul and set it free
From bonds of piercing agony
And gloomy care.
Yet come thyself, if e'er, benign,
Thy listening ears thou didst incline 10
To my rude lay, the starry shine
Of Jove's court leaving,
In chariot yoked with coursers fair,[1]
Thine own immortal birds that bear
Thee swift to earth, the middle air 15
With bright wings cleaving.
Soon they were sped—and thou, most blest,
In thine own smiles ambrosial dressed,
Didst ask what griefs my mind oppressed—
What meant my song— 20
What end my frenzied thoughts pursue—
For what loved youth I spread anew
My amorous nets—"Who, Sappho, who
Hath done thee wrong?
What though he fly, he'll soon return— 25
Still press thy gifts, though now he spurn;
Heed not his coldness—soon he'll burn,
E'en though thou chide."
—And saidst thou thus, dread goddess? O,
Come then once more to ease my woe; 30
Grant all, and thy great self bestow,
My shield and guide!

Translated by John Herman Merivale.


Blest as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee all the while
Softly speak and sweetly smile.

'T was this deprived my soul of rest, 5
And raised such tumults in my breast;
For while I gazed, in transport tost,
My breath was gone, my voice was lost:

My bosom glowed; the subtle flame
Ran quick through all my vital frame; 10
O'er my dim eyes a darkness hung;
My ears with hollow murmurs rung.

In dewy damps my limbs were chilled;
My blood with gentle horror thrilled;
My feeble pulse forgot to play; 15
I fainted, sank, and died away.

Translated by Ambrose Phillips.


The stars around the lovely moon
Fade back and vanish very soon,
When, round and full, her silver face
Swims into sight, and lights all space.

Translated by Edwin Arnold.


Yea, thou shalt die,
And lie
Dumb in the silent tomb;
Nor of thy name
Shall there be any fame 5
In ages yet to be or years to come:
For of the flowering Rose
Which on Pieria[2] blows,
Thou hast no share:
But in sad Hades' house, 10
Unknown, inglorious
'Mid the dim shades that wander there
Shalt thou flit forth and haunt the filmy air.

Translated by John Addington Symonds.


"Oh, my sweet mother, 't is in vain,
I cannot weave as once I wove,
So 'wildered is my heart and brain
With thinking of that youth I love."

Translated by Thomas Moore.



Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig,—which the pluckers forgot, somehow,—
Forgot it not, nay ! but got it not, for none could get it till now.


Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden into the ground.

Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


Ο Hesperus![3] Thou bringest all things home;
All that the garish day hath scattered wide;
The sheep, the goat, back to the welcome fold;
Thou bring'st the child, too, to his mother's side.

Translated by William Hyde Appleton.

  1. The chariot of Venus was drawn by doves.
  2. The Muses received their name Pierian from Pieria on the northern slopes of Mount Olympus in Thessaly, where was their early home.
  3. The evening star.