Sunday, May 14, 2017

Shadows in a Timeless Myth presents Sappho A Lady of History


B.C. 568
CCORDING to established data, the more brilliant portion of Sappho's career may be placed in the first half of the sixth century before Christ, while her childhood and early youth belong to the close of the seventh. Her birthplace, according to the more trustworthy authorities, was Mitylene, the metropolis of the isle of Lesbos. Others make her a native of the neighbouring town of Eresus. Whether Sappho was ever married is doubtful; but the balance of evidence is strongly on the negative side of the question. She is familiarly alluded to by Horace as the "Lesbian maiden;" nor is there any notice of a husband, but on a single recent and very questionable authority, where the broadly indecent etymology of the names, both of the man on whom the honour is conferred, and of his birthplace, sufficiently proves them to be fictitious. How far the circumstance of her having had a daughter can be considered as admissible evidence of her having been married, is a point the settlement of which must depend on a closer inquiry into her moral habits. That such was the fact, however, is stated on respectable authority. The name assigned to the maiden is Cleis, the same as that of Sappho's reputed mother.

Sappho is described, by the only authors who have transmitted any distinct notices on the subject, as not distinguished for personal beauty, but as short of stature, and of dark, it may be understood swarthy, complexion. The laudatory commonplace of kalë, or "fair," which Plato and others incidentally connect with her name, no way militates against this account, as implying nothing more, perhaps less, than does the English phrase by which the Greek epithet has above been rendered, and which is as frequently bestowed in familiar usage on plain as on handsome women. Alcæus describes her simply as "dark haired" and "sweetly smiling." No notice is taken of her actual beauty, which an admiring lover would hardly have passed over in silence had it offered matter for warmer eulogy.
Of the extent to which Sappho was brought under the sway of the tender passion which, in one shape or other, formed the theme, with little exception, of her collective works, sufficient evidence exists in her only remaining entire composition, the first ode in the published collections. She there describes herself, in the most touching and impassioned strains, as the victim of an unrequited love, and implores the aid of Venus to ease her pangs by melting the heart of the obdurate or inconstant object of her affection. The person to whom this ode is supposed to refer, or who at least obtained, in the popular tradition, the chief and longest sway over the affections of Sappho, was a Lesbian youth called Phaon, distinguished for his personal attractions and irresistible power over the female heart. For a time he is described as having corresponded to her ardour; but, after cohabiting with her during some years, he deserted her, leaving her in a state of despair, for which the only remedy that suggested itself was that habitually resorted to in such cases—a leap from the summit of the Leucadian promontory into the sea. That she actually carried this purpose into effect was the popular opinion of antiquity, from the age, at least, of Menander downwards, and seems to have passed current as an authentic fact, even with the more intelligent authorities.

Both these points in the history of the poetess, her love for Phaon, and her leap from the Leucadian cliff, have been questioned with more or less plausibility by distinguished critics of the present age. In respect to the first, it has been denied not only that Phaon was the name of the hero of this tragical drama, but that such a person ever existed. The Leucadian leap of Sappho, though ranked by various modern commentators, like the name of her lover, among the mythical elements of her biography, will not perhaps be found, on a critical estimate of the circumstances connected with it, to offer any serious ground of scepticism.

Sappho, in the portrait of her character jointly exhibited in her own works and in the notices of her more candid and intelligent countrymen, appears as a woman of a generous disposition, affectionate heart, and independent spirit, unless when brought under the sway of those tender passions, which lorded over every other influence in her bosom. Of a naturally ardent and excitable temperament, she seems from her earliest years to have been habituated to the enjoyments rather than to the duties, much less the restraints, of Greek female life. Her chief or early occupations were the exercise and display of her brilliant poetical talents and elegant accomplishments; and her voluptuous habits are testified by almost every extant fragment of her poems. Her susceptibility to the passion of love formed, above all, the dominant feature of her life, her character, and her muse. Her indulgence,  however, of this, as of every other appetite, sensual or intellectual, while setting at nought all moral restraints, was marked by her own peculiar refinement of taste, exclusive of every approach to low excess or profligacy.

In the portrait presented to us by the popular authorities of the present day, all the less favourable features of the above sketch are effaced; while the colouring of the remainder has been heightened to a dazzling extreme of beauty and brilliancy, exhibiting a model of perfection, physical and moral, such as was never probably exemplified in woman, and least of all in the prioress of an association of votaries of Venus and the Muses, in one of the most voluptuous states of Greece. The following is the summary of her various excellences, given by one of the popular organs of this amiable but fallacious theory: "In Sappho, a warm and profound sensibility, virgin purity, feminine softness, and delicacy of sentiment and feeling, were combined with the native probity and simplicity of the Æolian character; and, although endued with a fine perception of the beautiful and brilliant, she preferred genuine conscious rectitude to every other source of human enjoyment."

Article compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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