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Winged Words: Visualizing Sappho

This second installment of ‘Winged Words’ is brought to you in honor of Women’s History Month. This week’s picks includes selections of Falvey Distinctive Collections materials pertaining to the visual interpretation of the ancient poetess Sappho (c. 630—c. 570 BCE) from the ancient world to the 20th century.

The Life of Sappho

There is not much biographical information on the life of Sappho of Mytilene. Historical records tell us that she was a Greek poet from the capitol city of the island of Lesbos. Extant sources provide only one date, that of her exile to Sicily by democratic despot Pittacus in 598 BCE. Sappho married a rich man from Andros, with whom she had one daughter, named after her mother Cleïs. Sappho was known to have intimate relationships with women, notably with Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara.


On the Wings of Sappho

Much of Sappho’s reputation today has been mediated through the lens of the Roman poet Horace (c. 1st century BCE). The few surviving sources on her physical appearance describe her as having bird-like features, and aviary metaphors are frequently used to describe both Sappho and her poems.

“[Sappho is] small, dark, and very ill-favored… like a nightingale with ill-shapen wings enfolding a tiny body”.

Depicting Sappho in the 20th century

This English translation and glossary of Sappho’s work contains illustrations by Véra Willoughby that depict Sappho in the contemporary Art Deco-style with Greek features.

“A selection of the poems of the world’s greatest woman poet”

Tutin, J. R. Sappho the Queen of Song. London: 19—.

The selection of poems was illustrated by E. A. R. Collings, who interpreted Sappho’s poetry in an Art Nouveau-style as Greek mythological tropes within surrealistic landscapes, including fragmented Greek statues that symbolize the fragmented nature of her work today.

These and other works are featured in the spring 2023 exhibit “Poetic License: Seven Curators’ Poetry Selections from Distinctive Collections” located on the first floor of Falvey Library.

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Last Modified: March 16, 2023

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