In celebration of Women’s History Month, this week’s pick includes selections of Falvey Distinctive Collections materials pertaining to the ancient poetess, Sappho (c. 630—c. 570 BCE). 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.
The Tenth Muse
Sappho’s poetry was renowned in her own time, and while brief, her poetic works are full of feeling that still resonates with readers today. Plato called her “the tenth Muse”, while Strabo described her as an unrivaled “marvel”. Her fellow countrymen put her face on their coinage, and Sappho continues to be a popular name in her hometown today.
Alloy coin of Mytilene with head of Sappho. Roman Empire, 2nd c. The British Museum.
Poésie de Sapho
Parny, Évariste. Poésie de Sapho: Suivies, de différentes poésies dans le même genre. London: 1810.
This little book of poetry containing French translations of Sappho was published in London in the early nineteenth century. The French word for poem (poésie) might also be read as a play on words as the English word “poesies” can be translated to French as a bouquet of flowers.
The frontispiece is an image of Sappho depicted as a Victorian portrait pendant surrounded by flowers and bundles of wheat. The bundles might also be interpreted as visual symbolism for the collection of poems within the book, as the Latin fasciculus means collection and can be more literally translated to “bundle of twigs”. Below the portrait two putti play a lyre, illustrating the lyrical style of Sappho.
Daudet, Alphonse. Sappho: Parisian Manners. New York: 1900.
This dime novel is no. 147 of The Sunset Series, a popular series on manners and etiquette. On the cover, Sappho is depicted as a maiden holding a cornucopia filled with grain (a reference to fertility and femininity) and wearing a garland on her head (a reference to her crowning). She stands on a wheel with wings, the iconography of Hermes the messenger god and a symbol of Sappho’s “winged words”.
The story describes an exchange between a pifferaro (musician who plays an oboe-type instrument) and a Fellah (Egyptian) woman in the author’s studio. Based on the French novel Sappho (1884), this version of the poetess places her in Alexandrian Egypt.
Words of Air
Sappho, from the island of Lesbos, wrote in a traditional Lesbian style of lyrical poetry which was meant to be sang aloud. Unfortunately, the majority of her work was lost before the Christian era. All that remains are later copies of her Odes and some fragments.
“The words I begin are words of air, But good to hear” -fragment from a book titled Winged Words held by Sappho in this vase-painting.
Sappho reading, detail of the Vari vase. National Archaeological Museum in Athens 1260.
The brief remains of Sappho’s words only exist today as citations from ancient writers or papyrus fragments of her lost Nine Books, excavated from ancient Egypt during the late-19th century. To what extent should scholars fill in the gaps of Sappho’s fragmented poetry?