On the Beauty of Sappho

Whilst I certainly enjoy poetry it isn’t often that I finish reading it in quite the same state of rapture as I’d finish reading a really great novel. There are exceptions of course, like Sylvia Plath, Carol Ann Duffy – and now Sappho too. As both a lover of literature and a lesbian, Sappho was someone that I’d heard a lot about but until now I hadn’t actually read the woman herself. I have to say I was blown away.

The collection I read was Come Close, a very short selection released as part of the Penguin Little Black Classics series which comprises eighty small books available for 80p (in the UK) to celebrate eighty years of Penguin Classics. I could write an entire other post about how brilliant I think this idea is. This collection is petite, but there is something delightful about that and, as you pull back the black cover, the opening page confronts the reader with a quotation which sets you up for the following pages; ‘Yes, we did many things, then – all Beautiful…’

One thing that immediately struck me about Sappho’s work was just how modern it seemed. As the poems are all in translation from Ancient Greek there’s no archaic language to be contended with, removing any barrier to enjoyment or understanding, although this does remove the verses even further from their original context. Additionally, only fragments of her writing remain and so the poems are often short or disjointed, lending a Modernist feel which particularly reminded me of Mina Loy’s Songs to Joannes. This fragmentation emphasises the intimacy of the work further, heightening the sensation that we being given tiny glimpses into this woman’s life, loves and desires. I felt privileged to be privy to her innermost thoughts, to have been allowed to peek through her bedroom window and watch her scrawl down her heart in these poems.

The lack of censorship Sappho displays is admirable and given the desires she expresses for people of her own sex I can see why her work has been controversial between its original conception and the modern day. It’s almost as if now, over 2500 years after the poems were written, the time has finally come when Sappho’s work can be enjoyed again, just as it is. It’s part of a political debate, a reclamation of a queer woman’s voice, but it’s also an exercise in beauty and passion which can a stand alone from this.

If you want to hear more about Sappho, the ever informative Radio Four recently aired a short discussion of her work, which you can listen to here. I leave you also with another quotation, possibly my favourite from this collection;

‘May you bed down

Head to breast, upon

The flesh

Of a plush

Companion’

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