Sappho, the first modern poet

Sappho de Mytilène

``I served beauty
Was it in fact for me something greater?''
... Sappho

The first woman poet

Lesbos, the great Greek island opposite Asia, 2,500 years ago...

From that time, from that island, we possess a treasure of radiant beauty and, more charged with emotion still than the most admirable object of marble or ceramic: some 650 lines, with cries of love, revolt and anguish, springing for the first time from a Greek mouth -- and this mouth was that of a woman: Sappho.

But with the passage of time, her work has come to represent, even her name alone -- the very existence of her work being generally ignored -- the pernicious, and for some fascinating, mystery of forbidden love.

But she, the woman, the poet, where is she? Who is she? With her works torn to shreads, scattered and buried deep in the sands, in the night of Egyptian tombs, she was deprived of her poems, divested of all historical reality -- modern authors have treated her as an imaginary poet born of legend.

But a journey or 2,500 years through works and arts, through customs and ideas, reveals that her glory was dazzling and she was the first modern poet.

Baudelaire certainly sensed it, although he knew only a few of her verses, and in welcoming her into the garden of his Fleurs du Mal did not wish to separate the lover from the poet. Despite the admiration that the ancients had for her, it is only in our time that Sappho can perhaps be completely understood.

It is not only the fragmentary form of her work which contributes to giving her the face of a modern poet. Even in their original state, the poems by the woman who really invented personal poetry were very short, between four and thirty lines and no one else in Greece was to follow this path which seemed too narrow for those used to epics, great odes or tragedies.

In this wonderful world of ancient literature, Sappho was the only feminine voice, the only vision of a woman thrown into the ancient world that we know only through men.

But by a strange coincidence this woman is a rebel; she says no! No to men who refuse women the right to love. No to the democratic tyranny which was to destroy the aristocratic society in which she was a leading figure (and it exiled her!) and no again, sometimes to the gods.

Sappho was finally the first in an often tragic line of people accused in the trials that morality imposes on genius. She was, in her works, burned and broken, as according to legend, Orpheus has been. But if one can tear to pieces the work of a poet as one can the body of a god, one cannot kill her voice.

from Edith Mora
Flammarion, 1966