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Sappho’s Reception: Use And Misuse Of Her Work

2682 words - 11 pages

Sappho lived and died during or around the seventh century BCE. It was only five hundred years or so later that Ovid wrote Heroides, creating a myth about Sappho’s fictive suicide, throwing herself off a cliff to be with a Phaon, man with whom she was supposedly in love. That story would be used for centuries after Ovid’s come and gone as a way of negating themes of homoeroticism, liberated female sexuality, and the creation of a world where men’s roles are not the main focus of the work. This was especially true during the Renaissance and late nineteenth century when a shy embarrassment surrounding Sappho’s sexual themes in her work kept Sappho at a safe distance from society.
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It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that Sappho’s feminist voice and distinct separateness from the dominated male world became some major topics of feminist theorists and writers.
Creative male writers have also been a part of the conversation throughout the centuries. Catullus, Ovid, Swinburne, Tennyson, Baudelaire, Donne, Pound, and others have used Sappho’s fragments and biography in their own work. One of the reoccurring questions raised in critical discussion has to do with this handling of Sappho’s work by men who misappropriate her poems. Do they misuse her female and homoerotic themes for their own masculine voices and ideas? To answer these questions I will look closely at the specific times in history when the homoerotic aspect of Sappho’s poetry was endured with an extreme discomfort by writers and theorists alike.
Sappho was a Greek lyric poet, born on the island of Lesbos around 625 BCE. The time of her death remains unknown, much like many facets of her life. While we know that she wrote nine books of lyric poetry, only one poem remains completely intact. The rest are fragments, pieces of other poems that alone make very little sense of the whole. Even with the little modern scholars know, Sappho’s talent and ability to handle language is masterful. She was a true rock star in the poetry field during and immediately after her life. She lived in Mytilene on Lesbos for most of her life. It is said that she was possibly exiled to Sicily for unconfirmed reasons around 604 BCE, but returned to Mytilene around 595 BCE. While that factoid is not provable, we do know that Sappho had a daughter, Cleis, whom she wrote about in some of her work. She sang her poetry at public events often, as was common for poets to do in Ancient Greece. Those are the only facts that can be verified about her life. The rest is essentially theoretical hearsay that spread and morphed over the span of two thousand years.
There are rumors, often taken as facts, about Sappho running a school for girls on the island of Lesbos. The rumors claim she often fell in love with these young girls and also performed sexual acts, possibly as a way of preparing them for marriage. There have also been myths about her death: most notably that she committed suicide after being rejected by a beautiful young male named Phaon. It is important to know these myths because there are essays quoted in this paper that assume some or all of these myths as fact in order to further their argument. It is also important to know these myths because they have so greatly influenced Sappho’s reception in various times of history. It is these very myths that have both subjugated Sappho as a monster, sexual deviant, and first female homosexual poet, depending on the time in history and writer handling Sappho’s reputation. These myths, while problematic, have also been a big part of the reason Sappho is still so relevant today. We owe much our fascination and interest in Sappho to the male...

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