Sappho and the World of Lesbian Poetry

Sappho and the World of Lesbian Poetry

By William Harris

Published Online (2006)

Introduction: When we speak of Sappho, the poet from the island of Lesbos, and her poetry, we are thinking of something very special, a transcendental kind of poetry which is somehow purer, fairer, lovelier than anything else in the Western world. Considering how little we know about the poet herself, and how little we have of the remains of her poetry, we might well ask ourselves if we are not participating in a literary myth, creating a poet-figure of such great talent with so little verse, that one can only admire from a vast distance.

It is hard to believe that in early Byzantine times whole books match of her poetry were there to read, even if the Aeolic special language was largely unintelligible to most readers. But her fame was large and it seems somehow unthinkable that her striking literary gems were simply not copied, perhaps even destroyed by orders. Odd books from the ancient world have managed to survive, like Lucretius whom no one could really understand in the ninth century, or Catullus who could be terribly shocking in places. So with the churchly Byzantines one would expect censorship and a list of unacceptable ancient texts. I suspect that male homosexuality may have been less threatening to a growing Christian church council than the homosexuality of females, which if developed could become a social problem and even limit childbearing. But no attitudes about same-sex relationships have been so harsh and unrelenting as those of our last two centuries, and it is useless to pry further back into Byzantine times on such a personal and secret topic.

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