We have entered a twilight of the idols. The bronze statues of saints from different times are being torn down by zealous crowds who deem them the sinners of today. Right or wrong, this debate about who deserves to be lauded and why has been raging since fame became a social incentive. As we all know, attitudes and appraisals are subject to cultural climates. Shakespeare was neglected for generations and did not attain his GOAT status until the 18th century. Homer’s readership dwindled during the dark ages and the fame of celebrated poets like Robert Southey is now forgotten. Historic figures flash and vanish according to the whims of academia and the receptions of society. Even after fame is achieved, the treatment of its reputation is constantly contested. The war over Wagner’s character, over Nietzsche and Nazism continues to divide intellectual circles. We are forever in a flux of acceptance, dismissal, celebration, criticism, admiration and disgust. But some historical celebrities suffer these storms of credulity more than others.
In a time when a re-examination of the significance of gender is taking place, no author least resembles their initial celebrity as the poet Sappho. Marmorealised by master sculptures, painted on vases, graven on coins, the lyrical genius of Lesbos who Plato called “the tenth muse” has undergone several, wholly antithetical, reassessments. She has been called promiscuous, pious and almost everything in between. This is primarily because we know so little about her and what we do know is very difficult to verify. We know that she lived on Lesbos, that she had brothers and a daughter and we can make some intelligent inferences from her poetry and apply them to her historical context, but even then, piercing the veil of twenty-six centuries can be an unrewarding experience.
Alongside Lord Byron, she has become the ultimate literary sex symbol. A liberated female libido liaising with women and men alike; the intellectual wet dream of Mary Wollstonecraft; the artistic sister of the bare-breasted Boudicca. But these ascriptions dangerously deviate from what sort of person she could have been. Before post-war critics made her the champion of their values and anointed her “a woman eons ahead of her time”, she was painted as a lurid and unstable nymphomaniac, as a sexual predator preying on the chastity of her younger companions. The lewdness of these depictions prompted later writers to erect an altogether opposing version of the poetess. She became the priestess. The pious mother. The paragon of domesticity. Elegant and pure. Carl Jung used the phrase “enantiodramia”. It means “the tendency of things to change into their opposites”. It seems a wonderful one-word explanation of Sappho’s frenetic legacy.
The Athenian comic writers wrote at least six different plays about her and seemingly made big biographical assumptions based on her erotic oeuvre. The Romans saw her as a salacious and lusty matriarch and altered the Sapphic myth by making out that she had renounced her affection for women in favour of a man. She became an apologetic lesbian. A wise woman who was merely aware of her disturbingly free nature.
It was the French Symbolists who found in her an icon to satisfy their fixations with lascivious sexuality. They stoked up the sultry esteem of her work and reduced her story to a series of trysts with vulnerable women. The mystique of being a lesbian gave many of those sex-addicted Parisian poets, like Baudelaire and Verlaine, the perfect pin up to plaster the walls of their carnal dreams.
Prudish classicists at the start of the last century were shocked by earlier suggestions of her predatory behaviour. They attempted to amend these embellishments by dressing her up as a paragon of feminine virtues. New extrapolations from her poetry turned her into a religious tutor of home economics who initiated young women into the cult of Aphrodite. According to these scholars, she oversaw the refinement of the nubile ladies of Lesbos like a caring matron at a British boarding school.
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Between the end of the classical world and the dawn of the modern, most of Sappho’s work was lost. It appeared as quotation in several classical texts and fragments were found over the following centuries. The corpus we have is constituted by these findings. The biography we have is based on earlier assumptions, our inferences and the ethical temper of our time. I doubt if any era has accurately encompassed the true emotional and intellectual nature of this enigmatic woman. I am afraid we may never know, but that is not important. What is important is that we have an odd and inchoate collection of incredible poetry; a trove of meaningful and mellifluous lines, lines like “I know it is true, those I love best, do me most harm” or “the gorgeous man presents a gorgeous view, the good man shall in time be gorgeous too”. Speculation about her sexual proclivities and social preferences is inconsequential. Gratitude for her output is inevitable. Bear in mind, how tattered our inheritance from her is and yet how influential it remains. She deserves to be remembered not because of any relevant ideological attribute we may share with her, but because the tender feelings she turned into poetry still compel us today. Perhaps it is not too hypocritical to speculate that she knew the worth of her emotions and expressions. As she wrote to a lover: Someone, I tell you, in another time, will remember us.