Lyric poems by Sappho


2nd century AD


Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos in the late seventh century BC. In classical times she was hailed as the ‘tenth muse’, but of the many lyric poems she is known to have composed, just one has survived complete. Otherwise, we have only fragments, either quoted by other authors, or excavated on bits of papyrus. The assembled scraps shown here are the unique carriers of what are now some of Sappho’s most celebrated lines.

Excerpt from lyric poems by Sappho (in English), read by Cressida Ryan

Excerpt from lyric poems by Sappho (in Greek), read by Cressida Ryan

For some, it’s an army of chariot fighters, for others, an infantry corps,
For others, an armada of sailing ships, on the dark face of this earth,
That is the loveliest thing of all, but I say it’s this and nothing more:
Whatever you desire with love in your heart.

And this is the simplest thing in the world to explain
To everyone: for the woman who far surpassed all others
in beauty, Helen, chose to abandon her husband
who surpassed all other men ...

I would rather watch her love-provoking stride
and witness the bright sparkle of her face
than all the war chariots of the Lydians
and shield-fighting armored men.



What makes this a treasure?

These fragments, frustrating though they are, are so important as they provide direct evidence of Sappho's work. For once we can step away from the speculation, titilation and interpretation and meet the poetess directly. As such an important poet to her time it is vital her work, and not others views of it and her, are preserved.

Posted by Ms S Jary

On 22/10/2011

Looks like they lost some of it.

Posted by Freddie cr

On 17/10/2011

The poetess from Lesbos has inspired people since she first composed, yet we still lack a clear understanding of her work and context. The fragmentary nature of papyri is exhilarating and frustrating. It’s incredible to think that these items have survived for over 2000 years, and we’re lucky that they have, but it would be so exciting if we had more complete poems and less reconstruction to do. The timeless text on the nature of love appeals to us all, reminding us how enduring human nature is, while the delicate papyrus pays homage to humanity’s transience.

Posted by Cressida Ryan

On 29/09/2011

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