Lyric poems by Sappho

The lives of exemplary women

This Treasure is paired with: The lives of exemplary women (Books of famous women)

  • Sappho
  • 2nd century AD
  • Papyrus

One of the earliest personal voices of world literature, Sappho here celebrates love and beauty as greater than all the armies of Homer. Her poetry was all but lost for nearly two millennia, her reputation as an outstanding poet (the ‘tenth Muse’) resting in accounts of famous women and in scattered lines quoted by other authors. Her poems were brought to life again by fragments such as these from a papyrus roll of the 2nd century AD, found in excavations of the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt from 1896 onwards.

 

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

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

Translation

Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars

of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.

This is easily proved: did
not Helen – she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood-

choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?
warped to his will, forgetting

love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So Anactoria, although you

being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes

would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

From Sappho: A New Translation, by Mary Barnard, © 1958 by the Regents of the University of California, renewed 1986 by Mary Barnard. Published by the University of California Press.

This Treasure isn’t currently on display in the Weston Library.