Burning Sappho in Love and Song

Armand D’Angour

A short middle-aged woman dressed in smart concert attire walks into the low-lit hall and faces her expectant hearers. Her presence arouses an audible reaction from the audience, sighs of pleasure and cries of admiring applause. A female entertainer in a deeply traditional and patriarchal society, she has travelled to the city from her village. The crowd that has come to hear this exceptional singer-songwriter consists mainly of men; their wives sit quietly together in a group at the back. After the first few musical notes have been struck, she opens her mouth to sing a haunting love song. Her voice is clear and intense, and carries a raw emotional force. Despite the almost improvisatory nature of the melodic line, her words and their music will be recalled, memorised, and repeated frequently by many of those present, men as well as women. But it will be men alone who are responsible for recording the song and transmitting it beyond her native shores.

The singer that is being described here may be Umm Kulthum (1898–1975), the famed Egyptian performer. She was so adulated that she was dubbed ‘the Fourth Pyramid’, and her funeral drew mourners in millions.  But the description might equally be taken to refer to Sappho of Eresus, whose songs were heard and admired on her native Greek island of Lesbos around 600 BC. The greatest singer-songwriter of antiquity, she was dubbed ‘the Tenth Muse’. Unlike the recorded voice of Umm Kulthum, however, we have only the written words, mostly fragmentary, of a few of Sappho’s songs, plus some rare indications of how they might have sounded and of their effect on hearers.

Bust of ‘Sappho of Eresos’, Roman copy of a Greek original (Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy).

The Sound of Sappho

Writing some eight centuries later, the Roman author and teacher Aelian (AD c.175–c.235) tells how the Athenian statesman Solon (c.630–c.560 BC), a contemporary of Sappho,

was so enraptured when his nephew sang a song of Sappho’s at a drinking party that he begged the young man to teach it to him. Someone asked why he was so eager to be taught the song. His response was “So that I may learn it and die”.

What aspects of Sappho’s song created such a vehement impact on Solon? Perhaps it was the lilting Sapphic metre named after her, consisting of three metrically patterned lines of long and short syllables (indicated using – as long and ᴗ as short), with the last line extended by a short coda. A rhythmical English equivalent runs:

Who can hope to capture the voice of Sappho?

Unsurpassed she sings of a world of heartache.

Lengths of artful verse cannot hope to match her

beautiful music.

Or perhaps it was her haunting melodies. Sappho was known for the use of the Mixolydian mode, a set of notes with the poignantly wide interval (known in today’s musical theory as an ‘augmented fourth’) at the top of the scale; one might base a speculative realisation of her song on such hints. But whether it was the words, the melody, the style of performance, or all these and more that moved Solon to mortal rapture, the notion that the song had been transmitted from Lesbos to be sung in Athens says much about Sappho’s rapid and widespread appeal in the Greek world of the early 6th century.

Symposium scene by the Nicias Painter, c.420 BC (National Archaeological Museum, Madrid, Spain).

First-person Song

One reason for the appeal of Sappho’s lyrics was their repeat­ability and performance by men in settings such as symposia (drinking-parties). Although uttered from the viewpoint of the woman singer, and frequently couched in the first person, the lack of markers of feminine gender made her songs (and similarly those of Umm Kulthum) easy for men to sing with heartfelt passion.

The opening stanzas of Sappho’s most famous song, “To me that man seems equal to gods”, was translated by the Roman poet Catullus (c.84–late 50s BC?) into Latin with small variations (Poem 51). It allows him to express his own feelings in relation to his beloved ‘girl’, whom he calls Lesbia (“the woman of Lesbos”) in honour of Sappho:

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
     spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnes
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
     vocis in ore;

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
     lumina nocte.

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
     perdidit urbe

To me that man seems equal to a god,
or greater still – if that’s allowed – than gods,
who sits across from you and looks, and hears
     over and over again

your pretty laugh, which strips away from me –
fool that I am – all faculties; you see,
the moment I catch sight of you, my voice,
     Lesbia, stops in its tracks,

my tongue is paralysed, a flickering fire
suffuses my whole frame, all I can hear
is ringing in my ears, on both my eyes
     darkness like nightfall descends.

This leisure-time, Catullus, is your curse:
in leisure-time you’re restless, overwrought:
it’s leisure-time that once made even kings
     and thriving cities fall.

Catullus reading to his friends, Stefan Bakałowicz, 1885 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia).

The first stanza here sets the scene that leads to a catalogue, across two stanzas, of the physical symptoms experienced at the sight and sound of the beloved. The fourth stanza is a clear departure from Sappho, since Catullus addresses himself and bemoans the vexation of leisure-time (otium);[1] but the first three stanzas render Sappho closely. Only four stanzas of Sappho’s original song (fr. 31) are preserved in Greek, in a quotation attributed to the literary critic Longinus (perhaps 2nd or 3rd century AD):

He seems just like the gods in heaven,
that man who sits across from you
and bends his head to listen to
     your lovely voice

and charming laugh – which sets my heart
aflutter in my breast, for when
I catch the merest glimpse of you,
     my voice is gone,

my tongue’s congealed, a subtle fire
runs flickering beneath my frame,
my eyes see blank, a buzzing noise
     assails my ears,

my sweat runs cold, my body’s gripped
by shivers, my skin’s sallower
than grass, it seems as if I’m just
     an inch from death.

But all is worth the risk, since…
        … and serf etc.

Sappho, Gustav Klimt, 1888/90 (Vienna Museum, Austria).

Movement of Thought

What particularly struck ‘Longinus’ was the way the varied symptoms listed by Sappho combine to create a unified depiction of her state of mind. As a result, he unfortunately failed to quote the remainder of the song, breaking off with κτλ (kai ta loipa,Greek for etc.). Although one might restore a single final stanza from the few surviving words, the adversative ‘But…’ (alla) that begins the missing verse suggests that not just one more stanza but a whole new section, perhaps containing three or four stanzas, will have followed.

What evidence is there for reconstruct­ing what followed? Some of Sappho’s other poems exhibit a structure of thought as follows:

a     Setting the scene

b     Developing the theme

c     Countering the challenge

d     Self-reflective finale

Sappho’s first poem, which is the only one to survive in its complete seven stanzas, runs:

1 Shimmering-throned immortal Aphrodite,
   wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I implore you,
   spare me, mistress, from agony and anguish,
        crush not my spirit

2 but come, just as once before you listened
   to my voice calling to you from afar,
   you listened and came, leaving your
        father’s palace,

3 with golden chariot yoked; your pretty sparrows,
   brought you swiftly across the dark earth,
   fluttering wings from heaven, gliding
        through the air.

4 Soon they arrived and you, blessed goddess,
   a smile on your immortal face, asked me
   “What new woe has befallen you? Why
        have you called me?

5 What is the desire of your infatuated
   heart? Who now must be persuaded?
   Whom should I bring into affection for you?
        Who wrongs you, Sappho?

6 Though she now flees you, soon she will follow;
   though she now spurns gifts, soon shall she offer them;
   If she does not love you, soon shall she love you
        even unwilling.”

7 Come then, I pray, release me from harsh sorrow,
   drive away care, I beseech you, goddess
   fulfil for me what I long to accomplish,
        and be my ally.

The thought, then, follows the pattern:


1         Setting the scene:                    Aphrodite is invoked

2-4     Developing the theme:             The goddess appears

5-6     Countering the challenge:       The goddess responds

7         Self-reflective finale:               Sappho makes a defiant request

Aurora and Tithonus, Sebastiano Ricci, c.1705 (Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, Surrey, UK).

A very similar movement of thought is found in Poem 58 (conjectural supplements are shown in italics):

To the fragrant Muses’ lovely gifts, girls,

pay attention, and to the melodious clear-sounding lyre!

In my case, my once young body is now consumed

by age, and my hair that once was black is white.

My spirit grows weary, and my knees, which once                         5                     

were as nimble for dancing as fawns’, fail me.

    These things I often bemoan; but what’s to be done?

For a human being, not to age is an impossibility.

Even Tithonus, they say, when rosy-armed Dawn was

love-scalded, and carried him off to the world’s end –                    10

even he, handsome and young as he was, was overmastered

in time by grey old age, though his spouse was immortal.

    But the singer counts herself blessed to see the light of day

if only the Muse grants her the lovely gift of song.

I love beauty, and to me too Love has granted this:                         15

the brightness of the sun, and all that is exquisite.

Here the structure again presents itself:


1-2        Setting the scene:                    Youth is encouraged to sing

3-7        Developing the theme:            Sappho is old and tired

7-12      Countering the challenge:       Like Tithonus, everyone ages

13-16    Self-reflective finale:               The singer counts her blessings

In both poems, then, we find that after the opening scene is set and developed, the challenge inherent in that scene is countered (illustrated in Poem 58 with mythical parallel), and finally Sappho returns to reflect on her own situation with a positive or defiant remark.

Sappho, a detail from ‘Parnassus’ by Raphael, 1509-11 (Apostolic Palace, Musei Vaticani, The Vatican).

What Catullus Might Have Read

Might this structure be productively applied to the remainder of Poem 31?  The song sets the scene in stanza 1 (Sappho observes her beloved), and develops it over the next three (the crippling symptoms of love). We should then expect a countering of the challenge (love’s pain need not kill), before a positive, self-reflective finale (the singer will yet enjoy love).

Catullus read more of Sappho’s poem than we can, but he was not interested in translating all of it; he breaks off before translating even the fourth stanza that we have. Instead he turns at that point to addresses himself, berating the use of leisure-time (otium) by repeating the word three times. That emphasis suggests that Catullus is contradicting what he read in Sappho, whose distress was surely to be attributed not to otium but to Love. It is Love that “once made even kings and thriving cities fall”, the clear allusion is to Troy, whose fall was blamed on the love-affair between Paris and Helen and the machinations of Aphrodite, goddess of Love.

A further clue to what Catullus read survives. Earlier in his version of Poem 31 he has inserted the rather prosaic word identidem, “over and over again” (line 3), which is absent from Sappho. Perhaps it suited his particular situation, or perhaps it recalled Sappho’s characteristic repetition of a word with similar meaning “once again” (dêute, found twice in Poem 1 as well as in other fragments). The hallmark word identidem recurs, significantly, in Catullus’ only other poem composed in Sapphic stanzas, Poem 11.

Lesbia, John Reinhard Weguelin, 1878 (priv. coll.).

All Can Be Ventured

The fact that Catullus composed two, and only two, poems in the Sapphic metre (11 and 51) has been underappreciated. One commonly held view is that 51 began the affair with Lesbia, and 11 ended it; but poets who “play around with different metres” (as Catullus claims in the immediately preceding Poem 50) are likely to compose more than one poem in that metre, especially if they have a poetic model in front of them.  That model in Catullus’ case was Sappho 31, and its structure is curiously similar to Poem 11. Like the former poem, 11 begins with a list, but in this case of remote places that Catullus’ friends might be prepared to venture with him:

Furi et Aureli comites Catulli,
sive in extremos penetrabit Indos,
litus ut longe resonante Eoa
     tunditur unda,

sive in Hyrcanos Arabesve molles,
seu Sagas sagittiferosve Parthos,
sive quae septemgeminus colorat
     aequora Nilus,

sive trans altas gradietur Alpes,
Caesaris visens monimenta magni,
Gallicum Rhenum horribile aequor ulti-
     mosque Britannos…

Furius and Aurelius, comrades of Catullus –
whether he travels to remotest India
where the shore is buffeted by echoing
     Eastern waves,

or to Hyrcania or luxuriant Arabia,
to the Sagae or the arrow-bearing Parthians,
or to the desert plains stained by the
     seven-mouthed Nile,

or whether he crosses the high Alps
to visit the monuments of great Caesar,
or the Gaulish Rhine, or rough woad-dyed Britons
     at the ends of the earth –

This impressive list of names occupies, just like the symptoms of love in Sappho 31, three full stanzas. The words that immediately follow them ‘wrap up’ the list, while offering an adversative proposal to his addressees:

omnia haec, quaecumque feret voluntas
caelitum, temptare simul parati,
pauca nuntiate meae puellae
     non bona dicta.

all this, whatever the will of the gods
brings, while you’re prepared to venture with me,
all I ask you is to say a few words to my girl,
     not pleasant words.

The words in bold above are a very close translation – in Latin omnia haec temptare – of the surviving words of the missing ‘final’ stanza of Sappho 31 (alla pan tolmaton)  “but all is worth the risk” (literally “but all may be ventured”). They read like a residue of Catullus’ translation of Sappho’s words; and if so, while omitting them in Poem 51 in favour of his ‘leisure-time’ stanza, he has transposed them to this poem composed in the same metre. 

The Garden of the Muses, Lionel-Noél Royer, 1890s (priv. coll.).

The address to his comrades continues for two more stanzas, comprising one of the most vulgar in Latin poetry and one of the most replete with poetic pathos:

cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,
nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium
     ilia rumpens;

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
     tactus aratro est.

May she live and prosper with her adulterers,
all three hundred of whom she sleeps with the same time,
loving none truly, but over and over again
     busting their groins;

And tell her not to look back on the love we had before,
which through her misconduct has perished like a flower
at the meadow’s edge, after it has been nicked
     by a passing plough.

The first poem in the oldest manuscript of Catullus (c. 1360s, Oxford, Canon. Class. Lat. 30, f.1r).

Catullus’ movement of thought differs markedly from Sappho’s. Where she ends Poems 1 and 58 with defiance and positivity, he ends Poem 11 with anger and resignation, just as he ends Poem 51. This reversal of the Sapphic pattern is also noticeable in Catullus 8, where Catullus adopts elements of Sappho 1 but reverses their import. Thus where Sappho 1 has “Though she now flees you, soon she shall follow,” Catullus declares that when his beloved flees from him he will not follow; where Aphrodite advises Sappho “If she does not love, soon shall she love even unwilling,” Catullus advises that he “won’t pursue one who is unwilling”. And where Aphrodite addresses Sappho with sympathetic questions – “What new woe has befallen you? Why have you called me?  What is the desire of your infatuated heart? Who now must be persuaded? Whom should I bring into affection for you? Who wrongs you, Sappho?” – Catullus instead bombards his former lover with bitter reproaches: “Who’ll visit you? Who’ll feast their eyes on you? Who’ll be your lover? Boast that you’re his girl? Who’ll feel your kiss? Whose lips will take your bite?”

Unlike Catullus, then, we should expect the continuation of Sappho 31 to have reaffirmed the possibility of love rather than denying it. “All can be ventured” clearly indicates a positive and defiant outcome (unlike the incorrect translation “all must be endured”, which suggests resignation). The Latin of Catullus 11 – omnia haec temptare – helpfully confirms the view that what was proposed by Sappho in poem 31 was bold venturesomeness, not resigned acceptance of defeat.

Sappho, Amanda Brewster Sewell, 1891 (exhibited in 1893 at the Palace of Fine Arts, Chicago, IL, USA).

Who Dares Wins

One might recognise, then, that the original full Sappho 31 had a structure similar to Poems 1 and 58:


1         Setting the scene:                    Sappho sees her beloved

2-4     Developing the theme:             The crippling symptoms of love

5-6     Countering the challenge:       Who dares wins: a mythical exemplum

7         Self-reflective finale:               Sappho defiant in love

With this in mind, it might be possible to conjecture how the song continued, starting with the surviving words of the fifth stanza:

But all is worth the risk, since…
                              … and serf

The last word ‘serf’ indicates the opposition between high- and low-born. Perhaps Sappho addressed Aphrodite, as she often does (it might have prompted Catullus’ self-address) to counter the challenge of her near-fatal experience:

But all is worth the risk since, Love,
you time and again crush lord and serf,
you who of old brought down great kings
     and cities proud.

The following stanza could have developed this notion with a mythical example showing why fighting for the sake of love is “worth the risk”. The obvious example in the context of the Trojan War is Menelaus (who is praised by Sappho in Poem 16), who fought to retrieve Helen and eventually did so:

You levelled Troy for Helen’s sake,
killed Trojan kings and noble Greeks;
but Menelaus in the end
     won back his wife.

The final stanza will have returned to Sappho’s own plight, with the defiant hope that she too might succeed in love, e.g.:

So, Goddess, let me love again
and leave the battlefield behind,
so I may learn that love’s distress
     is not in vain.

Sappho praying to Aphrodite, Margaritis Georgios, c.1843 (National Gallery of Greece, Athens).

The End of the Song

The audience listening to Sappho’s song have been intrigued and captivated by Sappho’s description of her feelings in the presence of her beloved. They have followed her through the list of her paralysing symptoms – her loss of sight, speech, and hearing – which leaves her “just an inch from death”. They take heart at the turnaround indicated by “But all may be ventured”.

They will go on to learn why all her suffering is worth the risk. The goddess of Love, with whom Sappho has intimate acquaintance, had been indiscriminate in fomenting a war that wreaked destruction on both high-born and low-born, on Greek heroes and Trojan princes equally. But out of that conflict one hero, Menelaus, provided a shining example of success in the quest for love. He was once thought to be “just an inch from death” (he is wounded and Agamemnon fears the wound is mortal, Iliad 4.127–220), yet he recovered to be the hero who could claim conspicuous success in achieving the aim of the campaign – the return of Helen to Sparta to resume their former marriage. (Catullus 11 by contrast advises Lesbia not to “look back on the love we had before”, line 21.)

Sappho’s song will have ended, then, on a note of hope, or perhaps a prayer that love will not be denied to her in future. She has suffered but survived, and Aphrodite will not always allow the pursuit of love to be in vain. Some centuries after Catullus, another Latin poet worked the theme into a poem entitled Pervigilium Veneris (The Vigil of Aphrodite), with the following refrain:

cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet

“They who have never loved will love tomorrow, and they who have loved will love again tomorrow.” One of enduring attractions of Sappho’s songs, as of Umm Kulthum’s, was that although they plumbed the depths of sadness and despair, they themselves gave proof to both men and women of the hopefulness and beauty that might be extracted from love’s inevitable pain and sorrow.

Armand D’Angour is Professor of Classics at the University of Oxford. He has written previously for Antigone on the music of Sophocles’ Ode to Man here and on the Song of Seikilos inscription here.

Further Reading

My chapter “Love’s battlefield: rethinking Sappho Fragment 31” in E. Sanders, C. Thumiger, C. Carey & N. Lowe (eds.), Erôs in Ancient Greece (Oxford UP, 2013) 59-72, is summarised here.  Much more material can be found in T.S. Thorsen & S. Harrison (eds.), Roman Receptions of Sappho (Oxford UP, 2019). Readers may also enjoy the complete translation of Sappho’s (incomplete) works by Diane Rayor (Cambridge UP, 2014).

For an Antigone article on Sappho’s philosophical significance, see here.


1 It is sometimes suggested that the fourth (‘otium’) stanza might have been a separate poem detached from the first three stanzas of Poem 51. In the earliest surviving MS (O = the 14th-century Oxoniensis), the last stanza is written at the top of the page following that on which the first three stanzas are inscribed, but this is evidently due to there being insufficient space on the previous page. That it was a separate poem is unlikely on independent textual and circumstantial grounds (e.g. single Sapphic stanzas are nowhere found as complete poems, the appearance of otiosi at 50.1 sets up the expectation of destructive otium, and a Catullan conclusion to Poem 51 might be expected), as well as in view of the relationship argued here that the ‘destruction of wealthy cities’ stanza is thematically related to the foregoing destructive symptoms wrought by Love.