Resurrecting Sappho (This Post is Not About Lesbians)

A particularly interesting type of poem is the Sappho, named after the female poet who lived on the island of Lesbos around roughly 600 B.C. and was believed to have written love poems directed toward both men and women.  This is the origin of the English word “Lesbian.”  The rhythm of Sapphic meter translates in English to roughly:

DAH dum DAH dum DAH dum dum DAH dum DAH dum
DAH dum DAH dum DAH dum dum DAH dum DAH dum
DAH dum DAH dum DAH dum dum DAH dum DAH dum
     DAH dum dum DAH dum

The italicized beats in the above can also be expressed as strong accents (DAH), although some English-speaking poets take even further liberties than that with the form. Poets.org describes the feel of the Sappho as such:

“The strict meter of the sapphic, with its starts and stops, creates a powerful emotion that the language of the poem intensifies. Starting with a stressed syllable, as opposed to the familiar iambic foot that begins on an unstressed syllable, provides a sense of forcefulness and urgency to the sapphic…” 

Finding modern poetry on the internet written in sapphic meter is next to impossible.  A search for “Sappho” turns up sites on the ancient poet herself, and a search for “Sapphic” turns up mostly lesbian sites with no poetry. 

I did find the poem Puck’s Lament along with a great essay on Sappho by poet Elois Stonborough on the blog Woman-Stirred (ironically, one of the lesbian sites that does not called itself the Sapphic Something-Or-Other).  Here is an excerpt:

“lids with love-in-idleness; touch lips lightly
to your vellum cheek and inhale the incense
of your breath; confess my distress then disappear
before you wake.”

Stonborough also includes the following excerpt of one of Sappho’s original poems as translated by Elizabeth Vandiver:

“Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless
Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you,
Don’t–I beg you, Lady–with pains and torments
Crush down my spirit”

An older poem, Sapphics, was published in 1866 by Algernon Charles Swinburne.  Here is a stanza:

“So the goddess fled from her place, with awful
Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;
While behind a clamour of singing women
    Severed the twilight.”

Another old poem in sapphic meter is called Night Hymns On Lake Nipigon by Duncan Campbell Scott.  Here is an excerpt:

“Soft with the silver drip of the regular paddles
Falling in rhythm, timed with the liquid, plangent
Sounds from the blades where the whirlpools break and are carried
Down into darkness”

If you want to read more, ablemuse.com has a great discussion thread regarding sapphic meter with many examples.  I hope more people will become interested in both reading and writing this very beautiful form of poetry.

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1 Comment

  1. […] for quite some time now, and I figured I’d better post it before I lost it.  It’s a Sappho, a vastly underused poetic form that I love for its unique rhythm and that I’m […]


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