The Anactoria Poem
Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers,
others call a fleet the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it's what-
ever you love best.
And it's easy to make this understood by
everyone, for she who surpassed all human
kind in beauty, Helen, abandoning her
husband--that best of
men--went sailing off to the shores of Troy and
never spent a thought on her child or loving
parents: when the goddess seduced her wits and
left her to wander,
she forgot them all, she could not remember
anything but longing, and lightly straying
aside, lost her way. But that reminds me
she's not here, and I'd rather see her lovely
step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on
all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and
Translated by Jim Powell
Some quick notes on this poem:
--Anactoria is Sappho's lover, and the person to whom the poem is addressed--
At question in it is, appropriate for a lyric poem, only, "the most beautiful of / sights the dark earth offers." What is it? Well, it depends on who you are, for beauty, for Sappho, is a matter of perspective. Whatever one finds the most beautiful is whatever you love; beauty is a function of love. Sappho then goes on to show this to be true using the example of Helen of Troy. Though her physical beauty was allegedly the greatest, Helen herself did not think so, and left her life in order to cavort with Paris, to wander with longing.
Sappho reveals her taste in beauty at the end of the poem, saying that what she loves best is this woman, that Sappho would rather see Helen's glittering face than all of the power in the world. This is a philosophical poem that turns into a love poem.
a biography on Sappho from Poets.org
Only a handful of details are known about the life of Sappho. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Evidence suggests that she had several brothers, married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and had a daughter named Cleis. She spent most of her adult life in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for unmarried young women. Sappho's school devoted itself to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, and Sappho earned great prominence as a dedicated teacher and poet. A legend from Ovid suggests that she threw herself from a cliff when her heart was broken by Phaon, a young sailor, and died at an early age. Other historians posit that she died of old age around 550 B.C.
The history of her poems is as speculative as that of her biography. She was known in antiquity as a great poet: Plato called her "the tenth Muse" and her likeness appeared on coins. It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as "Sapphic" meter. Her poems were first collected into nine volumes around the third century B.C., but her work was lost almost entirely for many years. Merely one twenty-eight-line poem of hers has survived intact, and she was known principally through quotations found in the works of other authors until the nineteenth century. In 1898 scholars unearthed papyri that contained fragments of her poems. In 1914 in Egypt, archeologists discovered papier-mâché coffins made from scraps of paper that contained more verse fragments attributed to Sappho.
Three centuries after her death the writers of the New Comedy parodied Sappho as both overly promiscuous and lesbian. This characterization held fast, so much so that the very term "lesbian" is derived from the name of her home island. Her reputation for licentiousness would cause Pope Gregory to burn her work in 1073. Because social norms in ancient Greece differed from those of today and because so little is actually known of her life, it is difficult to unequivocally answer such claims. Her poems about Eros, however, speak with equal force to men as well as to women.