Why This Room is Special
Eyes cast upwards in desperate search of the gods, Greek poet Sappho leaps to watery death for love of the ferryman Phaon. This painful image originally appeared in famous eighteenth-century coffee-house paper The Spectator. Although the story of Sappho’s suicide is almost certainly pure invention, it was a persistent source of cultural fascination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet today we are more likely to think of Sappho not as falling victim to heterosexual desire but as giving voice to homosexual love.
So what do we know about Sappho? She was born on the Greek island of Lesbos in the second half of the seventh century BC. We think she was married, and she may have had a daughter. She wrote hymns, a lament and a narrative poem, as well as lyrics alluding to same-sex love. Her own words can tell us the most about her. Sappho had the eye for detail to notice an unplucked apple out of reach, the passion to feel love as a stirring beneath the skin, and the boldness of imagination to reject the war imagery of ancient epic, preferring instead the glimpse of a loved one’s face.
The poets in the Women’s Library saw Sappho stood as a lonely figure in a masculine tradition—a tradition from which they were often excluded by their lack of access to classical education. This explains why Sappho’s leap held such power for them. It became a way of exploring their struggle to express themselves as female writers. ‘What wert thou[?]’ asks divorce reformer Caroline Norton in ‘The Picture of Sappho’ (1840). Her poem then meditates on the myth-making, before resolving itself with the raw exclamation: ‘Thou wert a woman, and wert left despairing!’