["Sappho," 50 CE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli]
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
So what do we know? Sappho lived on Lesbos in the late 7th century BCE, though she was exiled to Sicily for a time. It is possible that she had a daughter named Kleïs and highly probably that she was born into an aristocratic family. She wrote wedding songs in addition to the poetry pertaining to her personal life. She appears to have had an ongoing rivalry with a fellow poet named Andromeda. We now know her best for her romantic connections to the young women of her circle, though her poetry shows that she had relationships with men.
Her poems were collected into nine volumes by the Library of Alexandria. Today, only one complete poem* and just shy of 200 fragments remain. Both the Ancient Greeks and the Romans considered her one of the greatest lyric poets. Catullus was particularly taken with her work and translated at least one of her poems, Fragment 31, into Latin (Catullus 51). In the 18th and early 19th centuries, a tradition among female English poets of writing at least one poem from the point of view of Sappho about to jump off the cliff. It was only in the late 19th century when Pierre Louÿs claimed to have found and translated the Songs of Bilitis** that Sappho became associated specifically with lesbianism. Her reputation is immense, but she lived so long ago that common knowledge about her has shifted and changed drastically over time.
*Or possibly two. Whether Fragment 31 is incomplete or if it just happens to have the first line of another poem tacked onto the end is still up for debate, and probably will remain so unless someone finds another manuscript.
**Yeah, he wrote them all himself. Well, sort of. It turns out he stole some of it from the Palatine Anthology and other bits from Sappho herself.
Sappho. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Translated by Anne Carson. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.
Sappho - Wikipedia
The Poems of Sappho - Internet Sacred Text Archive (Note: Anne Carson's translations are better, but as they're not online, have these instead.)
Sappho 31 - Wikipedia
Catullus 51 - Wikipedia
Sappho and Phaeon, by Mary Robinson - Internet Sacred Text Archive