The poem above is one of the many poems of the famous Greek poet Sappho. Although many of Sappho’s writings were publicly burned in the cities of Rome and Constantinople, much of her work survives today. This is due in major part to the respect felt for her in some Greek and Latin communities who memorized her entire body of work. Even the great philosopher Plato showed her great respect by donning her “the tenth muse”. This is one of Sappho’s shorter known poems, as some are over a thousand words.
I believe it serves as a sort of farewell to perhaps some of her colleagues and friends. She begins, “Then I said to the elegant ladies”. This not only indicates she is speaking to a group of women, obviously, but the use of the word “elegant”, also makes it seem as though she holds these ladies in high regard. She continues, “How you will remember when you are old the glorious things we did in our youth! ” I believe this passage implies that the youth of these ladies is coming to a close and they are passing into adulthood.
The next line reads, “We did many pure and beautiful things. ” What I find most interesting about this line is her choice of the word “We”. This suggests to me that she is not teaching or lecturing a group of students or minions, but rather including herself in the group; making them colleagues or equals. The final lines say “Now that you are leaving the city, love’s sharp pain encircles my heart. ” This line makes it very apparent that the group or audience of women she is speaking to will be departing outside the city very shortly.
She goes on to speak about the pain of love “encircling” her heart. This suggests to me a sort of bittersweet feeling. Perhaps she is sad to see them go but happy that they are moving on and moving forward in their lives. I found this passage of Sappho’s work interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that it seems more like an excerpt from a speech to me rather than a poem. This made me wonder: who could she be speaking to and what setting was the speech given?
The second reason is I recently viewed a documentary on the secret societies of ancient Greece and Rome. One of the types of societies mentioned in this film was schools. This all got me wondering if this was perhaps a speech Sappho may have given at some sort of graduation ceremony for a secret woman’s school or college. While this is just a theory I think this passage illustrates more than anything how little we actually know for a fact about ancient Greece and how much mystery still surrounds the works of Sappho even today.