The Muses Killed Sappho

Giovanni Boccaccio, Famous Women: Sappho

“Sappho of Lesbos, was a girl from the city of Mytilene, but nothing more of her origin has been left to posterity. To be sure, if we consider her pursuit of literature, we will see restored what age has taken away, namely that she was born of noble parents, because a degenerate or plebeian mind would not have been able to desire or attain to literary production. And so, even though we do not know when she flourished, she was nevertheless of such a noble mind, blossoming in age and form, not content just to known how to join words together, but burning with a great fire of the mind and the persuasive vivacity of her genius, she ascended the lofty and jutting peak of Parnassus with her untiring zeal and, with a lucky stroke of boldness joined herself to the Muses, who willingly accepted her. Having wandered the laurel grove, she came all the way to Apollo’s cave and, bathing in the Castalian water, she took up the plectrum of Phoebus and did not hesitate to touch the strings of her sonorous cithara and draw forth her tunes as the sacred nymphs danced in attendance. All of these things have seemed difficult to even the most studious men.

What more can I say? She came so far with her own earnest zeal that even today her most renowned song shines forth with the testimony of the ancients, and there are bronze statues erected to her and inscribed with her name, and she herself is numbered among the most famous poets. To be sure, even the diadems of princes, the crowns of pontiffs, and the laurels of triumphing generals are not more notable than her splendor. But – if one may credit the story – she was as unhappy in love as she was fortunate in her studies. She was taken by the love of a certain youth, or rather, by an unbearable pestilence. When he proved disinclined to her desire, she mourned his obstinate hardness and they say that she sang some mournful songs. I would have thought that they were elegies (since elegies are usually used for this sort of material) if I had not read that a new type of poetry, employing a different meter from others, had been invented by her after she rejected the forms of older poems. These types of poems are called Sapphics after her even today.

And so what have we learned? It seems that the Muses are to blame. They were able to move the Theban rocks when Amphion touched his lyre, but when Sappho sang, they did not even soften a young man’s heart.”

Related image
Sappho and Alcaeus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Saphos lesbia ex Mitilena urbe puella fuit, nec amplius sue originis posteritati relictum est. Sane, si studium inspexerimus, quod annositas abstulit pro parte restitutum videbimus, eam scilicet ex honestis atque claris parentibus genitam; non enim illud unquam degener animus potuit desiderasse vel actigisse plebeius. Hec etenim, etsi quibus temporibus claruerit ignoremus, adeo generose fuit mentis ut, etate florens et forma, non contenta solum literas iungere novisse, ampliori fervore animi et ingenii suasa vivacitate, conscenso studio vigili per abruta Parnasi vertice celso, se felici ausu, Musis non renuentibus, immiscuit; et laureo pervagato nemore in antrum usque Apollinis evasit et, Castalio proluta latice, Phebi sumpto plectro, sacris nynphis choream traentibus, sonore cithare fides tangere et expromere modulos puella non dubitavit; que quidem etiam studiosissimis viris difficilia plurimum visa sunt.

Quid multa? Eo studio devenit suo ut usque in hodiernum clarissimum suum carmen testimonio veterum lucens sit, et erecta illi fuerit statua enea et suo dicata nomini, et ipsa inter poetas celebres numerata; quo splendore profecto, non clariora sunt regum dyademata, non pontificum infule, nec etiam triunphantium lauree. Verum — si danda fides est — uti feliciter studuit, sic infelici amore capta est. Nam, seu facetia seu decore seu alia gratia, cuiusdam iuvenis dilectione, imo intolerabili occupata peste, cum ille desiderio suo non esset accomodus, ingemiscens in eius obstinatam duritiem, dicunt versus flebiles cecinisse; quos ego elegos fuisse putassem, cum tali sint elegi attributi materie, ni legissem ab ea, quasi preteritorum carminum formis spretis, novum adinventum genus, diversis a ceteris incedens pedibus, quod adhuc ex eius nomine saphycum appellatur. Sed quid? Accusande videntur Pyerides que, tangente Anphyone lyram, ogygia saxa movisse potuerunt et adolescentis cor, Sapho canente, mollisse noluerunt.

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