Sapphic Love?

Sappho, lyric poet of Lesbos

Sappho, lyric poet of Lesbos^

Over 600 years before the advent of what is now carefully referred to as the Common Era there was born a female child on a faraway Greek island known as Lesbos. Her name, in Attic Greek, was Σαπφώ, transliterated as the far more familiar ‘Sappho.’ More than two thousand years after her death, in the late 1800s, her name and homeland would be used for the first time to refer to female homosexuality and, indeed, this is one of the subjects that people most closely associate with Sappho.

She was a lyric poet of no mean stripe, established among her peers as both skilled and eloquent, but unfortunately very little of her work survives to the current day. According to records she was a mother to a daughter named Cleïs, after her mother, though this is by no means certain; the reference may have been to a personal and much-cherished slave-girl. She wrote about loving both women and men, yet there is considerable doubt as to the biographical veracity of her work. Certainly she was a Lesbian poet (that being, a poet from Lesbos), arguably the Lesbian poet, but was she the lesbian poet or, in fact, a bisexual poet? A Lesbian lesbian or a Lesbian bisexual?

Does it actually matter? Opinion on that will vary.

One thing that is not in question is her incredible impact across all of Classical antiquity. Sappho was a woman who had won the respect and admiration of her peers, a victory that was unlikely to have been easy. Greeks loved her. Romans loved her. She was not universally loved, of course, and saw a period of exile from her home to Sicily for an undetermined number of years – but this post isn’t about all of that, in any case.

This is about her poetic form.

I want to be clear about something, here. I am no historian. I am no anthropologist. I have no degrees of any sort, let alone those of language or poetry. As the Doctor once put it, ‘I’m a madman with a box – without a box!’ My position here comes from fascination and love of written expression, not one of formal structured learning.

I have never read anything more than snippets of Sappho’s poetry, both because I haven’t gone out of my way to do so and because I don’t speak Greek. Her poetry has been translated, of course, but such translations are by their nature imperfect.

What I have read about is something called the ‘Sapphic stanza.’

Not long ago I was trawling through pages about poetic forms looking, basically, for inspiration. I got it when I happened to see the word ‘Sapphic’ in a list of verse forms on Wikipedia. I freely admit that it caught my eye because it was related to that famous Greek poet – I’ve researched her a little before and I find her a fascinating figure. I knew her reputation was strong but somehow I had never heard of the Sapphic stanza. Aeolic verse, yes, but nothing actually named after Sappho.

I was hooked. So, like the good little fish that I can be at times, I swallowed that hook good and hard. Sadly, I was also extremely tired, so my initial attempts to parse the information I was reading were all fruitless. After a hard night’s unsatisfying sleep I came back to it and things became more clear.

Let me give you a brief run-down*.

The Sapphic Stanza

The first thing to understand about the Sapphic stanza is that it is designed for Classical language, specifically Greek. It doesn’t translate to English well. Part of the reason for this is that the poetic form used relies on quantitative metre. This differs from qualitative metre, the kind used most commonly in English-language poetry, in one very essential way: qualitative metre keys on syllable stress, whereas quantitative metre keys on syllable weight.

These may seem like the same thing. At first I was confused – isn’t the weight of a syllable the same as its stress? – but no, indeed it is not. The difference is important and makes Sapphic stanzas, in their purest form, exceedingly hard to craft in English.

Syllable weight, in this context, is defined roughly by how long the syllable takes to say. A syllable with a diphthong or a long vowel or which is followed by two consonants is long; otherwise it is considered short. In this way the single-syllabic words ‘lot’ and ‘lout’ are short and long, respectively – but only in isolation. Is the syllable ‘lot’ still short if followed immediately by the word ‘then’ or does the break between the words preserve the short status of ‘lot?’ Would the syllable be automatically made long, for that matter, if it were changed to ‘lots’?

These aspects are all concepts that my poor, untrained mind are ill-suited to understanding.

Luckily, there’s another option.

Modern Sapphic Stanza

Undoubtedly prompted by Anglocentric poets some time ago, the concept of the ‘modern Sapphic stanza’ is really easy – the poet simply substitutes the quantitative metre for a qualitative metre, equating a long syllable with a stressed one and short with unstressed.

Simple as that.

Stanza Construction

Sapphic stanzas are, depending on your opinion, either made of two lines of equal length plus a third with five extra syllables, or three lines and then a fourth that is five syllables long. I tend toward the latter view simply because I find it easier to keep in mind. Either way it comes out the same. The structure is based around the trochee (LONG-short) and the dactyl (LONG-short-short), as follows:

/x /x /xx /x /x
/x /x /xx /x /x
/x /x /xx /x /x
/xx /x

The above chart uses ‘/’ to denote a long/stressed syllable and ‘x’ to denote a short/unstressed syllable. In other words:

DA-da DA-da DA-da-da DA-da DA-da
DA-da DA-da DA-da-da DA-da DA-da
DA-da DA-da DA-da-da DA-da DA-da
DA-da-da DA-da

Or, if you like:

Apples, apples, oranges, apples, apples
Apples, apples, oranges, apples, apples
Apples, apples, oranges, apples, apples
Oranges, apples

Another way in which this differs from most of the poetry that English speakers are likely to be familiar with is that each line of the stanza begins with a stressed syllable rather than an unstressed one. The remarkable strength this imposes on the verse is undeniable and, especially when one is writing it, immediately obvious.

Sapphic stanzas typically don’t rhyme though, of course, there’s little to stop an enterprising poet from doing so. A poem written in this style can be of any number of stanzas. Go nuts, write for as long as you care to. Forget trying to fit your thoughts into X number of stanzas, risking the unlikely ridicule of others should you exceed or fail to meet that stanza count. Write one. Write 1,000. It’s your choice.


While I’ve only written a little in this form, and probably not very adeptly, I’ve thus far greatly enjoyed the Sapphic stanza. While this is by no means the only style in which Sappho wrote it is perhaps her best-known form. Others contemporary with her also wrote in the same style, to the point where people are undecided as to whether Sappho actually invented it or whether she simply adopted and popularised it. For my part, based on only the little I’ve read – which is barely any – I like to think she did indeed invent it.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site I don’t consider myself a skilled poet. One thing that I can say about poetry, though, is that I have a much easier time simply enjoying the process of crafting than I do short stories or longer pieces. Even articles about poetry are less fun to write than poetry.

This form, though, I found particularly satisfying. It’s difficult, there’s no doubt about that; while part of me wants to try to older, quantitative form a bigger part of me is sure that I need more knowledge of quantitative verse in general before I even try to approach that hurdle.

For now, though, I’m enjoying my little imperfect forays into modern Sapphic verse – and right now that’s enough for me.

* = Again, I hasten to point out that I am no wise poet or knowledgeable historian. This explanation of Sapphic stanzas may be wildly inaccurate but it is my understanding.

^ = Curiously enough I rather think this portrait of Sappho rather resembles Jennifer Ehle in her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.