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This review is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Cover of Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet
Sue LeighLove shook my heart
Philip Freeman, Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet (Norton), $15.95
There have been many books by scholars for scholars on Sappho but American academic Philip Freeman describes his Searching for Sappho as ‘a book for everyone else’. And it is just that. Some parts – for example, Grenfell and Hunt’s discovery in Egypt in 1897 of papyrus with lines by Sappho – read like a detective story. Other passages bring the ancient world vividly alive with well-chosen detail. The book also includes Freeman’s own translations of all the surviving poems and fragments, including those most recently discovered.

Freeman sets out to explore the life, poetry and world of Sappho. Biographical facts he admits are few and some questionable. We do know she was born on Lesbos in the seventh century BCE into a wealthy merchant family, that she had three brothers and her mother was Cleis. We cannot be certain, however, who her father was or the name of her husband (the latter might have been Cercylas according to the Suda, a tenth-century encyclopaedia). She did have a much loved daughter also named Cleis. Sappho was exiled in Sicily around 600 BCE and presumably returned to Lesbos, where she died in old age.

The book’s concern, however, is to get a sense of Sappho’s life from her poetry. That is challenging as much of it has survived only as fragments. Some come from ancient papyri, pottery shards and mummy wrappings found in Egypt. But more than half of the two hundred or so more substantial poems and fragments are to be found ...

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