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This review is taken from PN Review 111, Volume 23 Number 1, September - October 1996.

KNOWING AND GUESSING MARGARET WILLIAMSON, Sappho's Immortal Daughters (Harvard University Press) £15.95

We are getting hardened to the question, 'Is there a text in this class?' but Sappho raises the issue in a way that cannot be avoided: 'Is there a text with this poet?' We have just one complete poem, ten others nearly so, and nothing else but fragments; yet no one wants to leave the subject there. Sappho matters beyond anything implied by the amount of her poetry: she is not only a historical fact, but a myth.

This lucid new book accepts the necessity of creating a Sappho who is at least half guesswork, and whose 'Sapphic loves' can't easily be kept out of the discussion; but it offers a scrupulous and detailed account of what we now know about that ancient world which leaves the reader in a much better position to fill in the gaps in the poetry, and to ask appropriate questions of the bits that do survive. The author is a classicist with a literary training, and understands how to address the beginner as well as the specialist. Much of the book is a shrewd and amusing deconstruction of how Sappho has been understood in the past: Sappho the Tenth Muse ('real women can't be poets'), Sappho whose love of flowers shows she was not 'a child of sodden vice', Sappho the voluptuary, particularly dear to the Romans. But the climax of the argument is a close analysis of the surviving poems - the 'immortal daughters' of the title - which is ...


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