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  • Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet by Philip Freeman

A review of Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet by Philip Freeman, reviewed by Erica Trabold.


Searching for Sappho, The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet, Philip Freeman, Erica Trabold

Philip Freeman. Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

From antiquity to modern times, the Greek poet Sappho and her lyricism have captivated audiences. Sappho, who lived from the late 7th to early 6th centuries on the Greek island of Lesbos, was called "the tenth Muse" by Plato—high praise for a woman and high praise for a poet in the parameters of the ancient world. In Philip Freeman's Searching for Sappho, Sappho is further hailed as "the first woman poet." In a male-dominated tradition, Sappho's catalog of songs indeed offer an important perspective: the heartfelt political and emotional life of a woman in ancient times.

Very little, however, remains known concerning Sappho's life. The centuries have taken their toll and destroyed the record. In seven chapters, Freeman strings together the facts we know for certain: Sappho wrote lyric poems, had a fair amount of wealth, was particularly skilled in hexameter, and crafted a catalog praised and imitated in a field dominated by males. Sappho, in contrast to her male contemporaries, offers a window into the world and lives of women. Only fragments of her poetry have survived the ages—nearly 200 of over 10,000 songs—some only a single remaining word in length. The rest has been lost to time.

Why then, does Sappho's work remain so fascinating to modern readers? Is it her undeniable poetic skill that draws audiences to the work, or is it the mysteries that surround her life? Freeman uses these questions as a guide, writing into what tradition and Sappho's own poetry can reveal to assemble a portrait of the woman that was Sappho, bit by fragmentary bit.

Rather than trying to piece together a singular timeline, Freeman uses Sappho as a study for what women's lives might have been like in ancient Greece. Trying to complete a history of Sappho's existence, Freeman acknowledges, would not only be impossible, but irresponsible because so few fragments of her poetry remain: "arguing on the grounds of what Sappho doesn't say in her surviving poems is problematic." Instead, the book's aim is to put forward a picture of ancient Greek life from the perspective of a woman, since most ancient writing is filtered through the male perspective and, therefore, limited and biased.

Freeman's introduction to the book presents a short history lesson detailing how and when archeologists began discovering papyrus fragments of poetry later attributed to Sappho. Before zooming in to closely examine Sappho's work, the reader learns about the ancient heaps of garbage at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and the researchers who began excavating them from the desert in the latter half of the 19th century. It is with this carefully-crafted frame readers enter the world of Sappho, as Freeman has constructed it.

The following seven chapters parse out the probable events of Sappho's life, based on what general history and Sappho's surviving poems can tell us. Freeman forms an image of what childhood, marriage, motherhood, family life, erotic relationships, religion, and old age must have been like for ancient Greek women. Through Sappho's poetry, we get a sense of the emotional nature of each life stage. The most fascinating part of this book is that it was written for a general audience, one that may not be familiar with Greek history, poetry, or mythology. Freeman chronologically describes the necessary elements of these things in a straightforward prose style that is easy to access and understand, even for the casual reader. The book is a brief overview that could be read in a single sitting.

At the end of Freeman's historical account, he includes a full appendix of Sappho's surviving poetry. To the reader, a few of the songs will sound familiar, having been critically analyzed in previous chapters. Many of the poems, however, will be first encountered here at the end of the book, where the reader [End Page 27] can make sense of them herself. After internalizing the framework for analysis—understanding the poems are fragments, that ellipses indicate where words are missing, etc.—the reader has the tools to unpack the rest of the poems at a slower pace. Freeman doesn't tell his audience how to interpret each fragment. Instead, he tells the reader what she needs to know about Sappho's life in order to make sense of the fragments and the beauty therein.

Freeman's previous works include biographies of Saint Brigid, Saint Patrick, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar, as well as structures for understanding Greek myths and ancient governments. It is no wonder he is skilled at writing for a general audience. In the epilogue of Searching for Sappho, Freeman writes: "We can only hope that more of her poems will be discovered in the future that will help us understand this remarkable woman—but for now we are left wanting." And though this "woefully incomplete" portrait of Sappho's life may leave readers wanting more, Freeman's insight gives reading suggestions for other woman poets who wrote in the tradition of Sappho. Their work, we can infer, might well fill some of that void.

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