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The Story of Sapho

The Story of Sapho

by Madeleine de Scudery

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Ridiculed for her Saturday salon, her long romance novels, and her protofeminist ideas, Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701) has not been treated kindly by the literary establishment. Yet her multivolume novels were popular bestsellers in her time, translated almost immediately into English, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Arabic.

The Story of Sapho


Ridiculed for her Saturday salon, her long romance novels, and her protofeminist ideas, Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701) has not been treated kindly by the literary establishment. Yet her multivolume novels were popular bestsellers in her time, translated almost immediately into English, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Arabic.

The Story of Sapho makes available for the first time in modern English a self-contained section from Scudéry's novel Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, best known today as the favored reading material of the would-be salonnières that Molière satirized in Les précieuses ridicules. The Story tells of Sapho, a woman writer modeled on the Greek Sappho, who deems marriage slavery. Interspersed in the love story of Sapho and Phaon are a series of conversations like those that took place in Scudéry's own salon in which Sapho and her circle discuss the nature of love, the education of women, writing, and right conduct. This edition also includes a translation of an oration, or harangue, of Scudéry's in which Sapho extols the talents and abilities of women in order to persuade them to write.

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University of Chicago Press
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Other Voice in Early Modern Europe
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The Story of Sapho

By Karen Newman

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Karen Newman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226143996


To praise the admirable Sapho, Madam, I must begin by praising her native land, since it is natural to praise those things in which we ourselves have an interest, and her native land is also my own. To make you understand the advantages of her birth, you must learn something about one of the most pleasing places on earth, the isle of Lesbos, the loveliest and most fertile that the Aegean Sea can boast. The island is so large that in many places you can imagine yourself on the mainland, but it is not so mountainous that you think it is nothing but a mass of cliffs rising from the sea, nor is it so flat that it offers no heights or seems always about to be engulfed by the surrounding waves. Instead, the Isle of Lesbos offers all the variety to be found in those kingdoms that are not islands: mountains and large forests gird its eastern coast, while on the opposite coast are prairies and plains. The air is pure and bracing, the earth is abundantly fertile, trade is active, and the continent is so close to Phrygia that you can reach a foreign court in a mere two hours. Mytilene, the principal city, is so excellently built with two such beautiful ports that visitors inevitably admire it and delight in staying there. Here Sapho was born, Madam, while the wise Pittacusruled and attracted to his kingdom innumerable accomplished persons. His son Tisander, one of the worthiest gentlemen in the world, made any visit to Mytilene amusing, but since he has long since died, I won't pause to speak of him even though he was one of Sapho's admirers.

Having told you of the birthplace of this extraordinary person, I must tell you something about her family: she was the daughter of a man of quality named Scamandrogine, who was of such noble blood that no house in all Mytilene had ancestors stretching back so far or a more illustrious and undisputed lineage. Both Sapho's father and mother were intelligent and virtuous, but she had the bad fortune to lose them at an early age. Since she was only six when they died, she received from them only her earliest inclination toward virtue. They left her in the care of a relation named Cynegire, who possessed all the qualities necessary for raising a child; they also left her with a fortune considerably less than her merits warranted but nevertheless sufficient to make her independent and let her take her rightful place in the world. Sapho had a brother as well, Charaxus, who was extremely rich because Scamandrogine had divided his wealth unequally between them at his death and left much more to his unworthy son than to his daughter, who deserved to wear a crown.

I do not believe that in all Greece, Madam, anyone can compare with Sapho. I shan't take the time here to recount her childhood since by the age of twelve she was already talked of as a person of such beauty, wit, and judgment that the entire world admired her. I will simply say that there has never been anyone of such noble inclinations or with more capacity to learn whatever she wished to know. However charming Sapho was from the cradle, I want to paint the wit and beauty she now possesses so that you may know her better. I tell you, Madam, that though I speak of Sapho as the most extraordinary and most captivating woman in all of Greece, you must not think she is one of those great beauties in whom even Envy cannot find fault; but you should know, nevertheless, that though her beauty is not of that sort, it is capable of inspiring as great a passion as that of the most noted beauties on earth.

To describe the admirable Sapho, Madam, I will tell you that she speaks of herself as small, when she wants to speak ill of herself, but she is really of average height and as nobly formed and neat of figure as one could ask. As for her complexion, it is not as pale as it might be, but nevertheless it is so radiant that you could call it beautiful. But what Sapho possesses above all else are eyes so beautiful and lively, so full of spirit, that one can neither brave the brilliance of her regard nor turn away from it. Sapho's beautiful eyes radiate such penetrating fire, and at the same time such passionate softness, that liveliness and serenity dwell in them in harmony. What makes them striking is the contrast of black and white, which never seems harsh because a certain loving ebullience softens them in so charming a way that I don't believe anyone anywhere has such an awe-inspiring gaze. What's more, she has certain qualities rarely found together, a countenance that is fine and unassuming, yet regal and free. Sapho's face is oval, her mouth small and full, and her hands so lovely that they capture hearts. Or if you wish, you might compare her to that learned young girl so beloved of the Muses whose hands are worthy of gathering the most beautifulblossoms on Parnassus.

But what really makes Sapho admirable, Madam, are the charms of her mind, which far surpass even the charms of her person. The compass of her mind is so large that what she doesn't understand, no one can. She has such facility for learning whatever she seeks to know that though you never hear of her studying, she knows all things. She was born with a predilection for writing poetry, a predilection that happily she has cultivated, with the result that her verse is better than anyone's. She has, in fact, invented meters that even Hesiod and Homer didn't know and which have been so admired that they are named saphics after her. She also writes prose quite well--her works are so tender that the hearts of all who read what she writes are moved. One day I saw her improvise a song that was a thousand times more touching than the most plaintive of elegies--there is a certain loving turn to her mind that seems hers alone. She can describe sentiments difficult to describe with such delicacy, and she knows so well how to anatomize an amorous heart, if I may so describe it, that she is able to rehearse the jealousies, anxieties, impatience, joys, antipathies, sighs, despair, hopes, rebellions--all the tumultuous feelings of love known only to those who feel or have felt them.

Nor does the admirable Sapho know only about love; she knows no less well everything about generosity and how to write and speak of all things so perfectly that nothing whatsoever falls outside her understanding. Don't imagine that her knowledge is simply intuitive--Sapho has seen all that is worth seeing and has taken pains to learn all that merits her curiosity. She also plays the lyre, sings, and dances gracefully. She has even sought to know all those works with which so-called learned ladies entertain themselves. But what is admirable in her, this person who knows so many varied things, is that she knows them without pedantry, without conceit, and without disdain for those who are unlearned. Her conversation is so natural and easy, so charming, that in generalconversation she is never heard to say anything but what someone untutored, but of large understanding, might say. Knowledgeable people know perfectly well that Nature alone cannot have opened her mind without study, but Sapho so desires to behave as befits her sex that she almost never speaks of anything that is not deemed suitable for ladies. Only to her particular friends does she acknowledge her learning.

Don't imagine that Sapho affects a vulgar ignorance in conversation; on the contrary, she understands so well the art of guiding conversation that you never leave her without the sense of having heard countless beautiful and agreeable things. Her confident manner gives her such a command over others that she can say whatever she wishes to say to those around her and yet always seems to please. Her wit is so obliging that she speaks equally well of serious matters and of gallant and frivolous things, so that it is sometimes difficult to believe that one person could possess such divergent talents. Even more commendable in Sapho is the fact that no one in the world is a better person, more generous, less self-interested, less self-important. She is loyal in her friendships, with a soulso tender and a heart so passionate that to be loved by her is doubtless to be supremely happy. She is ingenious at ever finding new means to please those she esteems, to make them know her affection, and, while not seeming to do anything out of the ordinary, to persuade those she loves how dearly she loves them. Incapable of envy, she is just and generous in recognizing merit and takes more pleasure in praising others than in being praised. And beyond all I have just said, she is considerate without being weak, infinitely accommodating and agreeable. If upon occasion she refuses her friends something, she does so with such civility and gentleness that they feel obliged to her nonetheless. Imagine, then, how they feelwhen she is able to grant her friendship and trust.

Such is the marvelous Sapho, Madam; but her brother has quite different inclinations from his sister. It isn't that Charaxus has no good qualities, it is rather that he has many bad ones. He has courage, but the kind of courage that makes the bull bolder than the stag, not at all the sort of valor that is sometimes confused with magnanimity and that is so indispensable to a gentleman.

Despite her modesty and the care she took to concealher accomplishments, the marvelous young woman I have just described for you, Madam, became the talk of the town. Her renown had in fact bruited her name throughout Greece, and so gloriously that no one of her sex before her had ever achieved such a reputation. All over Greece, the most important men of the day avidly commissioned her verse and then guarded it with as much care as admiration. Even so, her poetry remained a mystery, so rarely given and seemingly held in such low esteem by Sapho herself that it increased her fame all the more. No one was ever able to discover when she wrote: she saw friends constantly and was rarely seen reading or writing. She took the time to do whatever pleased her and planned her time so well that she always had leisure both for her friends and for herself. She was so much mistress of herself that whatever cares troubled her spirit, they never showed in her eyes unless she chose to let them.

I should also tell you, Madam, something about those whom the admirable Sapho honored with her friendship so that you can appreciate her good judgment. Among those who attended her there were four women who could most often be found at her entertainments: first Amithone, then Erinne, next Athys, and finally Cydnon, my sister. Though custom frowns upon our praising those closely related to us, and renders our sincerity suspect when we do so, nevertheless, I believe myself obligated, for Sapho's glory, to praise Cydnon since she has always been Sapho's best friend. It is right, therefore, to justify her choice. I will tell you, to begin my description of these four, that Amithone is tall and finely formed with a fair countenance. Without being particularly beautiful, she attracts and pleases. She is sweet tempered and obliging, correct and well spoken. Without any learning beyond what she has gleaned from the conversation of Sapho and the cultivated people around her, she has a fine comprehension even of those things most difficult to understand. Endowed by the gods with a natural understanding enlarged simply through social intercourse, she speaks judiciously of all things.

As for Erinne, she is quite different. She has cultivated what she possesses of understanding so determinedly that although she does not have the artless understanding of Amithone, Art has so complemented Nature in her that her conversation is always charming. Her imagination has not the scope of Amithone's, but its reach is sure. In fact, she writes quite pleasing verse, which, if Sapho's modesty were to be believed, should be ranked above her own.

The beautiful Athys possesses allthat is good in both Erinne and Amithone: she has instinctive understanding, and she has taken the trouble to embellish it with learning and to polish it through conversation with the cultured persons of Mytilene. Sapho has so inspired her with that modest air that makes Sapho herself charming, that Athys cannot abide anyone saying she knows what other ladies do not. She admits only that she judges all things with no other guide than common sense and socialcustom. And her person is charming--she is well formed, with lustrous chestnut hair so bright and beautiful it is almost blond. Her face is pretty, with a marvelous mouth, a well-made nose, brilliant eyes, and a modest air, and she is exceedingly good-natured. Yet, as admirable and beloved as were these three, Sapho loved Cydnon the most of all.

I am unsure how to render the portrait of my sister, Madam, even though I have promised to do so. Perhaps having sworn that I don't resemble her at all, I may be permitted to praise her as I would another, in order to justify Sapho's choice. I should say that all those whom decorum permits to speak of her beauty find her both beautifuland amiable, though she is petite and brunette. But it isn't by way of her person that she won Sapho's friendship; I must speak of her temperament and wit rather than of her beauty. You should know, then, that Cydnon is naturally gay, gentle, kind, and obliging; she is ready and willing to undertake anything for her friends. What's more, she is knowledgeable enough about the higher things and loves with a tenderness so perfectly attuned to that in Sapho's heart, that they could never agree which one knew best how to love. It's not that the lighthearted aren't generally capable of great attachment, but that her gaiety is never excessive and never descends to mockery unless in innocent fun.

These four were not only from Mytilene, but from Sapho's own neighborhood, and so they were accustomed to being always together. Certainly, they saw other ladies upon occasion, but they did not spend time with them as eagerly as they did with one another. Their bond was so strong that one was not invited to a fete without inviting the others. Judge for yourself, Madam, how this admirable company was sought after by almost all the cultivated and accomplished persons of Mytilene, and there were many of them--few cities in Greece could boast so many, especially in Prince Tisander's day, Pittacus's son, who was enamored of Sapho. This prince was Sapho's first conquest--I fear I will be unable to observe the limits I set out for myself and may be obliged to speak longer than I resolved to do--but since he is no more, I will not stop to describe his merit fully since it would only serve to make you pity his miserable destiny. I will simply say that he was such an admirable gentleman that he had won the esteem of the illustrious Cyrus, who is here listening, and well deserved to be mourned by him after his death.

Tisander was one of the most accomplished of men. In his early youth, when love is especially passionate, there was a large party in Mytilene for the wedding of Amithone, who was marrying an extremely rich man singled out by Pittacus for certain reasons of state. Pittacus honored this fete with his presence, as did his son the prince, and there Tisander spoke for the first time with the beautifulSapho. Cynegire, carefulof her charge's upbringing, rarely allowed her to attend public assemblies, so Tisander had seen her only at church. What surprised him greatly was that she appeared unhappy even though she was at the wedding of a friend. Wondering at the lovely melancholy visible in her eyes, Tisander sought her acquaintance:

"You will find me bold, perhaps, amiable Sapho, to wish to begin my conversation with you by demanding of you a confidence; nevertheless, I cannot refrain from asking why you are more serious today than when I see you in church where I have occasionally had the pleasure of meeting you? I have long wished to have the pleasure of speaking with you," he continued, "and wish to know if I should pity you for some small misfortune; then I might, even from the first moment of our acquaintance, render you some proof of my esteem by the concern I feelfor whatever concerns you."

"What you say is so kind," replied Sapho, "that I am obliged to tell you the cause of my sadness, but you may find it so ill founded that you will find it difficult to share my feelings. I must admit to you, my lord, that I have never attended a wedding without sadness; my mind is so peculiar that I cannot share in Amithone's happiness even though she is one of my dearest friends and even though ordinarily I am the most sensitive person in the world to the joys that come to those I love."

"It must be, then," said Tisander, "that you don't consider marriage a good." "It is true," answered Sapho, "I consider it as unending slavery." "So you consider all men tyrants?" rejoined Tisander. "I believe they all may become so once they become husbands," she replied, "and this disagreeable thought always comes to mind when I am at a wedding. Sadness steals upon me in proportion to the interest I take in the happiness of whoever is being married." "What upsets me in what you say, Madam," said Tisander, "is that I fear that the hatred you have for marriage comes from your hatred of men in general; you would be unjust to regard your sex as superior to ours. The truth is," he continued, "were there many women like you, you would be right to do so; were there even two or three others on earth, I would consent to what you say. But charming Sapho, since you are peerless in all the world and have discovered the art of uniting all the virtues and excellent qualities of both sexes in your singular person, be content to be admired or envied by all women and to be adored by all men, but without hating them more generally, as I believe you do."

"Since I am not unjust," she replied, "I know well that I mustn't pay attention to these praises you offer me; furthermore, I know there are men who are truly accomplished, who merit all my esteem and who might even secure a share of my friendship. But I will say it again, the moment I consider them as husbands, I consider them as masters, masters apt to become tyrants, and at that moment, it is impossible not to hate them. I thank the gods for giving me this inclination against marriage." "But if there were some gentleman, happy and accomplished enough to touch your heart," replied Tisander, "perhaps you might change your mind." "I don't know if my feelings will change," she responded, "but I know that unless I lose my reason in love, I will never lose my liberty, and I am resolved never to let my slave become my tyrant." "I can't conceive," said Tisander, "that there could be anyone in the world with the audacity to cease to obey you, nor can I conceive of someone who would dare to command you. Really," he added, "it is impossible to imagine that an admirable young woman, so learned--" "Enough, my lord," interrupted Sapho modestly, "don't go on like this; I know so little, that I am not even sure I am right to speak as I have."

As she was speaking, Pittacus, Prince of Mytilene, sent for Tisander, and he was obliged to leave Sapho, but it must be said that he didn't leave her entirely since he lost his heart in that moment, vanquished by the power of this beautiful lady. His love did not remain long hidden because Tisander was young, with an open disposition unsuited to concealment, so everyone soon knew of his love for Sapho. The day after the wedding of Amithone he appeared first thing at her house and showed her so many favors that no one could doubt but that he was in love with this admirable lady. It was the height of the season in Mytilene, and no day passed without some new amusement. But Tisander was not destined to be loved by the admirable Sapho. Her feelings for him were not what he felt for her--that je ne sais quoi that provokes love even more than true merit; she esteemed him and acknowledged his affection, but she was not able to follow the advice of her brother, who wanted her to sacrifice her liberty to her fortune and return the prince's love. But even if she had had the consent of Pittacus to marry the prince, she would not have agreed to marry him, because Sapho hated marriage and did not love Tisander at all. Nevertheless, her brother continually hoped to bend her to his will and gave numerous parties for the entire city.

This little court was so civilized and charming--none could have been more so. The admirable Sapho inspired in all who encountered her a certain civility that somehow communicated itself even to those who had never met her. I was surprised that this civility had not spread throughout Mytilene, let alone throughout the Isle of Lesbos, but it had not. Perhaps half the city was prevented from profiting from Sapho's conversation and that of her circle by envy, ignorance, and resentment. To tell the truth, she lost nothing by not mingling with the kind of people who were frightened by her intelligence and breadth of mind. But it was different with visitors to Lesbos; they had hardly arrived when they headed straight for Sapho's, and they departed completely charmed by her conversation. And this was no surprise, since it was impossible to pass two hours in her company without admiring her enormously and without feeling inclined to love her. Five or six of us young men who were inseparable followed Prince Tisander when he visited Sapho, and we didn't stop even when her severity made him so melancholy that he stopped going there himself.

The ignorant--or rather, envious--cabalthat was opposed to ours spoke of us so disparagingly that I can't think back on it without astonishment. They imagined that at Sapho's we conversed about poetic rules, about esoteric questions and philosophy; they might even have said that magic was taught there. The truth is, these professed enemies of reason and virtue were a strange sort; having encountered them myself, I found that the most reasonable of those who shunned Sapho and her friends were young men, merry and rash, who bragged that they could not read; they prided themselves on the sort of militant ignorance that gave them the audacity to censure what they knew nothing about. They had persuaded themselves that men of wit did nothing but talk of things they didn't understand, but they never bothered to find out for themselves how those they shunned so diligently really did talk and converse. They made up the most extravagant stories, which made them ridiculous to everyone of good sense. But in addition to these men who were capable only of an empty, frenetic pleasure that drove them continually from visit to visit without knowing what they were looking for, or what they wanted to do, there were also women of the same type who shunned Sapho and her friends and who mocked them in their own fashion. These were women who believed they need know nothing more than that they were beautiful, that they need learn nothing more than to dress well, women, I tell you, who couldn't talk about anything but fashion and whose charm consisted of nothing more than consuming the dinners their gallants served up all the while spouting foolishness. They complained bitterly when they felt they were not treated royally or with respect.

There was still another sort who held that being virtuous required a lady to know nothing more than how to be a wife to her husband, a mother to her children, and a mistress of her family and her slaves. They thought Sapho and her friends spent too much time in conversation and amused themselves in speaking of things that were not strictly necessary. There were also some men who considered a woman nothing more than the first slave of the household; they forbade their daughters to read anything but prayer books and didn't even want them to sing Sapho's songs. Finally, there were both men and women who shunned us, whom one could justly rank with the grossest sort of people even though they were persons of quality. It wasn't that there weren't some people of intelligence who falsely imagined our society to be as the fools described it, but they didn't seek to enlighten themselves. They believed the lies and didn't bother to disabuse themselves.

The truth is, something strange happened that persuaded them that it was dangerous for women to apply their minds to anything more important than ribbons, shoe buckles, and the trifles of ladies' toilettes. You see, Madam, there was a woman in Mytilene who, having seen Sapho in her youth when she lived nearby, got it into her head to imitate her. She believed she imitated her so well that, having moved to another house, she fancied herself the Sapho of her neighborhood. But in truth, she imitated Sapho badly; in fact, I think there could not have been two people less alike. You remember, Madam, that I said that Sapho knows almost everything that one could know, but she never plays the learned lady : her conversation is natural, witty, and decorous. But this other woman, who was named Damophile, was not at all like her although she tried to imitate Sapho. To portray her, and to help you see the difference between the two, I must tell you that Damophile, having got it into her head to emulate Sapho, didn't attempt to emulate her in every particular, but only in being learned.

Believing that she had found the secret of gaining even more of a reputation, Damophile did everything that Sapho did not do. First, she had five or six masters always in tow, the least learned of which, I believe, taught her astrology; she wrote constantly to men of science and couldn't bring herself to speak with the uneducated. You would always find fifteen or twenty books on her table, and if you walked into her room when she was alone, you found her always holding one. I've been told--and it's true--that there were many more books to be seen in her study than she had read, whereas at Sapho's one saw far fewer books than she had read. Damophile always used big words that she pronounced haughtily in a solemn tone, even though she talked of trifles; Sapho, by contrast, used ordinary words to say the most admirable things. Moreover, thinking that learning was incompatible with household affairs, Damophile didn't deign to involve herself in domestic matters, whereas Sapho took care to be informed about even the smallest detail. And Damophile didn't only talk like a book; she also talked constantly about books, citing authors no one had ever heard of in everyday conversation as if she were discoursing in public at some renowned university.

What was really beyond the pale about this woman was that she was suspected of having promised herself to a man in whom her beauty had inspired some tender affection and of having listened favorably to his suit, even though he was quite disagreeable, but on the condition that he would provide her with verse that she could say she had written herself so as to resemble Sapho. Judge for yourself--could the obsession with passing for learned inspire more bizarre behavior than that? But what makes her really boring is that from the first moment you meet her, she seeks tirelessly to make sure you know all she knows or pretends to know. Really, there is so much about Damophile that is tedious, vulgar and disagreeable that, rest assured, just as there is nothing more amiable and charming than a woman who has taken the trouble to educate and adorn her mind with knowledge she knows how and when to use, there is nothing more ridiculous and tiresome than a stupid, pedantic woman.

Damophile being as I have described her, she made those who didn't know Sapho or her friends think that our conversation was like hers, since they knew she sought to copy Sapho. It made them say the most extraordinary things about us, tales that amused us no end. In fact, we considered ourselves lucky, since these rumors about our circle kept people from importuning and troubling us with their presence. Tisander took these foolish rumors to heart since he was in love and suffering from Sapho's rejection, and he was so hard on two or three of these impudent enemies of wit that they were compelled to quit the court. But Madam, without dwelling too long on the prince's love, I can tell you he tried everything to win Sapho's heart, and while he was in despair over her severe views on love and marriage, his friend Prince Thrasibule, having lost his kingdom and his entire fleet, arrived in Mytilene with only two ships. Nevertheless, he had a stout heart, and not much time passed after his arrivalin Mytilene before his curiosity prompted him to seek out Sapho, whom he greatly esteemed.

Since Tisander's love isn't the principal subject of Sapho's history, Madam, I won't go on about it. I will say simply that though it seemed as if she ought to love him, she didn't love him at all, and he was so desperate that he resolved to embark with Prince Thrasibule when he left Lesbos, in hopes that absence might cure him. Tisander departed, Madam, but not without bewailing the fact and bidding adieu to the admirable Sapho. Since my sister knew all his secrets and told me after he left Lesbos all that I didn't know about his life, I knew that their parting words were among the most beautifulof alltime. Sapho managed it with such skillthat she was able to make Tisander understand that she was not to blame for not returning his love; she almost persuaded him that she had tried as hard to force her heart to love him as he himself had sought to win her love. So he left finally without complaint, but he remained the unhappiest of men. When he left Mytilene, he commissioned a man of great wit named Alcaeus, a fine writer of verse, to speak of him to the admirable Sapho as much as possible and to record everything that happened during his absence and report it on his return. He couldn't have made a better choice for someone to be always near Sapho; since Alcaeus was in love with Athys, who was constantly with her, it was easy for him to be Tisander's loyal spy. He was perfect for the job because he was clever and witty, and quite an intriguer.

Since Sapho esteemed Tisander but didn't love him, his absence didn't detract from her pleasures, and in a day or two our circle amused itself as before, maybe even more, since Tisander's pain sometimes made us all a little melancholy. We were together every day--five or six of us with nothing on our minds but seeing Sapho. It wasn't that we didn't make other visits as well on our own, but to tell the truth we went early and made them short so that we could return speedily to Sapho's, where Amithone, Erinne, Athys, and Cydnon were always to be found. When the weather was good, our fine company would walk together along the beach or the river; when bad weather didn't allow it, we would remain at Sapho's house, which was the most agreeable in the world. She had an anteroom, a bedroom, and a study on the same level overlooking the sea. Truthfully, few men met Sapho without coming to love her, or at least feeling a friendship so tender that it was unlike anything they felt for their other women friends. Although Alcaeus was in love with the lovely Athys, I have heard him admit that his friendship with Sapho was not of the same order as what he felt for her even though he loved her dearly. But there is something subtle and intense in Sapho's eyes that warms the hearts even of those she does not set on fire.

Don't think that conversation at Sapho's was formaland reserved; it was free and natural. If there was any constraint, it was the constant temptation to praise Sapho to which we dared not succumb because she didn't wish it. Sometimes we rebelled against her--she didn't want to share or give out her poetry, so we had to resort to all sorts of subterfuges to get it. In my case, I was fortunate because she trusted my sister absolutely and thus I saw everything the admirable Sapho wrote. Sometimes I was so moved by the lovely verses she showed Cydnon and the lack of vanity displayed by my sister's celebrated friend, that I thought it impossible to esteem Sapho enough. Cydnon showed me elegies, songs, epigrams, and many other marvelous things, and I was hard put to understand how it was possible for so young a woman to have written them. Her poetry was so beautiful, her style so apt, the sentiments expressed so noble, the passion so tender, that nothing could compare with them. And nothing she did was done by chance. She wasn't one of those women attracted to poetry who are content to dabble but never bother to perfect their verses. All she wrote was polished to perfection. At the same time, this young girlwho knew so much had more modesty than those who know nothing.

One day, as chance would have it, an incident occurred that showed everyone who was there with Sapho and Damophile exactly what I have been saying. To recount to you, Madam, what took place on this occasion, you need to know that Mytilene sponsored an exceptionally fine concert, which was attended by everyone in the city and which was held at the residence of a noblewoman. Sapho and her circle were there as were other ladies, but since it was one of these assemblies open to everyone and where one saw as many as a hundred people you never saw otherwise, and if truth be told, wearisome, annoying people you never wanted to see, Sapho found herself seated next to Damophile and obliged to make conversation with her and her entourage untilthe concert began. Since Damophile never went anywhere without a suite of at least two or three semi-educated types who work harder at making witticisms than realwits do, Sapho was quite embarrassed and feared the worst, and she was right. Having just sat down, Sapho found herself solicited by one of Damophile's friends on a question of grammar, to which she replied casually, turning away as she spoke, that she couldn't answer since she had learned to speak simply through common usage. At that moment, Damophile, quite full of herself, said in a loud whisper that she wanted to consult with Sapho about a line of Hesiod that she didn't understand. "I swear," replied Sapho smiling modestly, "that you would be better off consulting someone else. I consult only my mirror to know what suits me; there's no point in asking me about such difficult questions."

As she spoke these words, one of those gentlemen who believe that one speaks to writers only about books came bounding across the room and asked her if she had written one of the songs that were going to be sung. "I assure you," said Sapho blushing with irritation, "I have done nothing today but be bored; I am impatient for the concert to begin," she added, continuing, "I have never wished for anything more eagerly." A friend of Damophile's said to her, "As for me, I would much prefer to hear you recite some elegant epigram than to hear the music." Just as Sapho, annoyed, was about to answer him, someone else arrived, copybook in hand, and begged her to be so good as to read an elegy that he presented her and give him advice. Since she much preferred to read someone else's verse rather than suffer hearing in such an outlandish way about her own, she began to read in a low voice, or at any rate, to give the appearance of reading. She was so embarrassed to be put in such a situation that she couldn't have judged the verse if she had tried. But what distracted her even more was that while she had her eyes fixed on the poem, she heard men and women behind her talking about her wit, her poetry, her learning, pointing her out to others and talking about her extravagantly. Some said she didn't give the impression of being all that learned; others insisted they could see from her eyes that she knew more than she let on. There was even a man who said he wouldn't have his wife know as much as she did and a woman who said she wished she knew even half what Sapho knew. Everyone either praised or criticized, as he or she saw fit, while Sapho pretended to read attentively.

Damophile conversed with two or three of her demi-literati nearby, speaking pretentiously without saying anything, so that finally I decided that I wanted to hear a conversation between two people as diametrically opposed as Sapho and Damophile and was the first to urge Sapho to give the elegy back to the man who had presented it so as to force her to take part in the conversation. Sapho, comforted to see me near her and hoping to talk only to me, returned the poem to its maker saying she didn't know enough to dare praise it. Turning to me, she said under her breath, "Am I not unfortunate to find myself so near Damophile and her friends? At least I have one consolation," she added. "You have come to my rescue." "No, no, Madam," I said laughing, "that isn't at all what brought me to your side. I think it will bring you praise if you speak and everyone learns that you don't talk in the least like Damophile." Then I joined the conversation of Damophile and her companions, addressing Sapho repeatedly despite her displeasure. There was one man among those with Damophile who spoke well enough of what he knew, and he began to speak quite eloquently of harmony, and then, on the nature of love.

What was extraordinary, Madam, was to see the difference between Sapho and Damophile; the latter couldn't stop interrupting the man speaking, whether to raise muddled objections or to give new reasons why she didn't understand and no one else could either. She didn't hesitate to say all that she said in a fulsome tone and with an affected air so that you could see how full of herself she was. It was easy to see that half the time she didn't understand at all what she was saying. As for Sapho, she didn't speak except when good manners absolutely required her to respond to a direct question. Though she said repeatedly that she didn't understand what he was talking about, in fact, in saying that, she showed herself to be someone who understood better than those who set out to teach such things. For all her modesty and irritation, for all the simplicity of her words, you couldn't help but see that she knew everything and Damophile knew nothing. Damophile talked a lot but said very little; Sapho said little but was admired for all she said.

At last the gods were satisfied and the concert began. The moment it was over, Sapho, pretending to have pressing business, rose quickly and hastened away from Damophile. But Damophile wouldn't let her get away without mortifying her yet again by saying that no doubt Sapho was leaving because she had left some song that she wanted to perfect unfinished in her study. Sapho heard her but didn't bother to respond; on the contrary, taking the arm I offered, she was soon on the other side of the room where Amithone, Athys, Erinne, and Cydnon were seated. She had hardly joined them when she began to urge them earnestly to leave; in fact, she forced them to be gone sooner than they would have otherwise. "What has happened to make you wish to leave so urgently?" said Cydnon, seeing her flushed and so affected. "I'll tell you all when we get to my rooms," said Sapho. "I need some time to collect myself." Amithone turned to me, "You were there, tell us what happened." Without giving me a chance to answer, Athys said, "I can't imagine," and Erinne added, "Maybe Democedes knows no more than we do." "Pardon me," I said, "I know, but I don't know if our lovely Sapho wishes you to know." Sapho answered, "Not only do I want Amithone, Athys, Erinne, and Cydnon to know; if possible, I want all the world to know how much I detest Damophile and her friends and how it wearies me that there are so many people like them in the world." Sapho said this with such a charming melancholy air that she made me laugh.


Excerpted from The Story of Sapho by Karen Newman Copyright © 2003 by Karen Newman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701) was the most popular novelist in her time, read in French in volume installments all over Europe and translated into English, German, Italian, and even Arabic. But she was also a charismatic figure in French salon culture, a woman who supported herself through her writing and defended women's education. She was the first woman to be honored by the French Academy, and she earned a pension from Louis XIV for her writing.

Karen Newman is the University Professor and professor of comparative literature and English at Brown University. She is the author of three books, including Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, published by the University of Chicago Press, and coeditor of Time and the Literary: Essays from the English Institute.

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