Classics professor and novelist Freeman (Sacrifice: A Celtic Adventure) expertly reconstructs the remarkable background of Sappho, the “first and greatest of the women poets in the ancient world,” from slender and fragmentary evidence. With deep and careful consideration, Freeman pieces together the surviving information about Sappho’s life, using classical literature, myth, and visual art to chisel a peephole into the lives of ancient Greek women. Freeman ably maps the political, spiritual, and cultural territory of ancient Greece while deftly mining Sappho’s poetry for insights into the passages of childhood and aging, marriage and motherhood, and desire and exile as they might have been experienced by “this woman who stands at the beginning of history.” Freeman’s portrait of this legendary woman responsible for “some of the greatest poetry the human heart has ever composed” is vivid and immediate, though necessarily incomplete. His translations of the nearly 200 existing Sapphic poems and fragments reveal a haunting music that’s bound to enchant lovers of poetry, history, and the classical world. Agent: Joelle Delbourgo, Joelle Delbourgo Associates. (Feb.)
[Freeman] draws on the whole range of evidence for women's lives in the ancient Greek world....The result is an exquisitely detailed and well-judged account of the female life-cycle in classical antiquity....[The chapters] are masterpieces of compression and readability....Freeman's book is full of light and life, and readers seeking an accessible introduction to this marvelous poet need look no further.
Sappho, the female lyric poet from the island of Lesbos in ancient Greece, succeeded as a writer when women were seen as chattel—wool weavers, housekeepers, and incubators of heirs. The passage of time rendered her work incomplete, with only remnants surviving on fragile fragments of papyrus, yet a fascination with her words and with her life persists in contemporary Western society. Freeman (classics, Luther Coll.; Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths) uses Sappho's poetry, along with primary and secondary sources, to curate a hypothetical portrait of Sappho's life as well as an intriguing glimpse into the lives of women in the centuries surrounding her lifetime. The complex and progressive views on sexuality and religion in ancient Greece are also discussed. Freeman's writing is augmented with annotations, several photographs, a map, and a time line. The entirety of Sappho's surviving poetry appears in a dedicated section at the end of the book. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers interested in women's studies and/or the poetry of ancient Greece.—Nerissa Kuebrich, Chicago
From fragmentary sources, a classicist reconstructs the life and times of the poet Plato called the 10th Muse. Biographical facts about Sappho "are few and often subject to dispute," acknowledges Freeman (Classics/Luther Coll.; Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek Myths, 2012, etc.), and of nine scrolls of her poetry once housed in the ancient Library of Alexandria, only a few poems remain, some represented by a single word. Since a biography is impossible, the author looks to literary, artistic, and archaeological sources to investigate women's experiences on the island of Lesbos in the late seventh to early sixth centuries B.C.E. The result is an authoritative, insightful narrative that looks at childhood, marriage, motherhood, sexuality, religion, and death to speculate about the realities of Sappho's life. Freeman is certain that Sappho was married, "since the single life was simply not a viable option, especially for a woman" and since weddings emerged as a theme in her poetry. She was a mother, with a beloved daughter, Cleis, with whom she apparently lived in her old age. Beyond these deductions, Freeman offers surprising details about marriage customs (brides, for example, were usually at least 15 years younger than husbands), beliefs about conception and pregnancy ("women were simply incubators for men," contributing nothing to conception), and women's religious practices. Among hundreds of deities, the goddess Demeter was singled out for women's worship, a practice, the author remarks, that "naturally aroused the discomfort of men accustomed to keeping women in their place." Sexuality was a fluid concept in ancient Greece, with no word for "homosexual," and male same-sex relationships were tolerated more than lesbian relationships. From her descriptions of erotic love, Freeman concludes that Sappho preferred women. Appended to the biography are the author's translations of nearly 200 pieces. "I long for and seek after," one fragment reads, serving well as an epigraph for this evocative book about a mysterious ancient literary figure.
Philip Freeman’s Searching for Sappho provides students and general readers with readable translations and interpretations of all the surviving poems and fragments, including those most recently discovered. As it reconstructs Sappho’s life, it offers a lively picture of ancient Greek women’s daily experience within their families and communities. Finally, it conveys a sense of the excitement generated in the last two decades by the unexpected recovery of several new Sappho texts. Soundly researched yet wholly accessible, this volume is a complete and rewarding introduction to one of the world’s greatest poets.”
Philip Freeman brings sexy back in Searching for Sappho.”
An admirably clear and compact introduction.