Alberto Ríos


Forms of Verse, Fall 2000

Jen Currin, Matt Jolly and Kevin Vaughan-Brubaker


The Sapphic form obviously derives its name from 6th century Greek poet, Sappho.  Her poetry was venerated during her lifetime and for hundreds of years afterward.  Many Greek and Roman poets copied her compositional styles in classical times.  Much of this literature disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire (most of her work was lost in the great fire of the Library of Alexandria) and during Europe's Dark Ages.  The Middle Ages were also mostly ignorant of classical literature.  A resurgence of her popularity occurred during the European Renaissance when discoveries were made of her ancient works.  New printing techniques helped Sappho's writing be widely disseminated in book form.  Later, English Neo-Classicists, and Romantic poets in particular, became interested in learning and utilizing the classical poetic forms, i.e. Alexander Pope and Lord Byron.


"Though few stanzas from the pen of the Grecian poetess have darted through the shades of oblivion: yet, those that remain are so exquisitely touching and beautiful, that they prove beyond dispute the taste, feeling, and inspiration of the mind which produced them. In examining the curiosities of antiquity, we look to the perfections, and not the magnitude of those relics, which have been preserved amidst the wrecks of time: as the smallest gem that bears the fine touches of a master, surpasses the loftiest fabric reared by the labours of false taste, so the precious fragments of the immortal Sappho, will be admired, when the voluminous productions of inferior poets are mouldered into dust."

--Mary Robinson,
Sappho and Phaon.

Rachel Wetzsteon provides a great example of a contemporary anecdote on Sapphics in her article, "Marvelous Sapphics."

Marvellous Sapphics
                  --Rachel Wetzsteon

      I would like to tell you about a lovely
      stanza form I've long been an ardent fan of:
      it was conjured up in a simpler time by
      Classical Sappho.

      This stanza, as you can see, is composed of four lines. The first three lines, 11 syllables long, are called hendecasyllabics; the last line, only five syllables, has a name that seems designed to make up for its diminutive status: the adonic. In addition to its strict syllable count, the stanza also has a very particular meter: in the first three lines, two trochees, followed by a dactyl, followed by two more trochees; in the last, one dactyl and one trochee.

The following poems are samples of three variations of the Sapphic form provided by Jan Haag from her web site at the University of Washington.  She has written in 333 different forms, so check out her web page sometime for contemporary examples of the most obscure forms:


Sun's rise, moon's set, rain's wild lees, dew drops, sea's calm --
where will thunder rumble to fall from lightning
skies and shake the earth's mild desire to rest in

bliss, untroubled, blameless, quite still in green, blue
atmosphere, clouds, winds with its longing known, lost?
Come again pale star, ride across the world's bright

Creatures, blue born, immanent, doomed to walk, die
deviant from stars structure. Pre-set cyclones,
grace of energized planet's, spinning past fired

bow to Ma Andromeda, cater wishes,
transit hopes, fears, all strange sighs, boundless echoes
clean of substance, dazzlingly, gifted, garnished

(after Cowper "Lines Written During a Period of Insanity" 1774)

Shriek, O my soul with silent pain, disturb not
sleep, nor let rain run down upon the fountain
stilled by the drying waters, flowers scentless,
withered, soon dying.

Cry at the sky, and weep for spring, which comes not;
Autumn, too, passes color lest we fall sad.
Memories fade. The night, the shade will wrap us.
Fortunate light falls.

Blackness in space will answer suns' cooled dying
beams as the drumming God begins his dancing.
Once more, again, his feet will lift the lightning
past the small heart's fear.

Shiva! O Shiva your delight will weaken
hopes left and hopes to seek beyond effulgence.
Nothing remains but light consumed in darkness.
Great is the Goddess.

Radiant Shakti, dance! O Shakti dance with
Shiva because you are the light! And bringing
Shiva to climax creates the world, the light in
night, all of nothing.


Jonquil came to me in a dream of fragrance
like the spring: fresh, young as the rain that falls free
from the sunshine sky. With her bobbing head held

high to catch the wind in its pure unscented
dash across the land, choosing her life so wet, wild,
yellow, prototype for the sun. Ah how brief

stays the sun in orbit among the lasting
stars, the black night, empty, eternal space, not
fully born, and not yet allowed to darken.

Hued like Jonquil's hair, does it gain with age or
death? When will we know and/or cease to long for
answers filamented as fine as frayed threads.



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