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Bat Volute seashell (Cymbiola vespertilio)
Bat Volute seashell (Cymbiola vespertilio)     
"Sappho" by Thomas Wentworth Higginson -- (p.1)
text pub. Atlantic Monthly, July, 1871
(see also The Greek Goddesses by T. W. Higginson)
Homeric Hymn to Demeter, English & Ancient Greek, Commentary
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THE voyager in the Aegean Sea, who has grown weary of the prevailing barrenness of the Grecian Isles, finds at length, when in sight of Lesbos, something that fulfils his dreams of beauty. The village of Mitylene, which now gives its name to the island, is built upon a rocky promontory, with a harbor on either hand. Behind it there are softly wooded hills, swelling to meet the abrupt bases of the loftier mountains. These hills are clothed in one dense forest of silvery olive and darker pomegranate, and as you ascend their paths, the myrtle, covered with delicate white blossoms, and exhaling a sweet perfume, forms a continuous arch above your head. The upper mountain-heights rise above vegetation, but their ravines are dyed crimson with fringing oleanders. From the summits of their passes you look eastward upon the pale distances of Asia Minor, or down upon the calm Aegean, intensely blue, amid which the island rests as if inlaid in lapis lazuli.

This decaying Turkish village of Mitylene marks the site of what was, twenty-five centuries ago, one of the great centres of Greek civilization. The city then covered the whole breadth of the peninsula, and the grand canal, that separated it from the mainland, was crossed by bridges of white marble. The great theatre of Mitylene was such a masterpiece of architecture, that the Roman Pompey wished to copy it in the metropolis of the world. The city was classed by Horace with Rhodes, Ephesus, and Corinth. Yet each of those places we now remember for itself, while we think of Lesbos only as the home of Sappho.

It was in the city of Mitylene that she lived and taught and sang. But to find her birthplace you must traverse nearly the length of the island, till you come to Ereso or Eresus, a yet smaller village, and Greek instead of Turkish. To reach it you must penetrate aromatic pine forests, where the deer lurk, and must ascend mountain paths like rocky ladders, where the mule alone can climb. But as you approach the village, you find pastoral beauty all around you; though the Æolian lyric music is heard no more, yet the hillsides echo with sheep bells and with the shepherds' cries. Among the villagers you find manners more simple and hospitable than elsewhere in the Greek islands; there are more traces of the ancient beauty of the race; and the women on festal days wear white veils edged with a crimson border, and falling to the waist, so that they look, as they follow one another to church, like processional figures on an antique urn. These women are permitted to share the meals of their husbands, contrary to the usual practice of rural Greece; and as a compensation, they make for their husbands such excellent bread, that it has preserved its reputation for two thousand years. The old Greek poet Archestratus, who wrote a work on the art of cookery, said that if the gods were to eat bread, they would send Hermes to Eresus to buy it; and the only modern traveller, so far as I know, who has visited the village, reports the same excellent receipt to be still in vogue.[1]

It was among these well-trained women that the most eminent poetess of the world was born. Let us now turn and look upon her in her later abode of Mitylene; either in some garden of orange and myrtle, such as once skirted the city, or in that marble house which she called the dwelling of the Muses.[2] Let us call around her, in fancy, the maidens who have come from different parts of Greece to learn of her. Anactoria is here from Miletus, Eunica from Salamis, Gongyla from Colophon, and others from Pamphylia and the isle of Telos. Erinna and Damophyla study together the complex Sapphic metres; Atthis learns how to strike the harp with the plectron, Sappho's invention; Mnasidica embroiders a sacred robe for the temple. The teacher meanwhile corrects the measures of one, the notes of another, the stitches of a third, then summons all from their work to rehearse together some sacred chorus or temple ritual; then stops to read a verse of her own, or -- must I say it? -- to denounce a rival preceptress. For if the too fascinating Andromeda has beguiled away some favorite pupil to one of those rival feminine academies that not only exist in Lesbos, but have spread as far as illiterate Sparta, then Sappho may at least wish to remark that Andromeda does not know how to dress herself. "And what woman ever charmed thy mind," she says to the vacillating pupil, "who wore a vulgar and tasteless dress, or did not know how to draw her garments close about her ankles?"

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1 Travels and Discoveries in the Levant, by C. T. Newton, I. 99. London, 1865.
2 monsopolo oikian
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