The term originates from Sappho, a Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, who lived sometime between 630 BC and 570 BC. She is regarded as one of the most important Greek lyric poets and one of the most influential writers in world history. Interestingly, many scholars believe that another Greek poet, Alcaeus of Mytilene, invented the Sapphic stanza. But, the popularity of Sappho’s verse solidified the connection between her verse and the form.
A sapphic is a poem that contains some or all of the features of Sappho’s classical Greek verse. The best examples are those written by Sappho herself. Unfortunately, of the hundreds of poems she wrote during her life, only fragments remain. There are a few examples below that readers can explore.
Today, a variety of sapphic poems exist, some of which only loosely follow the rules below.
Characteristics of Sapphics
The most formal examples of Sapphics follow the following rules:
- Written in either accentual or quantitive meter.
- The first three lines contain two trochees, a dactyl, then two more trochees.
- Four-line stanzas.
- The final line of the stanza is an “Adonic” meaning that it contains one dactyl and one trochee.
The use of specific metrical rules always the poem’s intensity to increase as the lines progress. The final line of the stanza has been compared to the last couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. It can provide a rest, present a new idea, or provide the poem with a conclusion.
Examples of Sapphics in Poetry
Sappho 31 by Sappho
‘Sappho 31’ is one of the best-known examples of Sappho’s verse. Throughout literary history, a variety of translators have created a variety of versions of this fragment. It is one of the best examples of Sappho’s confessions of love toward another woman. There are four preserved stanzas and one single line of the original poem. Some have suggested that the original may have contained up to eight stanzas. Here are the first lines:
That man seems to me to be equal to the gods
who is sitting opposite you
and hears you nearby
‘Sappho 31’ is also the best non-example of the poet’s use of Sapphic stanzas. Readers can see the three longer lines followed by one shorter one. The poem is also written in Aeolic dialect, which was spoken during Sappho’s time on her home island. Here is another stanza:
and laughing delightfully, which indeed
makes my heart flutter in my breast;
for when I look at you even for a short time,
it is no longer possible for me to speak
Read more poems by Sappho.
Sapphics by Algernon Charles Swinburne
This well-known Swinburne poem was written with Sappho’s style and meter in mind. Here are the first three stanzas where the line lengths and use of meter can be seen quite clearly:
All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
Stood and beheld me.
Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
Full of the vision,
Explore more Algernon Charles Swinburne poems.
The Craftsman by Rudyard Kipling
This lesser-known Kipling poem was written in honor of William Shakespeare. It contains four-line stanzas, like this one:
Once, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid,
He to the overbearing Boanerges
Jonson, uttered (if half of it were liquor,
Blessed be the vintage!)
Some scholars have debated Kipling’s use of meter in these lines, suggesting that he was less than accurate when it came to duplicating Sappho’s verse.
Discover more Rudyard Kipling poems.
Sapphics for Patience by Annie Finch
‘Sapphics for Patience’ is a wonderful example of a sapphic written by contemporary poet Annie Finch. It begins with the lines:
Look there—something rests on your hand and even
lingers, though the wind all around is asking
it to leave you. Passing the windy passage,
you have been chosen.
The poem is only three stanzas long and maintains this well-known pattern throughout the twelve lines. It ends with the lines: “hopeful, maybe, not to compel you, I’d wish / only for patience.”
Read more Annie Finch poems.
In literature, the term “Sapphics” refers to a particular metrical style of poetry that uses four-line stanzas. These stanzas are inspired by the verse written by the classical Greek poet Sappho. The term is also used, outside of literature, to refer to an attraction between women that includes but is not limited to a sexual attraction.
A Sapphic relationship is a relationship between two women. The term also refers to pansexual, queer, bisexual, and non-binary relationships.
Unfortunately, there are a few details that survive about Sappho’s life and a few more in relation to her poetry. But, some writing has suggested that Sappho is married to a wealthy man from the island of Andros named Cercylas.
Related Literary Terms
- Anacreontic: metered verses in the style of the Greek poet Anacreon. His poetry often dealt with themes of love and wine.
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
- Dirge: a song or poem composed after someone’s death. These songs are usually shorter and more concise than elegies.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Narrative Poem: contains all the elements of a story and is normally longer than average.
- Ode: a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration or dedication. They are generally directed with specific intent.
- Watch: Sappho of Lesbos
- Listen: Gender, Love, and sex – What we can learn from Ancient Greek poetry
- Watch: Greek Lyric Poetry