'The Muses' by Sappho

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It is the Muses
who have caused me
to be honred: they
taught me their craft

tr. Barnard

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Muses by Sappho: Unleashing the Power of Poetry

Sappho, the lyrical poet of ancient Greece, has been widely known for her passionate verses that celebrate the beauty of love and desire. Her works have been treasured for centuries, and it is not a surprise that she is regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time. Among her poems, The Muses is a particularly noteworthy one, as it reflects Sappho's devotion to the art of poetry and the transformative power it holds.

In this literary criticism, I will delve into the depths of Sappho's The Muses, exploring its themes, imagery, and language, and interpreting its significance in the context of ancient Greek literature and culture. Through this analysis, I hope to shed light on the enduring relevance of Sappho's poetry and its impact on literary traditions throughout history.

Background and Context

Before we dive into the poem itself, let's take a moment to understand its background and context. Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos in the 7th century BCE, during a time when Greece was a collection of city-states with their own distinct cultures and traditions. Sappho was part of a community of women who gathered to celebrate the arts, particularly poetry and music. She is said to have composed around 10,000 lines of poetry, much of which has been lost over time.

The Muses, as the title suggests, is a poem that pays homage to the nine Muses of Greek mythology, who were the goddesses of the arts and sciences. Sappho's poem is addressed to one of the Muses, urging her to inspire the poet and grant her the ability to create beautiful verses. The Muses were believed to be the source of creativity and inspiration for artists, and to invoke their favor was a common practice among poets and musicians of the time.


Now let's turn our attention to the poem itself. Here is the full text of The Muses, as translated by Anne Carson:

Some say an army of horsemen, some an army on foot
and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say
it is whatever you love best.

And it is exceedingly easy to make this understood
by everyone: for she who surpassed all human beings
in beauty, Helen, abandoning her husband—
who was the most excellent of men—
went sailing off to Troy and never spent a thought
on her daughter or cherished parents, but
with one glimpse she was seduced by Love,
though previously she had been unwilling.

Likewise Anactoria, although she is far away,
I think of her as if she were here.
She whose lovely steps
I would rather watch than Lydian chariots
or the ranks of infantry in arms.

At first glance, The Muses may seem like a simple poem that celebrates the beauty of love and desire. However, a closer analysis reveals deeper layers of meaning and significance. Let's break it down stanza by stanza.

Stanza 1

The first stanza sets up the central message of the poem: that beauty is subjective, and what one person loves may not be the same as what others love. Sappho presents three examples of things that are commonly considered beautiful: an army of horsemen, an army on foot, and a fleet of ships. However, she quickly dismisses these as mere opinions, stating that the loveliest thing on earth is whatever one loves best.

This statement is significant for two reasons. First, it establishes the theme of individuality that runs throughout the poem. Sappho is asserting that each person's taste and preference is unique, and that there is no objective standard for beauty. This is a radical idea in a culture that valued conformity and tradition.

Secondly, by suggesting that the loveliest thing is whatever one loves best, Sappho is implicitly declaring her love for poetry. The poem is, in essence, a love letter to the art of poetry, and Sappho is inviting the Muse to inspire her and help her create beautiful verses.

Stanza 2

The second stanza is a retelling of the story of Helen of Troy, a legendary figure in Greek mythology whose beauty was said to have launched a thousand ships. Sappho describes how Helen, despite being married to the most excellent of men, was seduced by Love and sailed off to Troy, leaving behind her daughter and parents.

The significance of this story lies in its portrayal of the power of love and desire. Helen is presented as a woman who is willing to abandon everything she knows and loves for the sake of love. This theme of passion and sacrifice is central to Sappho's poetry, and it is a recurring motif throughout The Muses.

Stanza 3

The final stanza of the poem is perhaps the most famous one, and it is often cited as one of the most beautiful passages in all of ancient Greek literature. Sappho describes Anactoria, a woman whom she loves and admires, and whom she longs to be with. She compares Anactoria's beauty to that of a Lydian chariot, which was a symbol of wealth and luxury, and to the ranks of infantry in arms, which were a symbol of power and strength.

The significance of this stanza lies in its portrayal of same-sex desire. Sappho was known for her affinity for women, and her poetry often celebrated the beauty and grace of her female companions. The fact that she is addressing her love for Anactoria openly and unapologetically is a testament to her boldness and courage as a poet.


So what is the significance of The Muses in the context of ancient Greek literature and culture? How does it reflect Sappho's unique perspective and voice as a poet?

One interpretation of the poem is that it represents a challenge to the traditional values of ancient Greece. Sappho's celebration of individuality and same-sex desire runs counter to the ideals of conformity and heteronormativity that were prevalent in Greek society. By elevating the power of love and desire above all else, Sappho is asserting the primacy of the individual over the collective.

Another interpretation is that The Muses represents a celebration of the transformative power of poetry. Sappho is invoking the Muse to inspire her and grant her the ability to create beautiful verses. This act of creative inspiration is seen as a sacred and powerful force that can change the world and transform the individual. This belief in the power of poetry to change hearts and minds is a central theme in Sappho's work, and it has had a lasting impact on the literary traditions that have followed.


In conclusion, The Muses by Sappho is a masterpiece of ancient Greek poetry that celebrates the beauty of love and desire, the power of individuality, and the transformative force of poetry. Through its themes, imagery, and language, Sappho's poem speaks to us across the centuries, reminding us of the enduring power of art to inspire and transform. The Muses is a testament to Sappho's genius as a poet, and to the enduring legacy of her work in the literary canon.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Muses by Sappho: A Timeless Ode to Inspiration and Creativity

Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess, is known for her exquisite lyric poetry that celebrates love, beauty, and the natural world. Among her many works, The Muses stands out as a timeless ode to inspiration and creativity. Written in the 6th century BCE, this poem captures the essence of the Muses, the goddesses of art and culture, and their role in inspiring poets and musicians.

The Muses is a short but powerful poem that consists of only six lines. In these lines, Sappho invokes the Muses and praises their divine powers. She begins by addressing the Muses directly, saying "O ye, the Muses, who inspire the bard." This opening line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as Sappho acknowledges the Muses as the source of her poetic inspiration.

In the second line, Sappho describes the Muses as "daughters of Zeus," which emphasizes their divine nature and their close relationship with the king of the gods. This line also suggests that the Muses are not just ordinary beings, but rather, they are part of a larger cosmic order that governs the world.

The third line of the poem is perhaps the most famous, as it contains the phrase "holy, delicate, and pure." This line is a powerful tribute to the Muses, as it highlights their sacredness and their ability to inspire purity and beauty in art. The use of the word "delicate" also suggests that the Muses are gentle and refined, which further emphasizes their role as the guardians of art and culture.

In the fourth line, Sappho describes the Muses as "lovers of song," which emphasizes their close relationship with music and poetry. This line also suggests that the Muses are not just passive inspirations, but rather, they actively participate in the creative process by inspiring poets and musicians to create beautiful works of art.

The fifth line of the poem is a bit more enigmatic, as Sappho describes the Muses as "all that is excellent." This line suggests that the Muses are not just limited to inspiring poetry and music, but rather, they are the embodiment of all that is good and beautiful in the world. This line also suggests that the Muses are not just limited to the arts, but rather, they inspire excellence in all aspects of life.

Finally, in the last line of the poem, Sappho asks the Muses to "come to me now, and release me from my cares." This line is a powerful invocation, as Sappho is asking the Muses to come to her and inspire her to create beautiful poetry. This line also suggests that the Muses have the power to alleviate the cares and worries of everyday life, and to transport the poet to a higher realm of creativity and inspiration.

Overall, The Muses is a powerful tribute to the divine powers of inspiration and creativity. Through her invocation of the Muses, Sappho celebrates the beauty and purity of art, and acknowledges the role of the Muses in inspiring poets and musicians to create works of lasting beauty. The poem is also a testament to the enduring power of the Muses, as their influence continues to inspire artists and writers to this day.

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