The Victorian construction of Sappho, 1835-1914 - UR Scholarship

The Victorian construction of Sappho, 1835-1914 - UR Scholarship

University of Richmond UR Scholarship Repository Honors Theses Student Research 5-2002 The Victorian construction of Sappho, 1835-1914 Megan Kulp ...

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UR Scholarship Repository Honors Theses

Student Research


The Victorian construction of Sappho, 1835-1914 Megan Kulp

Follow this and additional works at: Recommended Citation Kulp, Megan, "The Victorian construction of Sappho, 1835-1914" (2002). Honors Theses. Paper 419.

This Thesis is brought to you for free and open access by the Student Research at UR Scholarship Repository. It has been accepted for inclusion in Honors Theses by an authorized administrator of UR Scholarship Repository. For more information, please contact [email protected]


Sappho was an ancient Greek lyric poet writing on the isle if Lesbos in the seventh century BC. Her original works were contained in seven books; however, only a few fragments are extant. These fragments are mainly about women and are erotic in nature. Considering the homoerotic tone of Sappho's poetry, it is interesting that the Victorians were fascinated with her and a proliferation of biographies, artwork, plays, operas, translated poems, appeared in that era bearing her name. How did the Victorians reconcile the homoerotic tone of her poems with their own views on what was right and proper? The answer is that they constructed a version of Sappho who was the epitome of a virtuous Victorian woman. This paper explores how the Victorians molded Sappho into a pure Victorian woman. The exploration begins by analyzing their attempts to "Vindicate" Sappho from her tarnished reputation as a promiscuous woman. The Victorians further attempted to make Sappho appear pure by widowing her and disputing all references to a husband as false. Victorian scholars also refute the story of Sappho and Phaon. Once the tarnished elements of her reputation were eliminated, the scholars portray Sappho as a schoolmistress or the leader of an Aesthetic club, which provides an appropriate career for Sappho according to Victorian mores. This paper discusses the changes that were made by Victorian translators to Sappho's poem, "The Hymn to Aphrodite," in order to make Sappho's love appear virtuous. The last section discusses the paradox that arises because the term lesbian, meaning female homosexual, was coined during the late Victorian era, and the term was based on the supposed practices of Sappho. This section shows how biographers of Sappho could maintain her innocence while this term simultaneously came into use. The ultimate goal of this paper is to show how Victorian scholars molded Sappho's biography and poetry to fit into their own values system; thereby creating Sappho, the virtuous Victorian woman.