by Charlotte Higgins)
Sappho is one of the most elusive and mysterious – as well as best-loved – of ancient Greek poets. Only one of her poems, out of a reputed total of nine volumes' worth, survives absolutely intact. Otherwise, she is known by fragments and shards of lines – and still adored for her delicate outpourings of love, longing and desire.
But now, two hitherto unknown works by the seventh-century lyricist of Lesbos have been discovered. One is a substantially complete work about her brothers; another, an extremely fragmentary piece apparently about unrequited love.
The poems came to light when an anonymous private collector in London showed a piece of papyrus fragment to Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at Oxford University.
According to Obbink, in an article to be published this spring, the poems, preserved on what is probably third-century AD papyrus, are "indubitably" by Sappho.
Not only do elements of the longer poem link up with fragments already known to be by her, but the metre and dialect in which the poems are written point to Sappho.
The clincher is a reference to her brother, Charaxos – whose very existence has long been doubted, since he is mentioned nowhere in previously discovered fragments of Sappho.
However, Herodotus, the fifth-century BC historian, named the brother when describing a poem by Sappho that recounts the tale of a love affair between Charaxos and a slave in Egypt.
In this poem – though it is not the precise one that Herodotus mentions – the writer addresses her audience, seeming to berate them for taking Charaxos's return by ship from a trading trip for granted.
Pray to Hera, says the narrator, "so that Charaxos may return here, with his ship intact; for the rest let us leave it all to the gods, for often calm quickly follows a great storm".
The poem goes on to say that those whom Zeus chooses to save from great storms are truly blessed and "lucky without compare". The poem ends with the hope that another brother, Larichos, might become a man – "freeing us from much anxiety".
According to Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of ancient literature at Oxford University, the poem could be read as a play on Homer's Odyssey, and the idea of Penelope waiting patiently at home for the return of Odysseus. Sappho frequently reworked Homeric themes in her poems.
Sappho, who was born in about 630BC, is known for her lyric verse of longing, often directed at women and girls – the bittersweet feeling of love, impossible-to-fulfil desire and the sensation of jealousy when you see the object of your obsession across the room, talking intimately with someone else.
She was admired in antiquity for her delicate, passionate verses. The only evidence for her biography comes from within her poems – and the naming of her brothers, Charaxos and Larichos, adds substantially to a sketchy knowledge of the poet's life.
Sappho's poems, which were lost from the manuscript tradition and were not collated and copied by medieval monks as were so many surviving ancient texts, have been preserved by two main means: either through quotation by other authors (often as examples of particular syntactical points by ancient grammarians) or through the discovery of fragments written on ancient papyrus. There is hope yet for more poems to come to light, preserved in the Egyptian sands.
Obbink's article, with a transcription of the original poems, is to be published in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.