I had the opportunity recently to write a letter of appreciation to my advisor and mentor from Gettysburg College, Professor Leslie Cahoon. She has a great deal of qualities similar to our recently retired English teacher, Dr. Leslie March. She remembers great works written by her students years before, she has an irreverent sense of humor accompanied by a boisterous laugh, and she cares deeply about her students’ whole being. One other quality both women share is they are both proud feminists. Dr. March used to host several events every March in the Upper School to honor Women’s History Month.
On International Women’s Day this year (earlier this month), my Latin class explored Sappho, whose work was introduced to me by Professor Cahoon. Sappho is the great lyric poet from the Aegean island of Lesbos. I explained to them how in ancient times, Sappho was known as “the Poetess” in the same way that we refer to New York City as “the city” these days. Homer was the most revered poet of ancient Greece, but he mostly wrote epic poetry which told long stories of heroes and gods of mythology.
Sappho wrote lyric poetry (shorter poems meant to be accompanied by a lyre) which expressed deeply personal emotions about Eros, other kinds of love, and heartbreak. We explored similarities of Sappho’s work to celebrated songwriters of today, such as Taylor Swift, Adele, and Beyoncé, who write lyrics about relationships and personal feelings. What made Sappho unique was that she had no equal. She had no peer. For example, the Latin word for poet is a 1st declension noun (which almost always is feminine), yet the noun is masculine because the Romans couldn’t imagine a woman being able to produce poetry worth reading.
Some of what was written by poets and playwrights of ancient Greece is no longer available today because copies have been lost or have deteriorated over time. Unfortunately, Sappho’s work in particular was targeted because of the fact that she was a woman writing about controversial topics and in a way that even a man should not have written. What remains of her work today is only fragments, but those fragments show the timelessness and universality of her work. All humans experience infatuation and broken hearts, as well as requited and unrequited love.
I give my thanks to my mentor for introducing Sappho’s work to me in college — it allowed me to share this lesson with my own students in honor of this day. Professor Cahoon inspired me to become the kind of teacher I am today in a similar way that many of our alumni were inspired by Dr. March.
If you haven’t read any Sappho, now is a good time to seek out her work!
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