ven during her lifetime, in the
sixth century B.C., Sappho was the West's most famous woman poet. (Plato later
called her ''the tenth muse.'') An aristocrat born on the Aegean island of Lesbos, she was sent into exile for conspiring against the tyrant Pittakos. After
a fortunate marriage (and early widowhood), she returned to Lesbos in triumph
and founded an academy for young women, to whom her lyric love poems may have
been addressed. Many lurid details of her life, recounted in legends, have been
mined by poets and moralists alike, although only a few of her verses survive.
Nancy Freedman makes good use of these fragments to produce a credible
approximation of a poet's creative process. She also leaves out few of the
legends, placing Sappho squarely within the glittering and violent world of the
ancient Greek Mediterranean. While some of the characters are thinly drawn,
Freedman creates a vivid portrait of the book's central figure, who apparently
achieved a degree of personal success and independence unknown to any other
woman in her age -- and few in this.