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Oval portrait of Sappho (left profile): engraving after a marble bust. Caption reads: “Engraved by Mns.Monsieur Bovi.”

Sappho.

Engraved for Mrs. Robinson’s Sonnets,
from a Marble Bust in the Palace
of the Prince Giustiniani at Rome.

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Sappho and Phaon.

in a
Series
of
Legitimate Sonnets,

with
Thoughts on Poetical Subjects,
and
Anecdotes
of the
Grecian Poetess.

by
Mary Robinson,
Author of Poems, &c. &c. &c. &c.

London:
Printed by S. Gosnell,
For the author, and Sold by Hookham and Carpenter,
Bond Street.
17961796.

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Preface.

It must strike every admirer of poetical compositions,
that the modern sonnet, concluding
with two lines, winding up the sentiment of the
whole, confines the poet’s fancy, and frequently
occasions an abrupt termination of a beautiful and
interesting picture; and that the ancient, or what
is generally denominated, the Legitimate Sonnet,
may be carried on in a series of sketches,
composing, in parts, one historical or imaginary
subject, and forming in the whole a complete and
connected story.

With this idea, I have ventured to compose the
following collection; not presuming to offer them A3v 6
as imitations of Petrarch, but as specimens of
that species of sonnet writing, so seldom attempted
in the English language; though adopted by that
sublime Bard, whose Muse produced the grand
epic of Paradise Lost, and the humbler effusion,
which I produce as an example of the measure to
which I allude, and which is termed by the most
classical writers, the legitimate sonnet.

“O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy spray Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still, Thou with fresh hope the lover’s heart dost fill, While the jolly hours lead on propitious May. Thy liquid notes that close the eye of day First heard before the shallow cuccoo’s bill, Portend success in love; O if Jove’s will Have link’d that amorous power to thy soft lay, Now timely sing, ere the rude bird of hate Foretel my hopeless doom in some grove nigh, As thou from year to year hast sung too late For my relief, yet hadst no reason why: Whether the Muse, or Love call thee his mate, Both them I serve, and of their train am I.” A4r 7

To enumerate the variety of authors who have
written sonnets of all descriptions, would be endless;
indeed few of them deserve notice: and where,
among the heterogeneous mass of insipid and laboured
efforts, sometimes a bright gem sheds lustre
on the page of poesy, it scarcely excites attention,
owing to the disrepute into which sonnets are fallen.
So little is rule attended to by many, who profess
the art of poetry, that I have seen a composition of
more than thirty lines, ushered into the world under
the name of Sonnet, and that, from the pen of a
writer, whose classical taste ought to have avoided
such a misnomer.

Doctor Johnson describes a Sonnet, as “a short
poem, consisting of fourteen lines, of which the
rhymes are adjusted by a particular rule.”
He
further adds, “It has not been used by any man of
eminence since Milton.”
Since the death of Doctor Johnson a few ingenious and
elegant writers have composed sonnets, according to the rules
described by him: of their merits the public will judge, and the
literati decide. The following quotations are given as the opinions
of living authors, respecting the legitimate sonnet. “The little poems which are here called Sonnets, have, I
believe, no very just claim to that title: but they consist of
fourteen lines, and appear to me no improper vehicle for a single
sentiment. I am told, and I read it as the opinion of very good
judges, that the legitimate sonnet is ill calculated for our language.
The specimens Mr. Hayley has given, though they
form a strong exception, prove no more, than that the difficulties
of the attempt vanish before uncommon powers.”
Mrs. C. Smith’s Preface to her Elegiac Sonnets.
Likewise in the preface to a volume of very charming poems,
(among which are many legitimate sonnets) by Mr. William
Kendall
, of Exeter, the following opinion is given of the Italian
rhythm, which constitutes the legitimate sonnet: he describes
it as— “A chaste and elegant model, which the most enlightened
poet of our own country disdained not to contemplate. Amidst
the degeneracy of modern taste, if the studies of a Milton have
lost their attraction, legitimate sonnets, enriched by varying
pauses, and an elaborate recurrence of rhyme, still assert their
superiority over those tasteless and inartificial productions, which
assume the name, without evincing a single characteristic of
distinguishing modulation.”

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Sensible of the extreme difficulty I shall have to
encounter, in offering to the world a little wreath, B1r 9
wreath, gathered in that path, which, even the best
poets have thought it dangerous to tread; and knowing
that the English language is, of all others, the
least congenial to such an undertaking, (for, I believe,
that the construction of this kind of sonnet
was originally in the Italian, where the vowels are
used almost every other letter,) I only point out the
track where more able pens may follow with success;
and where the most classical beauties may be
adopted, and drawn forth with peculiar advantage.

Sophisticated sonnets are so common, for every
rhapsody of rhyme, from six lines to sixty comes
under that denomination, that the eye frequently
turns from this species of poem with disgust.
Every school-boy, every romantic scribbler, thinks
a sonnet a task of little difficulty. From this ignoranceB B1v 10
in some, and vanity in others, we see the
monthly and diurnal publications abounding with
ballads, odes, elegies, epitaphs, and allegories, the
non-descript ephemera from the heated brains of
self-important poetasters, all ushered into notice
under the appellation of sonnet!

I confess myself such an enthusiastic votary of
the Muse, that any innovation which seems to
threaten even the least of her established rights,
makes me tremble, lest that chaos of dissipated
pursuits which has too long been growing like an
overwhelming shadow, and menacing the lustre of
intellectual light, should, aided by the idleness of
some, and the profligacy of others, at last obscure
the finer mental powers, and reduce the dignity of
talents to the lowest degradation.

As poetry has the power to raise, so has it also
the magic to refine. The ancients considered the B2r 11
art of such importance, that before they led forth
their heroes to the most glorious enterprizes, they
animated them by the recital of grand and harmonious
compositions. The wisest scrupled not to
reverence the invocations of minds, graced with
the charm of numbers: so mystically fraught are
powers said to be, which look beyond the surface
of events, that an admired and classical writer, Cowper.
describing the inspirations of the Muse, thus expresses
his opinion: “So when remote futurity is broughtBefore the keen inquiry of her thought,A terrible sagacity informsThe Poet’s heart, he looks to distant storms,He hears the thunder ere the tempest low’rs,And, arm’d with strength surpassing human pow’rs,Seizes events as yet unknown to man,And darts his soul into the dawning plan.Hence in a Roman mouth the graceful nameOf Prophet and of Poet was the same,Hence British poets too the priesthood shar’d,And ev’ry hallow’d druid—was a bard.”

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That poetry ought to be cherished as a national
ornament, cannot be more strongly exemplified
than in the simple fact, that, in those centuries
when the poets’ laurels have been most generously
fostered in Britain, the minds and manners of the
natives have been most polished and enlightened.
Even the language of a country refines into purity
by the elegance of numbers: the strains of Waller
have done more to effect that, than all the
labours of monkish pedantry, since the days of
druidical mystery and superstition.

Though different minds are variously affected
by the infinite diversity of harmonious effusions,
there are, I believe, very few that are wholly insensible
to the powers of poetic compositions.
Cold must that bosom be, which can resist the
magical versification of Eloisa to Abelard; and
torpid to all the more exalted sensations of the soul
is that being, whose ear is not delighted by the B3r 13
grand and sublime effusions of the divine Milton!
The romantic chivalry of Spencer vivifies the imagination;
while the plaintive sweetness of Collins
soothes and penetrates the heart. How much
would Britain have been deficient in a comparison
with other countries on the scale of intellectual
grace, had these poets never existed! yet it is a
melancholy truth, that here, where the attributes
of genius have been diffused by the liberal hand of
nature, almost to prodigality, there has not been,
during a long series of years, the smallest mark of
public distinction bestowed on literary talents.
Many individuals, whose works are held in the
highest estimation, now that their ashes sleep in
the sepulchre, were, when living, suffered to languish,
and even to perish, in obscure poverty: as
if it were the peculiar fate of genius, to be neglected
while existing, and only honoured when
the consciousness of inspiration is vanished for
ever.

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The ingenious mechanic has the gratification of
seeing his labours patronized, and is rewarded for
his invention while he has the powers of enjoying
its produce. But the Poet’s life is one perpetual
scene of warfare: he is assailed by envy, stung by
malice, and wounded by the fastidious comments
of concealed assassins. The more eminently
beautiful his compositions are, the larger is the
phalanx he has to encounter; for the enemies of
genius are multitudinous.

It is the interest of the ignorant and powerful,
to suppress the effusions of enlightened minds:
when only monks could write, and nobles read,
authority rose triumphant over right; and the slave,
spell-bound in ignorance, hugged his fetters without
repining. It was then that the best powers of
reason lay buried like the gem in the dark mine;
by a slow and tedious progress they have been
drawn forth, and must, ere long, diffuse an universal B4r 15
lustre: for that era is rapidly advancing,
when talents will tower like an unperishable column,
while the globe will be strewed with the
wrecks of superstition.

As it was the opinion of the ancients, that poets
possessed the powers of prophecy, the name was
consequently held in the most unbounded veneration.
In less remote periods the bard has been
publicly distinguished; princes and priests have
bowed before the majesty of genius: Petrarch was
crowned with laurels, the noblest diadem, in the
Capitol of Rome: his admirers were liberal; his
cotemporaries were just; and his name will stand
upon record, with the united and honourable testimony
of his own talents, and the generosity of his
country.

It is at once a melancholy truth, and a national
disgrace, that this Island, so profusely favoured by B4v 16
nature, should be marked, of all enlightened
countries, as the most neglectful of literary merit!
and I will venture to believe, that there are both
Poets and Philosophers, now living in Britain,
who, had they been born in any other clime, would
have been honoured with the proudest distinctions,
and immortalized to the latest posterity.

I cannot conclude these opinions without paying
tribute to the talents of my illustrious countrywomen;
who, unpatronized by courts, and unprotected
by the powerful, persevere in the paths
of literature, and ennoble themselves by the unperishable
lustre of mental pre-eminence!

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To the
Reader.

The story of the Lesbian Muse, though not
new to the classical reader, presented to my imagination
such a lively example of the human mind, enlightened
by the most exquisite talents, yet yielding to
the destructive controul of ungovernable passions, that
I felt an irresistible impulse to attempt the delineation
of their progress; mingling with the glowing picture
of her soul, such moral reflections, as may serve to exite
that pity, which, while it proves the susceptibility of
the heart, arms it against the danger of indulging a
too luxuriant fancy.

The unfortunate lovers, Heloise and Abeilard; and,
the supposed platonic, Petrarch and Laura, have C C1v 18
found panegyrists in many distinguished authors. Ovid
and Pope have celebrated the passion of Sappho for
Phaon; but their portraits, however beautifully
finished, are replete with shades, tending rather to depreciate
than to adorn the Grecian Poetess.

I have endeavoured to collect, in the succeeding
pages, the most liberal accounts of that illustrious woman,
whose fame has transmitted to us some fragments
of her works, through many dark ages, and for the
space of more than two thousand years. The merit
of her compositions must have been indisputable, to have
left all cotemporary female writers in obscurity; for
it is known, that poetry was, at the period in which
she lived, held in the most sacred veneration; and
that those who were gifted with that divine inspiration,
were ranked as the first class of human beings.

Among the many Grecian writers, Sappho was the
unrivalled poetess of her time: the envy she excited, C2r 19
the public honours she received, and the fatal passion
which terminated her existence, will, I trust, create
that sympathy in the mind of the susceptible reader,
which may render the following poetical trifles not
wholly uninteresting.

Mary Robinson.


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Account
of
Sappho.

Sappho, whom the ancients distinguished by
the title of the Tenth Muse, was born at Mytilene
in the island of Lesbos, six hundred years before
the Christian era. As no particulars have
been transmitted to posterity, respecting the origin
of her family, it is most likely she derived but
little consequence from birth or connections. At
an early period of her life she was wedded to Cercolus,
a native of the isle of Andros; he was possessed
of considerable wealth, and though the Lesbian
Muse is said to have been sparingly gifted with C3v 22
beauty, he became enamoured of her, more perhaps
on account of mental, than personal charms.
By this union she is said to have given birth to a
daughter; but Cercolus leaving her, while young,
in a state of widowhood, she never after could be
prevailed on to marry.

The Fame which her genius spread even to the
remotest parts of the earth, excited the envy of
some writers who endeavoured to throw over her
private character, a shade, which shrunk before the
brilliancy of her poetical talents. Her soul was
replete with harmony; that harmony which neither
art nor study can acquire; she felt the intuitive
superiority, and to the Muses she paid unbounded
adoration.

The Mytilenians held her poetry in such high
veneration, and were so sensible of the honour conferred
on the country which gave her birth, that C4r 23
they coined money with the impression of her
head; and at the time of her death, paid tribute to
her memory, such as was offered to sovereigns
only.

The story of Antiochus has been related as an
unequivocal proof of Sappho’s skill in discovering,
and powers of describing the passions of the
human mind. That prince is said to have entertained
a fatal affection for his mother-in-law Stratonice;
which, though he endeavoured to subdue
it’s influence, preyed upon his frame, and after
many ineffectual struggles, at length reduced him
to extreme danger. His physicians marked the
symptoms attending his malady, and found them
so exactly correspond with Sappho’s delineation of
the tender passion, that they did not hesitate to
form a decisive opinion on the cause, which had
produced so perilous an effect.

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That Sappho was not insensible to the feelings
she so well described, is evident in her writings:
but it was scarcely possible, that a mind so exquisitely
tender, so sublimely gifted, should escape
those fascinations which even apathy itself has been
awakened to acknowledge.

The scarce specimens now extant, from the pen
of the Grecian Muse, have by the most competent
judges been esteemed as the standard for the
pathetic, the glowing, and the amatory. The
ode, which has been so highly estimated, is written
in a measure distinguished by the title of the Sapphic.
Pope made it his model in his juvenile production,
beginning— “Happy the man—whose wish and care”—

Addison was of opinion, that the writings of Sappho
were replete with such fascinating beauties,
and adorned with such a vivid glow of sensibility, D1r 25
that, probably, had they been preserved entire, it
would have been dangerous to have perused them.
They possessed none of the artificial decorations of
a feigned passion; they were the genuine effusions
of a supremely enlightened soul, labouring to subdue
a fatal enchantment; and vainly opposing the
conscious pride of illustrious fame, against the
warm susceptibility of a generous bosom.

Though few stanzas from the pen of the Lesbian
poetess have darted through the shades of oblivion:
yet, those that remain are so exquisitely
touching and beautiful, that they prove beyond
dispute the taste, feeling, and inspiration of the
mind which produced them. In examining the
curiosities of antiquity, we look to the perfections,
and not the magnitude of those reliques, which
have been preserved amidst the wrecks of time:
as the smallest gem that bears the fine touches of a
master, surpasses the loftiest fabric reared by the D D1v 26
labours of false taste, so the precious fragments of
the immortal Sappho, will be admired, when the
voluminous productions of inferior poets are
mouldered into dust.

When it is considered, that the few specimens
we have of the poems of the Grecian Muse, have
passed through three and twenty centuries, and
consequently through the hands of innumerable
translators: and when it is known that Envy frequently
delights in the base occupation of depreciating
merit which it cannot aspire to emulate;
it may be conjectured, that some passages are erroneously
given to posterity, either by ignorance
or design. Sappho, whose fame beamed round
her with the superior effulgence which her works
had created, knew that she was writing for future
ages: it is not therefore natural that she should
produce any composition which might tend to tarnish
her reputation, or to lessen that celebrity D2r 27
which it was the labour of her life to consecrate.
The delicacy of her sentiments cannot find a
more eloquent advocate than in her own effusions;
she is said to have commended in the most animated
panegyric, the virtues of her brother Lanychus;
and with the most pointed and severe censure, to
have contemned the passion which her brother
Charaxus entertained for the beautiful Rhodope.
If her writings were, in some instances, too glowing
for the fastidious refinement of modern times;
let it be her excuse, and the honour of her country,
that the liberal education of the Greeks was
such, as inspired them with an unprejudiced enthusiasm
for the works of genius: and that when
they paid adoration to Sappho, they idolized the
muse, and not the woman.

I shall conclude this account with an extract
from the works of the learned and enlightened AbbÉ
Barthelemi
; at once the vindication and eulogy
of the Grecian Poetess.

D2v 28 “Sappho undertook to inspire the Lesbian
women with a taste for literature; many of
them received instructions from her, and foreign
women increased the number of her disciples.
She loved them to excess, because it was impossible
for her to love otherwise; and she expressed
her tenderness in all the violence of passion:
your surprize at this will cease, when you are
acquainted with the extreme sensibility of the
Greeks; and discover, that amongst them the
most innocent connections often borrow the impassioned
language of love.
A certain facility of manners, she possessed;
and the warmth of her expressions were but too
well calculated to expose her to the hatred of
some women of distinction, humbled by her
superiority; and the jealousy of some of her
disciples, who happened not to be the objects
of her preference. To this hatred she replied D3r 29
by truths and irony, which completely exasperated
her enemies. She repaired to Sicily, where
a statue was erected to her; it was sculptured
by Silanion, one of the most celebrated staturists
of his time. The sensibility of Sappho
was extreme! she loved Phaon, who forsook
her; after various efforts to bring him back,
she took the leap of Leucata, Leucata was a promontory of Epirus, on the top of which
stood a temple dedicated to Apollo. From this promontory
despairing lovers threw themselves into the sea, with an idea,
that, if they survived, they should be cured of their hopeless
passions. The Abbé Barthelemi says, that, “many escaped,
but others having perished, the custom fell into disrepute;
and at length was wholly abolished.”
Vide Travels of Anacharsis
the Younger
.
and perished in
the waves!
Death has not obliterated the stain imprinted
on her character, for Envy, which fastens on
illustrious names, does not expire; but D3v 30
bequeaths her aspersions to that calumny which
never dies.
Several Grecian women have cultivated Poetry,
with success, but none have hitherto attained
to the excellence of Sappho. And
among other poets, there are few, indeed, who
have surpassed her.”
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Sappho and Phaon.

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