The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Sapphic: Named for the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho (seventh—sixth century B.C.), a verse form composed of quatrains containing eleven syllables in each of the first three lines and five in the fourth and following a prescribed metrical pattern. Classical sapphics follow the quantitative meter (combination of long [-] and short [˘] syllables) Sappho herself used: -˘│-˘│-˘˘│-˘│-˘ or -˘│---˘˘│-˘│-- in the first three lines of each quatrain and -˘˘│-˘ or -˘˘│-- in the last. By contrast, sapphics written in English generally employ accentual meter, with stressed and unstressed syllables substituted, respectively, for the long and short syllables of their classical counterparts, creating a pattern of trochees (or trochees and spondees) and dactyls.

Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus), a first-century B.C. Roman poet, may have introduced the sapphic form and meter into classical Latin poetry; subsequently, Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), another first-century B.C. Roman poet, popularized sapphics. Poets writing in English who have experimented with sapphics range from Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney to the Victorian Algernon Charles Swinburne to the modernist Ezra Pound to contemporary writer Anne Carson.

EXAMPLES: Swinburne’s poem “Sapphics” (1865), about the goddess Aphrodite; Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Temporary the All” (1898), which begins “ ’Thwart my wistful way did a damsel saunter”; Rachel Wetzsteon’s “Stage Directions for a Short Play” (The Other Stars [1994]), the final stanza of which follows:

Vases fly; silk garments begin to flutter,

then are blown, in sopping-wet scraps, around him.

Roué squeezes armrests and shivers in his

nakedness; curtain.