When the ancient Greeks spoke of 'the poetess', they meant Sappho, in exactly the same way that they meant Homer when they spoke of 'the poet'. She was a truly dominating presence in ancient poetry, not so much because of the autobiographical character of her poems, but mainly because the songs she wrote reveal a sensitivity to the finest, an aspiration towards 'the best', and a definition of 'the most beautiful'. This eternal human yearning is transformed by Sappho into clear, direct questions, by which the object of human happiness is measured and defined.
In the poem that follows, the concept of the most beautiful is embodied in the figure of Helen, who is vindicated by the poetess, on the grounds that she was following the dictates of Aphrodite. The poem thus develops from an encomium of beauty to a confession of belief in love in its broadest and most free dimension, since whatever a person loves is defined as 'the most beautiful'.
And some a host of foot or horse, to be
God's fairest thing; but I declare
the one we love more fair.
Right easy is the proof, that all may know
Who in the dust Troy's majesty defiled
For nowise hard is woman's will to sway
Whose sweet foot-fall I would more gladly hear,
Full well we know that mortals may not fare
C.R. Haines, Sappho, Poems and Fragments, pp.89-90
From Medea to Sappho - Radical Women in Ancient Greece
Athens, National Archaeological Museum - 20 March - 30 June 1995