Letitia Elizabeth Landon, “Sappho’s Song” (The Improvisatrice and Other Poems, 1824)

Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s poem “Sappho’s Song” was first published in July 1824 in The Improvisatrice; and Other Poem. It was reprinted in the August 7, 1824, issue of The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction.

The Improvisatrice was Landon’s second volume of poetry. Her first, The Fate of Adelaide, was published in 1821, but did not sell well (McGann 30). The Improvisatrice, in contrast, was very popular, selling through six editions in the first year (12). The Mirror, which reprinted “Sappho’s Song” with “Hindoo Girl’s Song,” another short poem from The Improvisatrice, also had a wide readership, with a weekly circulation of between 80,000 and 150,000, with a price of just 2 pence (North).

Landon, better known as L.E.L., was the most popular and well-known poet of the 1820s and 1830s (McGann 11), and she dominated the poetry market. Her first poem, “Rome,” was published in 1820 in The Literary Gazette, one of the country’s most popular literary papers, which was edited by her neighbour William Jerdan (12). Landon published many other poems in the Gazette, mainly “poetical sketches” that described or were otherwise related to paintings or engravings (12), but she is best known for the hundreds of poems she published in gift books and annuals (13).

The Improvisatrice is a long narrative poem, spoken by an Italian poet, painter, and musician. She tells the story of her doomed love for a man named Lorenzo, and includes short poems and songs as part of her narrative. “Sappho’s Song” appears as one of these poems-within-a-poem (Improvisatrice 141–160). Sappho is a figure in a painting by the Improvisatrice, who recounts the song as part of her description of the painting. The painting shows Sappho moments before she drowns herself, as “from her pale and parched lips, / Her latest, wildest song was breaking” (140).

“Sappho’s Song” is significant because of the connections it draws between Sappho, Landon, and the Improvisatrice (Prins 193–195). Sappho was a poet who lived on Lesbos, Greece, at the end of the 7th century BCE (Reynolds 2). Almost nothing is known about her life, and only fragments of her poetry survive. She has become an enduring imaginative figure, however, taking on different roles at different cultural moments (Reynolds 3). In Landon’s time, Sappho represented “an ideal lyric persona” (Prins 14), or an iconic poetess, as Landon did herself; The Literary Gazette praised The Improvisatrice as the work that “would, alone, entitle the fair author to the name of the English Sappho” (Prins 197). The Improvisatrice shares Sappho’s artistic passion, and in the poem the two are linked through imagery of burning. The Improvisatrice writes, “I poured my full and burning heart / In song, and on the canvass made / My dreams of beauty visible” (Improvisatrice 28–30), and Sappho’s lute has “burning chords” (142). Although the Improvisatrice’s passion is safely “poured” into her music, Sappho’s passion is so inflamed by her “faithless” (15) lover that it consumes her; her “pulse, and head, and heart, are flame” (14). Her death in the “deep blue sea” (19) extinguishes the passion that has consumed her. Although, as she says, “It was not song that taught me love, / But it was love that taught me song” (151–152), her love has turned her song into a disease; her lute has become “poison” and “fever” (143–144). The loss of her music seems more painful than the loss of her unnamed lover, since it is her lute that she bids farewell to in her song.

Links to “Sappho’s Song”

 “Sappho’s Song” from The Mirror,

 “Sappho’s Song” from The Improvisatrice

Works Cited

 Landon, Letitia Elizabeth. “Hindoo Girl’s Song.” The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction. 7 Aug. 1824: 107. Web. Proquest. British Periodicals. 3 Oct. 2013.

—. The Improvisatrice: And Other Poems. London: Hurst, Robinson, 1824. Web. Hathi Trust Digital Library. 3 Oct. 2013.

—. “Sappho’s Song.” The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction. 7 Aug. 1824: 107. Web. Proquest. British Periodicals. 3 Oct. 2013.

McGann, Jerome, and Daniel Riess. Introduction. Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings. By L.E.L (Letitia Elizabeth Landon). Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess Eds. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 1997. Web. Adobe Digital Editions. 5 Oct. 2013.

North, John S. “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction.” The Waterloo Directory Of English Newspapers And Periodicals: 1800–1900. Series 2. Waterloo, ON: North Waterloo Academic Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

Reynolds, Margaret, ed. The Sappho Companion. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000. Print.

Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.

CW/Engl550/Fall2013 /UVic

[1] The Mirror has “wak’d.”

[2] According to legend, Sappho drowns herself for love of a man named Phaon (Reynolds 3).

[3] Legend has it that the lute was invented Apollo, the god of the sun, poetry, and music (Reynolds 5).

[4] In the Improvisatrice’s painting, Sappho has a wreath of laurel: “… Her head was bending down, / As if in weariness, and near, / But unworn, was a laurel crown” (Improvisatrice 118). The unworn laurel wreath symbolizes that Sappho is in pain or distress (Reynolds 5).

[5] The Mirror gives the author as “Improvisatrice” rather than as L.E.L.


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