Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“When We with Sappho” is an intensely lyrical poem celebrating the pleasures of life. The poet praises the beauty of nature and the joy of making love. Like the surviving poetry of Sappho, the poem is frank, sensuous, and erotic. The height of the couple’s bliss occurs in stanza 5. Immediately after making love, the lovers seem enveloped within the cloud created by their love, and by (in highly alliterative lines) the “awe filled silence/ Of the fulfilled summer.”

The speaker at times describes his lover as if she were a product of nature. He tells her: “I will press/ Your summer honeyed flesh into the hot/ Soil.” “Let your body sink/ Like honey through the hot/ Granular fingers of summer,” and “Press your bruised shoulders against/my body.” By blending the descriptions of lover and nature, Rexroth indicates another theme. The lovers are as much a part of the natural process of coming to be, flourishing, and decaying as the apples in the orchard. When Rexroth says in the first stanza, “Summer [is] in our mouths,” he suggests that the mouths that read to and kiss each other will pass away as quickly as the summer’s season.

The poem thus recognizes the inevitability of death. The shortness of life, in fact, is one of the lover’s arguments. Since time eventually will wear down their bodies, they should get pleasure from the process: “Let our fingers run like steel/ Carving the contours of our bodies’ gold.”...

(The entire section is 558 words.)