The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“When We with Sappho” is a poem of 126 lines, divided into a four-line epigraph and six stanzas of varying length. The poem is unrhymed and written in a loosely syllabic form. Most lines have seven to nine syllables, but the number varies from two to fifteen. The title refers to the Greek lyric poet who lived in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e. Lines of Sappho’s poetry are quoted in the epigraph and read by the lovers in the poem. In the epigraph, the description of wind blowing through an apple orchard inducing sleep links her poetry to what occurs in the poem.

The first stanza introduces the subject of the poem, the poet and his lover spending a summer’s day in an abandoned apple orchard. The situation is typical of many lyric poems celebrating the pleasures of love. The poem is written in the first person; the speaker addresses his love directly. He tells her to put down the book of “this dead Greek woman” and love him.

The scene shifts in the second stanza from the New England orchard to the Greek islands where Sappho once lived. Reflecting the title of the poem, the personalities of the lovers merge with that of Sappho.

In stanza 3, a thunderstorm forming in the distance encourages the lovers to undress. The description of the storm parallels the desire building in the lovers. Lines such as the “virile hair of thunder storms/ Brushes over the swelling horizon” foreshadow the lovemaking soon to come.

The lovers pause in stanza 4 to read again Sappho’s poetry. Just as the few surviving fragments exist separated from the original contexts, the lovers are isolated in this moment. This is a common lyric theme: that in order to be preserved, love must be protected from the outside world.

In the fifth stanza, the lovemaking has ended, excitement replaced by “stillness” and relaxation.

In the last stanza, the lovers begin to fall asleep, as fulfilled in their love as the year that reaches its peak and “moves to autumn.” The significance of the poem’s title now is clarified, as the lovers, “with Sappho, move towards death.” Rather than end on this somber note, however, Kenneth Rexroth echoes a phrase from stanza 1. Celebrating the beauty of his love, the speaker holds her as if he held “the bird filled/ Evening sky of summer.”

When We with Sappho Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Repetition of sounds and words is a key device in “When We with Sappho.” The frequent repetition of the sibilant s sound is well illustrated by the epigraph. The words “sounds,” “sprays,” “leaves,” “slumber,” and “pours” imitate the noise of the wind in the trees and invoke a feeling of drowsiness in the reader. Many uses of this s sound can be found throughout the poem. Using the sounds of words to suggest their meanings is called onomatopoeia.

The repetition of words is meant to be not only hypnotic but seductive. The speaker repeats phrases to persuade his companion to make love: “Lean back,” “Take off,” “Kiss me.” Similarly, Rexroth seeks to bring the reader under the spell of his strong, commanding voice. Adding to the imperative mood are the repeated references to death: “this dead Greek woman,” “dead tongues,” the “ruinous/ Orchard,” and the “ancient apple trees.” The lovers’ own mortality is thus gently but insistently emphasized.

Rexroth also uses repetition to guide the reader through the changing stages in the poem. When the lovers pause in the fourth stanza, he twice repeats the request “Read to me again.” In stanza 5, the desire to remain quiet, prolonging the ecstasy, is signaled by the repeated command “Do not,” and by the repeated words “still” and “stillness.”

In the last stanza, repetition serves two purposes: to emphasize the theme of mortality, through the use of words such as “move,” “autumn,” “sleep,” and “death,” and to return to the beginning of the poem, completing the circle and mirroring the natural cycles.

Some of the formal devices of the poem are subtle. In the final two stanzas, Rexroth reduces the number of lines in the stanzas and syllables in the lines so that the form corresponds to the experience. The poem builds and lengthens toward the climax of the lovemaking in stanza 4, then shortens as the day moves to an end.