Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

“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.”

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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.” Other poems illustrating this timeless, universal theme are Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”

Rexroth is able to sustain his poem, as simple as its main theme is, through 126 lines. He does so in part by skillfully introducing references to Sappho, celebrating an artist who is a part of this tradition of erotic lyric poetry. In addition, the references delay the poem’s climax. The second stanza is for the most part a journey to Sappho’s homeland. In stanza 4, the lovers pause to read her verse, and, after the ecstasy in stanza 5, they, too, “with Sappho, move towards death.”

The poem is about the power of literature, as well. In the greatest works of literature, the emotion of the author can be recreated in the reader despite the passage of many years. Through the splendor of Sappho’s poems, ancient and fragmented as they may be, the lovers can identify with the passion of the long-dead poet. This provides one of the few temporary triumphs over death. The title thus has an added significance. During the time presented in the poem, the lovers are “with Sappho” in the intensity of their emotion. If the reader, in turn, can identify with these lovers, then the reader can be with them.

A final theme is the immortality of art. The second stanza notes how little, if anything, remains of Sappho’s world. The almost chance survival of bits of her poetry, however, keeps her alive. As the speaker says in the poem, “Her memory has passed to our lips now.” The poem’s title also relates to this theme. Even after the poet and his lover have moved “with Sappho” to death, they will live on through this poem, sharing the destiny of all artists whose work endures.

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