Sappho is honest. For a moment, she admits her words are “only breath.” Then—and this is perhaps questionable—she declares her “command” over “immortal” words:
“Although they are / Only breath…” Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard) Although they are Only breath, words which I command are immortal
When I first wrote on this fragment 4 years ago, I contrasted it with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” That poem is not shy in promising immortality to a beloved:
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Death shall not brag! You will grow in “eternal lines to Time!” I have put you in verse and made you immortal! This rhetoric strikes me as stupidly blunt. Sure, it could be thought more sophisticated. The beloved, ambitious but not sure for what he stands, might be swayed by the prospect of immortality. Better to be known than unknown, if one can’t be sure of what is actually good in life. You could also say that Shakespeare jokes about his command of fame. Those who are privileged are always promising too much, just like those of us who want to be taken seriously. Shakespeare outboasts everyone, with, um, his command over boasting. “So long lives this,” indeed.
Immortality appears on this reading a matter of conventionality. Maybe this is easier to understand in a world where Shakespeare’s poems and plays are mass media, commenting and critiquing other works widely known. Maybe it was easier to see then we have systems set up which privilege some works and exclude others. Not every great book is great for some “natural” or “authentic” reason, as I learned reading the dumpster fire that is Beowulf. (John Gardner’s Grendel, on the other hand, might be one of the best things I’ve ever read. He builds a serious, thoughtful, interesting character, and you want that character to kill everyone.)
Immortality is a kind of game in Sonnet 18. When I reconsider this little fragment of Sappho’s, it feels so different, so vulnerable. Although they are only breath—will you consider that I, too, am only breath? Words which I command are immortal—somehow, temporarily, I have this divine power. I can put together things which have lasted, otherwise we could not possibly understand each other. Maybe I will create an arrangement of these things which lasts. But if it does, it is not because of some audience outside of you and me. If what I have to say matters, you’ll hear it, you’ll treasure it, and it will be just as good as “immortal,” if not better.