Use of Allusions in Rich's A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

Highly allusive Rich's A Valediction Forbidding Mourning is a poem in which allusion serves a number of functions. The most obvious allusion, of course is the allusion to Donne established by the title 'Valediction'.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Some of the prime functions of the allusions are: first, to make clear the situation of the poem (the parting of lovers), and second to underpin by way of contrast what it is the “I” of the poem “want(s) you to see.” For in most respects, Rich’s poem is opposite to Donne’s which, through its conceits and elaborate metaphorical extension, suggests a supreme confidence in language. Given Rich’s allusion, the very absence of sustained metaphorical extension in her poem is itself metaphorical, mutely reinforcing the expressed mistrust of language (metaphor)  bred in the speaker by her realization of how she has  been trapped by and in received definitions. Another point of contrast is that unlike Donne’s speaker, Rich’s is “taking a trip….forever.” Donne forbids mourning because his lovers cannot be separated; Rich forbids mourning because hers are to make a clean break. Donne’s emphasis is on continuance; in contrast (and heightened by the contrast), Rich’s is on freedom, the desire for which her speaker can only “attempt” to express.

Rich’s allusion to Donne, then, is resonant with meaning; it has at least two direct functions and one indirect (which I shall turn to shortly). But Donne is not the only poet alluded to. Rich’s linking of “landscape” and “time’ perhaps Marvell’s “world enough and time,” and thereby both heightens the sense o urgency of Rich’s speaker and underscores, again by way of contrast, her need, Then, if felt, the allusion to Marvell might bring to mind by association “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock,’ in which “To His Coy Mistress” is a central source of allusion. For Rich’s speaker is much like Prufrock, who also finds it impossible to say just what he means. Again, however, the functions of the (possible) allusion is mainly that of contrast: Prufrock remains trapped; struggling rather than conceding, Rich’s speaker, one feels, will break out.

Closer to the surface (more overt and clearly intended) are allusions at two key points in the poem to The Waste Land. “They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds” is especially meaningful if one remembers the end of Eliot’s poem, in which the fisher King Anfortas lies wounded, waiting for what will magically cure him – the simple, human question “What is wrong?” Rich’s drug – the drug of marriage, with its load of conventional definition or, more literal, tranquilizes – has kept her speaker from asking just this questions, and thus from feeling and facing her wound. So how could she be healed? Like the characters in The Waste Land generally, she has been insulated from herself. Trapped in the grammar of conventional expectation, she has lost touch with her own needs.

More overt yet is “those mountain have a meaning”, given that it is freedom that Rich’s speaker desires.  Surely, one is meant to think of Eliot’s first speaker and her “In the mountains, there you feel free.” Yet again, the allusion caught, its function is essentially that of contrast. Unlike Eliot’s female speaker, who fears growth and would be left dead, Rich’s is in process. She has not arrived anywhere; but she has begun to allow herself to grow. To be sure, she is tentative in her assertions: e.g., she equivocates by saying “To do” instead of “I shall do.” Nevertheless, there in the tonal quality of its last phrase (the bright, high-pitched “a” of “way,” the strong ending, and the rhyme – the only rhyme in the poem – strike the note of conviction) and in its insistent end – stopping when heard against the insistent enjambment of Eliot’s speaker (“April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ memory…” etc.).

In sum, the allusion in Rich’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” serves directly the purpose of definition by the method of comparison and contrast. They serve, possibly, an indirect function as well. Because the poem is, in fact highly personal, its allusions might be taken to signify that the poet has still to separate herself from her male mentors (Eliot, and through Eliot, the Metaphysicals), or is beginning to d so here. The poem is also, then, about language and personal need.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Use of Allusions in Rich's A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" BachelorandMaster, 20 Nov. 2013,