A Valediction Forbidding Mourning by Adrienne Rich: Summary and Critical Analysis

In the first stanza, the speaker is not very articulate: she speaks in fragments like phrases. But that also indicates that her desire to express almost overpowers the necessity to be grammatical. Indeed, she says that “grammar (that is male grammar) turned and attacked me” in the second line.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Flashy, tasteless diction compelled writing which lacks the originality and the free flow of emotion and thus it becomes a mundane, monotonous, sterile scribbling. That is part of the reason why she has to use a different grammar, she will change language and grammar, break restrictions and limitations upon expression, and do anything necessary, but she will not mourn as she did in the past, for not being able to find a favorable language and grammar, for not being able to overcome the restrictions of other kinds in life. She begins the poem with a strong declaration of the subject: “My swirling wants.” Like the swirling waves of a river or ocean, her many desires are surging. But we see in the second part of the very first line that the “you” is a hindrance, precisely his frozen lips; this may be the reader, (the males) who does not want to read female poetry, or it may be their language that is incapable of true expression. She is worried that women have had to write on themes that are under ‘duress’ (coercion or threat); they are not able to express on many of the subjects of female experience., like female pains and anxieties, lesbianism, and many other ‘female secrets. In the one-line second stanza, she says that “they” gave her “a drug that slowed the healing of wounds” which metaphorically suggests the mental wounds. This apparently unrelated point is also related to her experiences of conscious woman living in modern times, conscious that men have slowed the healing of their pains rather than embalm them.

The third stanza turns to the real subject of the poem. In the first two, the speaker was talking about the past; in the third she tells us what she wants us to do. “Before I leave” indicates probably her intended death. She wants to reveal her experience in front of him, which she always covered before. She must have this audacity to unmask the pathos because of coming farewell to life, which finds rather more comfortable than the restricted, troubled life during what she died several times. She cannot locate the pain since it was not at a certain place but all over her body, which is beyond specific indication. She wants him to see a poster in the bus that writes ‘my bleeding is under control’ which metaphorically gives a satirical remark that her wish to die has put to an end her sufferings.

Rich is saying that she is leaving a legacy of fearless expression. “I want you to see this… the experience of repetition as death” means that she doesn’t want to see “repetition”, and says that, that would be as bad as death. Women writers are no more to repeat the past. She, like, Emily Dickinson, foresees after her death about an artificial ritual i.e. planting of red plant of plastic garlands in the cemetery. The persona utters a sentence which reveals her all expression as metaphors. She finds even language being used is made to strike at the woman. She has here, unhesitatingly used some images which define woman’s sorrows and conditions’ they are; Hair, Glacier, Flashlight - Which she complains have remained undefined by the man she addresses. She mentions new images, which to the ordinary male reader are absurd: “hair, glacier, and flashlight.” But to her, everything has a special significance, a new feminist image and symbol. “When I think of a landscape I am thinking of a time”: everything is linked to the poet’s experience, the time, the place, the circumstance and the limitations under which she had to live.

The last two lines of the penultimate stanza is the same expression as Keats in ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’: “heard melodies are sweet/ and those unheard are sweeter”, but in a negative manner to mean heard pathos are painful and those unheard are more painful. The presence of a powerful metaphor of mountains which are more meaningful than what human rebel, expressions can encompass equates the speakers quiet tolerance of the oppression by the male – which we can guess out of the pattern and the subject matter of the poem – that is inexplicable. She compares herself with the quiet enduring mountains.

The last line is the explosion of her own desire; one of the swirling wants i.e. “to do something very common, in my own way”. It presupposes that she was always denied her own interest to do anything in her own way. The little is justified by the theme that she doesn’t want to be lamented upon after her death.

The poem is an urge to women writers to begin (and write) to write of their experiences whether or not male language adequately expresses their feelings and experience, and whether or not they understand their unique expressions, and their unique language.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning by Adrienne Rich: Summary and Critical Analysis" BachelorandMaster, 19 Oct. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/a-valediction-forbidding-mourning.html.