‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,’ a poem written by the 20th-century feminist poet Adrienne Rich. She is regarded as one of the widely read and influential American poets of her time. This poem explores the basic essence of feminism. It is about a poet’s failure to write in a language dominated or influenced by mostly men. She depicts how her voice suffers from fitting in the conventional poetic world.
Explore A Valediction Forbidding Mourning
‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ by Adrienne Rich is a farewell of a poet focusing on her inability to express her thoughts in conventional terms.
In this poem, Rich talks about expressing herself through the frozen language of others. While she tries to write a poem, it feels the grammar and themes are not working for her. She feels an emptiness inside herself. Writing or composing poetry seems to be a drug that does not help. It acts as a drug that slows down her pain temporarily. She wants readers to see and understand her experiences. Lastly, she attempts to frame a very common poem in her own terms.
You can read the full poem here.
My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.
The first few lines of ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ describe a speaker’s crisis. She is none other than the poet Adrienne Rich herself. In this feminist text, she focuses on the struggles of women writers who suffer for not getting a proper outlet to channelize their thoughts. They seek a medium to express their free will. But the “frozen lips” of men cannot voice their concern. Hence their wants keep churning inside their minds.
While the speaker attempts to write a poem, it feels the grammar is acting like a monster and attacking her. It is because men frame the rules. The same applies to the themes popular in the literary world. To write a poem implementing those themes feels like someone is forcing a writer to do something against her will.
In the next line, the poet compares women to different nations who undergo an identity crisis in this context. The first stanza ends with a coda. In this line, Rich compares the art of writing to a drug that slows the healing of her metaphorical wounds. These infections are caused by patriarchy, male-dominated linguistics, and rules.
I want you to see this before I leave:
the experience of repetition as death
my bleeding is under control.
A red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths.
In the next lines, the speaker tries to depict her experiences as a woman. She badly wants others to recognize what she leaves behind. Readers can find the journal of her life in her writings. The experiences she has as a woman is like dying in a repetitive cycle.
Her critical words cannot even locate the pain as the language she uses is not totally hers. While traveling by bus, she often saw the poster saying, “my bleeding is under control.” The tagline belongs to some sanitary pad manufacturing company. But, the speaker can connect with this line.
It seems she feels a bit relieved for having the ability to write poems, at least. Hence, her symbolic “bleeding” remains under control. It does not overflow and lead her to death. If she dies, she would be a “red plant” encircled by emotionless, plastic wreaths. The language used here hints at the speaker’s mental state.
A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor.
These images go unglossed: hair, glacier, flashlight.
but further than that I could not say.
To do something very common, in my own way.
The last section of ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ captures the last attempt of the speaker in writing a poem in her own language. She uses some broken references in order to draw attention to her thought process. It tries to define how women think or feel.
In her last attempt, she chooses a different dialect. She terms it “metaphor” or the language of drawing comparisons between two distinct ideas. Her use of imagery is unglossed. She prefers writing in plain language.
When she imagines a landscape, she tries to uphold the change in different time frames. She could say the mountain talks more than her words could convey. But she cannot express this feeling in words. In this way, the speaker tries to write a poem in her own way, just before bidding adieu to readers.
Rich’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ is a free-verse lyric poem. It consists of three stanzas. Each stanza ends with a coda. The stanzas contain four, five, and six lines, respectively. One can observe the length increases as the poem progresses to the end. Being a free-verse poem, there is no regular rhyme scheme or meter. Regarding the point of view, Rich writes this piece from the perspective of a first-person speaker.
Readers can find the use of the following literary devices in Rich’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’.
- Personification: It occurs in the second line of the poem, “The grammar turned and attacked me.”
- Metaphor: The term “Emptiness of the nations” contains a metaphor. Here, Rich hints at the identity crisis.
- Irony: The fifth line contains this device. Here, the poet compares poetry to a drug that slows down her pain temporarily.
- Simile: It occurs in “the experience of repetition as death.” Here, the concept of death is compared to a cycle of painful experiences.
- Enjambment: This device is used in the last two lines of the third stanza.
Adrienne Rich’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ is about a speaker’s inability to express her ideas in words. She describes how she feels in a patriarchal world and how she attempts to write her last poem.
The title of the poem is a direct allusion to John Donne’s metaphysical poem ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. This piece is about the parting of lovers and the everlasting nature of love between two souls.
The title concerns a speaker’s farewell to the reader. She asks them not to mourn her passing away. However, Rich’s poem makes one brood upon her suffering and inability to express her thoughts.
It is a free-verse lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. The speaker is none other than the poet herself. Besides, there is no specific rhyming pattern or metrical scheme in the text.
Readers can explore the following poems that tap on similar themes present in Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’. Read more Adrienne Rich poems here.
- ‘The Prologue’ by Anne Bradstreet — In this poem, Bradstreet introduced herself as a poet to the contemporary literary cycle.
- ‘Barbie Doll’ by Marge Piercy — This piece explores themes of feminism and expectations vs. reality.
- ‘Cinderella’ by Anne Sexton — This poem tells the story of Cinderella while engaging with the theme of feminism.
You can also explore the best-loved poems of Adrienne Rich.