Adrienne Rich

Peeling Onions by Adrienne Rich

‘Peeling Onions’ by Adrienne Rich is an introspective poem. In it, the poet uses the metaphor of peeling onions to define her complex thoughts.

In the ‘Peeling Onions,’ the poetic persona dives deep into her thoughts as she removes the outer layers of an onion one by one. This simple activity reminds her of some incidents of her past. The tears in her eyes take her away in her thoughts. She starts to think of those moments which have caused her pain. The tears of the poetess seem simple at first but in the poem, it becomes a significant metaphor. The symbolic use of “peeling onions” is also an important part of the poem.

Peeling Onions by Adrienne Rich


Summary of Peeling Onions

‘Peeling Onions’ by Adrienne Rich contains a reference to the poet’s scornful past and how she felt in those tough moments of her life.

In ‘Peeling Onions’ by Adrienne Rich, the poetic persona, here the poet herself, is peeling onions. Readers know that while doing this stuff tears come down from our eyes. It is a natural process but in the poem, it becomes a significant metaphor. The poet goes back in her memory while tears fall down. She starts to think of her past when she cried to give her grief an external expression. But everything has changed in her life. She doesn’t cry now. There was a moment when she sobbed but the society didn’t even care about her grieving. So she has “stuffed” her sadness in her “lungs like smog”. What she visualizes, is the “old tears in the chopping-bowl”, nothing else.

You can read the full poem here, or listen to the poem below. It will provide an idea of the mood and tone of the poem. Always remember, sound speaks more than words.


Structure of Peeling Onions

An Overview

The poem is divided into 4 stanzas and the last stanza contains only one line. Being a modern poem, it doesn’t have a specific rhyme scheme or poetic decorum. All that the poem has is the spontaneous overflow of her cold but vibrant emotions. The poem is 15 lines long. These lines contain an unheard pain and a cold breeze of a wintry evening. There is grief as well as a frozen concoction of hidden feelings.


Scansion and Meter

Let’s come to the technical part of the poem. The metrical composition of the poem will give an overview of the flow and tone of the poem. It will also give an insight into the choice of words by the poet in specific lines. After scanning the poem metrically, it becomes clear the poet is in an introspective mood. The tone of the speaker doesn’t seem angry but it sounds like a person hiding her frustration and giving those emotions an outlet of a sigh. So the lines start with a trochaic foot and then the rest of the feet follow the iambic rhythm. The rhythm first falls and then rises to represent the inner expression of the poet.

It is hard to find the meter of the poem as it contains a combination of both, iambic and trochaic meter. Yet we can decipher it, if we keep the major meter in mind while scanning this poem. The majority of the lines are in iambic trimeter with few variations here and there. The last line is in a perfect iambic tetrameter arrangement.


Literary Devices

‘Peeling Onions’ by Adrienne Rich mostly consists of metaphors and symbols but the literary devices aren’t limited to those two figures. There are certain lines in which readers can find alliteration, allusion, synecdoche, and last but not the least, irony.

Let us have a look at the literary devices used in each stanza of the poem.

  • Stanza 1: In the first stanza of the poem, the second line, “equal to all these tears”, is the use of irony. Readers can find alliteration in the following phrase, “these tears”. The “t” sound gets repeated in this line.
  • Stanza 2: In the first line of this stanza, Adrienne associates “chest” to “heart”. It is the use of metonymy. There is an allusion in the second line of this stanza. The poet refers to “Peer Gynt“, the title character of the play by Henrik Ibsen. In the next line, the poet uses a metaphor. Here she doesn’t pare away the outer layers of an onion. She is unfolding the mental layers of a “cook”. It is clear that she is actually referring to herself.
  • Stanza 3: The poet uses a simile in the third line which extends to the fourth line of this stanza. She compares her eyes with raw wounds in her head while referring to the past incidents when she cried. There is a use of hyperbaton in the next line. At the end of this stanza, the poet uses another simile. She compares her “stuffed” emotions to the “smog” here.
  • Stanza 4: In the last line “old tears” is a metonymy. Here the poet is signaling to the sad moments of her past. The “tears” are in fact a symbol. The “chopping-bowl” is an extended metaphor of her mind. The mind is that container where different emotions are always in collision. In her case, she is frustrated about not getting any sympathy when she was in extreme scorn.


Analysis of Peeling Onions

Stanza One

Only to have a grief

equal to all these tears!

In the first section of ‘Peeling Onions’ by Adrienne Rich, the poetic persona is peeling onions. Naturally, tears start to fall down from her eyes. These tears take her away in her past. She refers ironically to the degree of pain she felt in the past. Then she cried a lot but now she has become cold. In her present life, tears only appear in her eyes mechanically when she peels onions. There is no place for complaining and lamentation. She has learned the art of “resistance”.


Stanza Two

There’s not a sob a in my chest


merely a cook.

In the next section of the poem, the poet makes her point clear by saying that there is no place for grieving right now. The tears might have evaporated or those emotions have left her. She is now “dry-hearted” as “Peer Gynt”. It is a reference to the famous character of Ibsen’s play of the same name. The character in the play doesn’t have such kind of soft emotions in his heart. Like him, the speaker has also become passive at heart.

In the next two lines, the speaker introduces herself directly in the poem by referring to herself as a “cook”. She is peeling onions so it is clear that she is actually signaling to herself in an ironic manner. In these lines, there is another irony. She says that she is not “a hero” like Peer Gynt in the play by Ibsen. She is a simple person who is cooking her food and introspecting on her past.


Stanza Three

Crying was labor, once


stuffed in my lungs like smog.

In the third stanza of the poem, the poet directly presents her past to the readers. She says that like a common woman, once she had also cried in the tough points of her life. Then she had a “good cause” to cry, unlike the present situation in which she is peeling onions. At that time as she was too weak after crying, her red eyes kept agitating her mind while walking. Some “postal-clerks” might have stared at her disdainfully in those situations. She remembers that nobody was there to give her consolation.

In the whole stanza, Adrienne uses the “stream-of-consciousness” technique to share her thoughts. She remembers a dog and a cat was looking at her at that moment. This imagery somehow feels incoherent in the string of thoughts. If we try to understand her state of mind, it becomes clear that she is in a state of introspection. While thinking, she is also working with her hands. So her mood swings between the past and present.

At last, she says that the pain of her mind is still there, mixed up like “smog”. Those feelings are stuffed like the outer layers of an onion. The layering of an onion hides its soft core which is hard to see from outside. Similarly, the poet’s emotions are hidden under the layers of her mind. If there is no one to comfort us or give us support in our tough times, we somehow learn the art of passivity. Our emotions harden with time and the mind becomes tougher than before. It is the same case with the poet.


Stanza Four

These old tears in the chopping-bowl.

The last stanza contains only the mentioned line. The poem ends abruptly as her work is done in the meanwhile. The last line is very significant in reference to the overall theme of the poem. She now sees the tears in a mechanical manner. The tears have come out of her eyes for a mere process, not for any underlying emotions. The “chopping-bowl” is a significant phrase of the last line. The bowl is the symbol of society in which her emotions are chopped like the onions. But who is responsible for that, is not clear in the poem. If we read her other works, the cause becomes clear to the readers. Actually the orthodox society is responsible for her present emotionless state and her mind has hardened with time.


Historical Context

‘Peeling Onions’ by Adrienne Rich first published in the poetry collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law” in January 1963. Adrienne was homosexual in her sexual orientation but her poetry has “gender-neutral” point of view. Her voice is the unheard words of the oppressed millions. She not only stood for homosexual rights but also for them who suffered for the orthodoxy of society. In this poem of Adrienne Rich, the poet presents her own suffering in the past for her “queer” identity and the state of mind in her present life. Though the poem is subjective in tone, the speaker represents the suffering of the LGBTQ community as a whole.


Similar Poetry

There are some poems that resonate with Adrienne Rich’s tone in ‘Peeling Onions’. The same feelings of suffering and hidden pain can be found in the following poems.

  • Nameless Pain by Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard – In this poem of Elizabeth Stoddard, the poetess writes about a woman’s suffering in life and her inability to live in this unsympathetic world. It is very similar to the suffering Adrienne Rich in her poem.
  • Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden – This famous poem of Auden depicts the universal human suffering. The poet also represents the society’s outlook when another person from this same society suffers. The representation of human suffering is similar in Adrienne’s poem but it presents a subjective point of view to the readers.
  • Any Human to Another by Countee Cullen – What the poetic persona in Adrienne Rich’s ‘Peeling Onions’ needed badly in her past, is the sole subject of Cullen’s poem. It is human companionship. When a person experiences pain in the uneven path of life, he needs some sympathetic assistance from another person.
  • World I Have Not Made by Elizabeth Jennings – In this poem, the suffering of the poetic persona in this mundane world is the core of the poem. The speaker of Rich’s poem also went through such painful moments in her past.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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