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The Female Writing Experience: Rich Re-Visioning Donne

[Written for Claremont McKenna College Literature department)

In her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” twentieth century feminist poet Adrienne Rich discusses the imperative nature of re-vision as a tool for women in their pursuit of self-knowledge.  She argues that women must first “understand the assumptions in which [they] are drenched” before they can “know [them]selves” (Norton 1088).  Throughout the essay, Rich breaks down the notion of re-vision into two main components: seeing and naming.  As a woman in both a male-dictated field (literature) and a male-dictated role (housewife), the act of re-vision requires her to see the ways in which patriarchal values have colored her experiences, decisions, and even her thoughts and feelings.  She can then reclaim these thoughts and experiences by re-naming them – by thinking and writing in a language of her own.  This process can be viewed most explicitly in Rich’s re-visioned version of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” in which she strips the original poem of its masculine (and often patronizing) language and imbues it instead with the anger and difficulty of a woman trying to find her voice in a language that refutes her.    

Rich describes her concept of re-vision as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction” (Norton 1088).  In the context she describes (that of women governed by patriarchal values), Rich encourages women to engage in re-vision to better understand the ways in which they’ve been taught to think of themselves, their lives, and their roles, and ultimately to attempt to liberate themselves from these structures. One particular facet of the re-vision process seems to engage Rich more than the others – that of language and naming.  As a writer, she becomes acutely aware of the way in which language has both “liberated” women in its expressive qualities, as well as “trapped” them (Norton 1088).  Rich claims that, up until recently, language has been so dictated by men that “the very act of naming has been…a male prerogative” (Norton 1088).  Going as far back as the creation story in Genesis, where Adam literally gives a name to all the creatures of the world, this tradition of male-dominated language effectively stifles (or otherwise renders inferior) the female voice. In allowing masculine dominance in language and literature, the female experience is thus “named” by men – wrapped and bound so tightly in the male voice that the woman looking for herself in literature would find only depictions that “negate everything she is about” (Norton 1091).  So, in order to wholly engage in re-vision, one must both “see and name,” and in doing so will “therefore live – afresh” (Norton 1088).  Using her own experiences as a young housewife in the 1950s, Rich reinforces this idea that actively seeing and naming is imperative to what she defines simply as “living” (Norton 1088) – actual living.  Rich goes on to detail her years of life as a male-defined domestic woman – a period in which she experienced, among other things, dissatisfaction with her writing, lack of fulfillment in household tasks and childcare, depression, isolation, and a stifling of imagination.  But in the male-dominated narrative of the housewife, Rich, with her “marriage and a child,” should have no reason to be unhappy (Norton 1093).  She describes how any “doubts…[or] periods of null depression or active despairing” could “only mean that [she] was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster” (Norton 1093).  The male-defined “traditional” female role never accounted for the conflict, anger, dissatisfaction, and despair that come of a stifled imagination and a lack of means for self-expression.  Thus, Rich’s poetry serves as her own concerted effort to re-name her experience in a way that acknowledges and owns her female voice as authentic, different, and no less valuable than the long pervasive masculine voice of literature.  

In her “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” Rich uses her process of re-vision to tailor Donne’s poem to her own purposes – a process which ultimately exposes the patronizing elements of the original “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”  At face value, Donne’s version is seemingly romantic – an affirmation of a deep and everlasting love for his wife as he prepares to depart on a long trip abroad.  He claims that their love is “so much refined” (Donne 17) that “[their] two souls…are one” (Donne 21), and that if they must consider themselves two separate entities, then they are so in the way that “stiff twin compasses are two” – ultimately still attached at their ends (Donne 26).  While this initially appears to be a romantic testament to the strength of Donne’s love for his wife, as well as an attempt to comfort her in her dismay at his leaving, the poem’s true nature is actually that of an argument – unyielding, and potentially manipulative.  Donne begins by describing the way in which “virtuous men” pass away not dramatically but “mildly,” merely “whisper[ing] to their souls to go” (Donne 1-2).  In these first two lines, Donne immediately establishes a precedent for the ideal (or “virtuous”) way in which one should handle an inevitable occurrence.  Though seemingly innocuous, this precedent, which is about men (“virtuous men”), created by a man (Donne), and encouraging stereotypically masculine attributes (stoicism, lack of visible emotion), instantly creates an atmosphere hostile to the female voice.  The next stanza continues in the same vein, insisting that they should abstain from “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests” in reaction to Donne’s imminent departure, and instead “melt, and make no noise” (Donne 5-6).  He justifies this by claiming it would be a “profanation” of their shared “joys” to “tell the laity” of “[their] love” (Donne 7-8).  Again, though masked in beautiful language, this stanza serves to effectively silence his wife.  In his use of exaggerated, apocalyptic language to describe emotions (“tear-floods,” “sigh-tempests”), he de-legitimizes any sort of potential emotional reaction to his departure, making such an objection on his wife’s part comparable to “noise” (Donne 5).  The rest of the poem contains similar language – subtly undermining objections or laments by implying (somewhat unrealistically) that such feelings can only be the product of a lesser love.  

In her re-vision of Donne’s poem, Rich seems to have recognized the way in which Donne denies the female voice, and thus strives to re-name Donne’s language as hostile and domineering, rather than romantic or beautiful.  While his poem is specifically about Donne’s departure for a long trip, it can also be more generally viewed as a refusal to acknowledge or permit female expression, and Rich seems to take it as such.  Indeed, she addresses exactly this in the very first line of her version of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” stating simply, “My swirling wants. Your frozen lips” (Rich 1).  In these two fragments, she introduces a kind of irreconcilable tension in the juxtaposition of “[her] swirling wants” and “your frozen lips,” suggesting a fluid and almost overflowing desire on her part countered by a cold (and presumably male) refusal to allow her to fully express these desires – to write how she wants.    From the very first line, Rich is actively re-naming the ideas presented in Donne’s poem; while his poem functions as a sort of one-sided argument, her version strives to give voice to the formerly silenced object of Donne’s poetic arguments (his wife), as well as herself.  Just as Donne’s poem undermines his wife’s feelings, Rich is similarly denied the ability to authentically express herself by the “frozen lips” of the male-dominated field of literature.  And, instead of denying or stifling her consequent anger – instead of “melt[ing], and mak[ing] no noise” – Rich saturates her poem with it, challenging readers’ preconceptions of the seemingly sweet original “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (Donne 5).  

In the first three stanzas, Rich indicates that this anger is a direct product of the re-vision process, stemming from a heightened awareness of the way in which language will both liberate and oppress her.  She personifies language itself as something that is physically harming her, describing how “The grammar turned and attacked [her]” (Rich 2).  By attempting to re-vise and re-name words, concepts, and ideas born of a historically masculine language, writing must always be something like a battle for Rich.  She must use the very thing that oppresses her (language) to liberate herself, or else succumb to “Themes, written under duress,” and a perpetual “Emptiness of the notations” (Rich 3-4).  Here again she exposes the subjugation of the female voice under a masculine language, insinuating that women are traditionally coerced into writing only on certain themes, which often leads to a lack of meaningful or true content.  The following stanza, composed of only one sentence, consolidates this tension and anger into one powerful image: “They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds” (Rich 5).  In her process of re-vision (for this poem, and for all her writing), Rich seems to have become acutely aware of the pain involved in being a semi-conscious woman in society – a pain that is perpetuated both by the persistence of patriarchal values, and by an insistence that it should not exist.  

Rigid in both structure and much of the language, and riddled with bold statements and assertions, Donne’s poem is countered by the more fluid structure and less forceful language of Rich’s version.  With its strict pattern of quatrains, fairly consistent iambic tetrameter, and alternating ABAB rhyme scheme, Donne’s version of “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is unswerving in rigidity, adding a sense of careful and meticulous calculation.  Rich, on the other hand, rejects this form, structuring her poem into a four-line stanza, a five-line stanza, and a six-line stanza, all separated by one line stanzas.  Though her poem still follows a pattern of sorts, it appears to be one of her own invention.  In this way, even Rich’s structure serves as a form of re-vision, implying that she need not conform to a pre-established structure or meter in order for her poem to be valuable.  She even equates the “experience of repetition” to “death,” perhaps insinuating that a poem like Donne’s (written in a repeating pattern and born of a repeating cycle of male-dominated literary culture), though certainly well-written, is death-like in the sense that it perpetuates a patriarchal tradition that leaves little room for non-masculine creativity.  

In re-visioning a poem such as Donne’s, Rich sets out to distinguish herself as the lone “red plant” in a “cemetery of plastic wreaths” (Rich 11).  In striving for authenticity in her version of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” she ends up reclaiming a poem meant to silence women, and uses it to expound upon the difficulties of finding an honest and unhindered voice as a female writer.  She ends with her desire to “do something very common, in [her] own way” (Rich 18).  In this final line, Rich re-names Donne’s sentiments one last time, rejecting Donne’s grand, elevated style of writing for a more humble, less pretentious one.  Her desire is not to assert any form of superiority or authority over established male literary figures. Rather, she desires only to be allowed the same privilege they have so wantonly enjoyed and so consistently denied her – the ability to write her own truths, free from the preconceptions of gendered language.   

Works Cited:

Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org.

Rich, Adrienne. “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellman, Robert O’Clair. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 466-467. Print.  

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellman, Robert O’Clair. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 1086-1096. Print.