Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The theme of descent and return is a traditional one in Western literature. In Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), the hero Odysseus descends to the underworld to consult with dead prophets and heroes. Because of their great wisdom, they tell him how to return safely, and he learns how to return home from his expedition. Adrienne Rich has written a modern version of this descent theme.

The implications of this wreck must be examined. What exactly has failed? Perhaps the “wreck” is the covering up of subconscious desires and knowledge as one grows up. Perhaps the diver represents all humans, submerging into the depths of personal histories to find out who they really are. This is certainly one possibility; however, if one examines the context in which this poem was written, one may learn more about Rich’s intentions.

One of the clues to the meaning of the wreck and the diver is the last statement about the “book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” At the time she wrote this poem, Rich was learning and writing about women’s experiences. Much of this material was unavailable before the women’s movement began in the late 1960’s. Rich was one of the pioneers in the rediscovery of women’s history and women’s literature. In 1971, she wrote an essay entitled “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” In the article, she wrote about an awakening of women’s consciousness,...

(The entire section is 539 words.)