The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Adrienne Rich’s “Living in Sin” is a twenty-six-line single-stanza poem that effectively captures the stark contrast between a young woman’s romantic notions and the bitter taste of daily realities once she acts on those notions.

Told entirely from the woman’s point of view, the poem begins in the past, with the vision of how she thought her life would be living with the man she loved. The first two lines effectively convey her naïveté, her simple acceptance of a fairy tale version of her future once she has accepted his offer to come and live with him. The last two lines picture her waking up both literally and figuratively to the painful awareness of what the future holds.

The intervening twenty-two lines present a graphic account of her transition from daydreams to nightmares. Through devotion to her romantic fantasies, the young woman fails to anticipate the trials and disillusionments of daily life. Because she is in love, she imagines that commonplace cares and chores such as cleaning and cooking would not be part of her world. Her small apartment “would keep itself;/ no dust upon the furniture of love.” Her vision of a studio with “a plate of pears,/ a piano with a Persian shawl” seems taken from a painting or a scene in a romance novel rather than from real life. Even once there in her new life, it seems a betrayal of her fantasy to wish things were different, “half heresy” to resent the dripping faucet and the...

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Living in Sin Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The power of “Living in Sin,” an unrhymed free-verse poem, comes from the way it builds in emotional intensity as it progresses. The woman’s early unrealistic fantasy, filled with pears, a piano, and a Persian shawl, makes the present seem even more acrid than it might otherwise. Such imagery is in sharp contrast with the “scraps/ of last night’s cheese” and the empty bottles revealed by the morning light.

Her image of “a cat/ stalking the picturesque amusing mouse” is no preparation for confronting the animal life that does infest her studio or seeing the “beetle-eyes” that would fix her own in the kitchen. Indeed, part of the sin in the title may be the sin of living too long with the illusions of romantic fantasy. The unreality of this view is captured in the first seven lines, both through specific images such as the Persian shawl and the mouse, and through the slightly grandiose phrasing, such as “no dust upon the furniture of love.”

The diction shifts dramatically in the next seven lines. The negative connotations of “writhe,” “tramp,” “coldly,” and “sepulchral” snap the woman, and the reader, out of romantic reverie and place her squarely in her present life. When the insect’s eyes “fix her own” they not only stare back at her, they also fix (correct) her romantic vision, and they fix her firmly in the present moment.

Rich also varies the diction and the context in this section just enough to reinforce her theme. The piano with an exotic shawl in line 5 becomes a keyboard “out of tune” in line 15. The stairs become personified and “writhe” under the weight of the milkman. The daylight, which at first simply reveals the contents of the studio, becomes personified as “relentless” as it approaches inexorably to remind her of her situation.

Rich’s achievement in “Living in Sin” is her ability to keep focused on the specific details of the young woman’s fantasies and her present situation. Most of the poem describes in vivid sensory detail a single day in the life of the woman living in sin. The “minor demons” that jeer at her are conveyed in very concrete images set against the grandiose language and imagery of her earlier romantic notions.

Living in Sin Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Peace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Gwiazda, Piotr. “’Nothing Else Left to Read’: Poetry and Audience in Adrienne Rich’s ’An Atlas of the Difficult World.’” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 2 (Winter, 2005): 165-188.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

O’Reilly, Andrea. From Motherhood and Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born.” New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Ostriker, Alice. Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Spencer, Luke. “That Light of Outrage: The Historicism of Adrienne Rich.” English: Journal of the English Association 51, no. 200 (Summer, 2002): 145-160.

Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.