Adrienne Rich

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How is content of the poem "History" by Adrienne Rich relevant to its title?

This response begins by stating what a theme is and then cites specific examples of how the author uses her poem to explore this idea. In "History", Adrienne Rich explores ways in which one can define his or her own history. One may decide whether an event is historically significant based on the personal reactions to it. The poet also explores various themes, such as love and its many forms, including marriage, physical attraction, and sex. In addition, Rich suggests that history is all around us—in our homes and in our personal lives—and we should not ignore it.

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Based on this question, I am going to focus on theme in order to best answer you.

Theme is defined as the universal, underlying message an author communicates through a text. In the case of “History” by Adrienne Rich, one might say that the chief thematic idea Rich addresses is how history is a complex set of circumstances that have often unintended consequences.

To see how the title helps convey this message, it is important to examine how Rich intertwines global historical events with the personal facts of her own past. For example, Rich juxtaposes the news of the end of World War II with a memory of learning how to apply lipstick. One could interpret this choice as underscoring Rich’s idea that history is whatever one decides it is, whether it is significant or not in the larger scheme of what others might consider history.

In addition, you might examine how Rich’s evocative, almost stream of consciousness, style further contributes to this idea. The disorganized smattering of images and allusions highlights the fractured, complex web of details that compose the speaker’s version of history.

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The poem opens with the speaker asking whether she should truncate her personal history for the listener. As she goes back through what she remembers, she mentions different points in her personal history that intersect with the history of the world. For example, she remembers running out of the classroom when it was announced that the Allies had won the war.

Her history tangles with the history of the world. She learns history in school but doesn't focus on it as much as her own history. The way the world changes seems less real to her than her own experiences. Ultimately, though, it all comes together at the end when she quotes Auden and says that we cannot choose what we are free to love. History teaches us that; that some types of love will always be criminalized. That may be another point she's making in the poem when she talks about history.

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The title of Adrienne Rich’s poem “History” is relevant to the poem’s content in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • The poem deals with the speaker’s personal history – her “life” – as the opening line already implies.
  • The poem deals more specifically with the history of the speaker’s love-lives, as lines 2 and 3 suggest.
  • The poem deals with different periods and events in American history, as the fourth line implies.
  • The poem deals with history as it is shared by another person or other persons, as line 6 indicates.
  • The poem deals with American cultural history, particularly the history of the movies, as is suggested by lines 7-8. It also deals with the ways cultural history shapes the subsequent histories of individual persons.
  • The poem deals with the history shared between the speaker and another (unnamed) girl in particular (see lines 10-12).
  • The poem deals with history as it was taught in school (see line...

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  • 12).
  • The poem deals with one of the major turning points in American history of the twentieth century: the allied victory in World War II (13-14).
  • The poem deals with various events of national and international history, including the dropping of atomic bombs (26), the suicide of F. O. Mathieson (27-28), and the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (34).
  • The poem also seems to deal with the speaker’s history of love for both women and men and with her marriage to a man.
  • Finally, the last two lines of the poem seem to suggest that the historical conditions of any society at any given point in time determine how people are allowed to express their love:

(When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,

We cannot choose what we are free to love?)  (36-37)

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