The final two lines of Adrienne Rich’s poem titled “History” are italicized and placed within parentheses in order to give them special emphasis. These lines come at the end of a poem that recalls (as the title suggests) many different kinds of history – personal history, national history, sexual history, cultural history, the history of war, and the history of other specific individuals (to mention just a few examples). For the most part, however, the poem seems to set the speaker’s personal history – including her erotic and sexual development – against the background of larger events. The opening three lines of the poem suggest that the love of men and the love of women have equally been aspects of the speaker’s life, and also that those two threads cannot easily or simply be disentangled or explained. The rest of the poem seems to set both kinds of love or attraction within the context of American social and cultural history and within the developing story of the speaker’s life.
The final two lines of the poem read as follows:
(When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love?) (36-37)
These lines seem to suggest that the speaker believes that we are not entirely free to choose how and whom we wish to love. She seems to suggest, in an effective paradox, that we are “free to love” only those whom our society and culture permit us to love. In the case of homosexuals, society until very recently (and indeed even today) has placed severe restrictions on the persons whom homosexuals were free to love. In the 1940s and 1950s, homosexuals were “free” to marry heterosexuals and pretend to be heterosexuals themselves, but they were not “free” to love (let alone marry) other homosexuals in public, without fear of being discriminated against, including suffering violence.