In 1971, Adrienne Rich – one of the most influential feminist poets of the twentieth century – wrote the essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (On Lies, Secrets and Silence pp. 39–64). It was a powerful call to a re-visioning of the past, and an emphatic statement of the importance of such an endeavour for women: “Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entertaining an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter of cultural history: it is an act of survival” (Charlesworth Gelpi and Gelpi 1993: 167). The project as Rich envisioned it was not only a revisioning of myth, as the later reception of her essay might suggest (Zajko 2007: 401); it was a specifically literary project (“an old text from a new critical direction… a radical critique of literature” [emphasis mine]). But which texts was Rich thinking of revisioning? What literature was she thinking of when she suggested its “critique”?
Rich grew up in a household which valued art and literature over the political and social concerns which would later become so central to her activism. Her father, Arnold Rich, collected books, and Rich (who was home-schooled until she was nine) grew up surrounded by Arnold’s poetry collection, which included Tennyson, Keats, Matthew Arnold and William Blake, among others. As she later recalled, her father’s insistence on her education (and poetry in particular) – in spite of the pressure and tiresome repetition – formed her in such a way that she felt she was “a person of the book” (Charlesworth Gelpi and Gelpi 1993: 232). Throughout her reading of poetry was what Charlesworth Gelpi and Gelpi have called a sense of “the burden of history” (285), later described by Rich as the feeling of being “pursued by questions of historical process, of historical responsibility, questions of historical consciousness and ignorance and what these have to do with power. And, as a poet, I would be unfaithful to my own trade if I did not recognise the debt that poetry owes to the historical impulse of oral tradition. Many of the enduring devices of the earliest written poetry were mnemonic in origin” (Blood, Bread and Poetry p.137). For Rich, history, poetry, and the ancient origins of poetry fused into a call to action, to reassess what it meant to be “a woman, a feminist, a Jew, a Lesbian” both in the light of history and today.
After surveying Rich’s education and the ways in which she felt her upbringing inducted her into a white, male, patriarchal society and literary canon, this paper will survey Rich’s changing relationship to the past, her growing feminist activism, and the “revisioning” of literature through her classical receptions in poetry. It will assess how and why Rich looked back to the literature of the classical world, and in what ways her education in classical receptions in English poetry enabled her both to explore and re-vision “the old texts”, in order to bring about a feminist re-visioning of the classical past.
Feminist Re-Visionings: Twentieth-Century Women Writers and Classics