Here’s an essay I wrote for one of my classes about the poem “Song” by Adrienne Rich. As always I make no claims as to what the author intended, this is merely one interpretation of what I think is a wonderful poem.
First the poem, then the essay:
“You’re wondering if I’m lonely;
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean
You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely
If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep
If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning” —Adrienne Rich
The Liberation of Loneliness:
An Analysis of Unconventional Connotations in Adrienne Rich’s “Song”
Connotations contribute to our perception and use of a word. They are the overtones that words have acquired over time. “Loneliness,” the subject of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Song,” has a well-established, but limited network of overtones. Its connotations are centered on a set of undesirable feelings: depression, confusion, and isolation. However, the speaker in Rich’s poem defines loneliness in a way that rids it of these conventional connotations. She concedes to being lonely, conventionally only in the aspect that she is alone, but then instead of relating loneliness to its usual connotations the speaker re-appropriates loneliness by associating it to the independence and self-awareness she feels. Through a series of specific and interconnected images, she reveals that her loneliness, and the qualities that accompany it, are a permanent part of her being.
Rich employs similes of travel in the first two stanzas of her poem to illustrate how the speaker finds freedom and purpose in her loneliness. She admits to being lonely, but only under the condition that it is “lonely as a plane” and “as a woman driving across country” (2; 9). Both of these similes compare loneliness to traveling, which is suggestive of movement and freedom, as emphasized by the large distances covered by the plane and the woman. The plane is also described as flying “level/on its radio beam” (3-4). It is stable and guided by its own signal. Secondly, it is “aiming…for… an airfield on the ocean” (4-7). It is purposeful; it has a specific direction and goal. The woman on the other hand is not described as going towards something, but “leaving behind… little towns she might have stopped/and lived and died in” (11-14). As she goes forward, the woman forsakes settled existence, indicating that she has no ties to and no dependence on these towns for her livelihood. She is autonomous. Accordingly, through the use of these two similes, the speaker specifies what her loneliness is like. While the conventional connotation suggests that loneliness can be oppressive, here the speaker establishes loneliness as being free, secure, motivated, and self-sufficient.
The following two stanzas build on the speaker’s personal definition of loneliness. The author’s use of metaphors and personification show how self-aware the speaker feels in her loneliness. She describes the loneliness of being awake “in a house wrapped in sleep” (20). In reality, sleep cannot physically wrap something. Thus, this metaphor transforms sleep into something tangible and implies that everything within the confines of the house is bound by sleep. But the speaker, despite being in the house, opposes herself to this constraint, and is instead awake and perceptive. Her objective is well defined, and even if she is within the house she is not restricted by it. Moreover, a house cannot sleep. Instead of individualizing each inhabitant of the house, she personifies the house. This strengthens her opposition with regards to the other inhabitants because they are not individualized, but she is. She can separate herself from an entity, while the other inhabitants cannot, suggesting that her loneliness is accompanied by the power of choice.
Whereas she opposes herself with the house she also says that she is lonely “with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore” (22). The speaker unites her loneliness to an object that is “ice-fast” and hence un-wavering in its state. She furthers this comparison by personifying the boat, saying that it “knows what it is…it’s neither/ice nor mud nor winter light/but wood” (24-26). Her loneliness makes her aware of her boundaries. She knows what she is not, and what she is composed of. Hence, her relationship to her environment is unambiguous. Additionally, the boat has “a gift for burning” (26). A gift in this sense is a talent or a skill. The boat’s aptitude for burning is what sets it apart and, thus, defines it. The ice, the mud, and the winter light cannot burn, but the wood can. This potential to burn is linked to the images of fire and light which are suggestive of intensity, passion, and life. The speaker’s loneliness, therefore, is a source of all this energy. Furthermore, this talent acquires an almost rebellious attitude when it is compared to the winter setting that surrounds the boat. Winter is a season of cold, death, and harsh conditions, quite the opposite of burning and the images it evokes. The speaker’s careful delineation of the boat’s position and composition shows that her loneliness defies the natural order of things. It is not just well-established, but imposing. As a result, loneliness in this poem is empowering; it does not carry any of its usual connotations of depression and confusion.
To strengthen this unconventional definition of loneliness, Rich not only repeats the word “lonely” throughout the poem, but several other words as well. First of all, the word “lonely” is used at least once in every stanza. Consequently, the images presented in each stanza have one thing in common: they are all related to loneliness, and thus to each other. Other repetitions are also found in each stanza serving to link their own connotations to the speaker’s loneliness. Repetition not only emphasizes the words themselves, but emphasizes their relation to the word “lonely” because the reader is more likely to remember a word that is repeated. To begin, the repetition of “across” in the first and second stanza implies that her loneliness knows no limits (5; 10). In the second stanza, the repetitions “day after day” and “mile after mile” implies her loneliness is not temporary, but a permanent condition (11; 12). The placement of “first” alongside “lonely” in the third stanza emphasizes the singular and superior aspect of her loneliness (17; 18). Someone who is “first” is a pioneer or a champion. Thus, her loneliness is exceptional. In the same stanza, “breath” and “breathing” appear (17; 18). This repetition connects loneliness to one of the conditions of being alive. Finally, the repetition of “that knows” in the last stanza stresses how her loneliness makes her self-aware because when one knows one understands (24). The repetition of all these words alongside the word “lonely” unites them, giving the poem a sense of continuity and helping to create the speaker’s unconventional definition of loneliness.
The speaker’s loneliness is not transitory, but part of her identity. Her loneliness is not sad or secluding, but empowering and enduring. By endowing “loneliness” with unconventional connotations, its connotative power is enriched. Rich makes us realize that words are mutable and not clearly defined. They carry their historical overtones, but no specifications and can, therefore, only be well-defined with respect to a linguistic environment. Much like the row-boat in this poem is defined by its surroundings; loneliness takes its shape from the context of the poem. It is as if we meet loneliness in person, but instead of confirming our expectations, we are awed by its new dimensions.