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Adrienne Rich's "Living in Sin"

Updated on October 25, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Adrienne Rich

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Living in Sin"

Adrienne Rich's " Living in Sin" features four distinctive movements. The poem focuses on sense awareness including visual imagery, such as "a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own," auditory as in "each separate stair would writhe / under the milkman's tramp," and olfactory with "last night's cheese," an image that superbly supports the theme of disillusionment.

An omniscient speaker reports the actions and details of the narrative. While the reader is admitted into the mind of the young woman in the poem, it is obvious that the young woman is not actually telling her own story.

This tactic makes the revelations more objective and believable. If the woman in the poem were reporting the events and the feelings engendered by them, only confusion would ensue because the woman in the poem is, in fact, confused about her feelings.

The phrase "living in sin" signifies an unmarried man and woman living together. A more contemporary term is "shacking up," but as mores change, the concept is losing its traditional distinction.

Living in Sin

She had thought the studio would keep itself
no dust upon the furniture of love
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal
the pains relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate star would writhe
under the mailman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—
enjoy from some village in the moldings . . .
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the tabletop,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

Reading & dramatization of Rich's "Living in Sin"

Commentary

First Movement: "She had thought the studio would keep itself"

She had thought the studio would keep itself
no dust upon the furniture of love
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal
the pains relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.

A young woman putters around a studio apartment discovering the squalor into which she has moved with her boyfriend. The idea of living together had seemed so romantic when he first suggested it: "A plate of pears, / a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat / stalking the picturesque amusing mouse / had risen at his urging."

But she is discovering that there is dust on the real furniture, even though there had been none on the "furniture of love." She has to work to keep the place livable. The faucet makes noise; the windowpanes are filthy. This scenario is not what she envisioned when her boyfriend suggested they shack up together.

Second Movement: "Not that at five each separate star would writhe"

Not that at five each separate star would writhe
under the mailman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—
enjoy from some village in the moldings . . .

The girl in the poem also did not imagine that she would be kept awake by the creaking stair- steps and be awakened at 5 a.m. by the milkman clomping up those creaking stairs. The "scraps / of last nights cheese and three sepulchral bottle" do not look so inviting with the light of morning showing them for what they are—garbage and trash.

She also had not bargained for a stare-down with a cockroach that has positioned himself "on the kitchen shelf among the saucers," making her apprehend that he must be "from some village in the moldings" where myriad others of his ilk dwell.

Third Movement: "Meanwhile, he, with a yawn"

Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the tabletop,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.

The studio proves to be a sty, unlike any love-haven she could picture prior to moving in. Even her man disappoints her: with a bored demeanor, he plunks out of few notes on the piano but complains that it is out of tune. Might this suggest that he does not even know how to play the piano? So he gives himself a quick look in the mirror, "rub[s] at his beard," and leaves the apartment to buy cigarettes. What, no kiss good-bye?

While alone, she is "jeered by the minor demons," annoyed by petty thoughts that irk her more than anger her. So she gets busy, making the bed and dusting, but "let[s] the coffee-pot boil over on the stove." Oops, another irksome detail of living in sin.

Fourth Movement: "By evening she was back in love again"

By evening she was back in love again
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

Nevertheless, once her man is back, and they snuggle up together with wine and cheese again, she finds herself "back in love again."

But later as she tries to sleep again, she remembers the irritating details of the grubby little place she is sharing with this yawning man as the creaking stair-steps remind her of what living in sin looks like in the cold light of day.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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