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Relevant BackgroundSummaryThemesStyle

Adrienne Rich [1929]

Relevant Background

  • Adrienne Rich is an American poet who was born in 1929.
  • She was brought up in a well-off family.
  • Adrienne was the elder of two daughters.
  • Her father was a doctor and a professor of medicine. This would explain how Adrienne Rich became interested in the history of medicine, the topic of this poem. She was aware of the power of medical inventions and also of the power of those who control medicine.
  • She grew up in with a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. As a result she was used to tensions between her parents. She grew up with moments of tense silence in her household. She became aware of issues of power in her own house.
  • Rich bonded with her father, Arnold Rich, but he was a powerful and controlling type of father. Although he tried to influence her writing, she wanted to write in her own style.
  • She could therefore understand the situation of Marie Curie, a brilliant female scientist controlled indirectly by powerful men.
  • Coming from a family where medicine was so central it is not surprising that Rich would focus on the subject of healing and illness.
  • Marie Curie famously discovered radiation. As well as advancing nuclear physics, the discovery of radiation could help doctors diagnose and then cure illness.
  • Curie, a Polish scientist, was awarded two Nobel prizes for her scientific discoveries and finally died of leukaemia, caused by the materials she devoted her life to.
  • Adrienne Rich felt she was held back as a person by lack of equality for women in American society. She similarly felt the Marie Curie was a victim of inequality in the world of medicine.
  • In some of her poems Rich explored history in order to gain a clearer understanding of issues like inequality and power.
  • This poem dates back to the 1970’s.
  • this poem Rich experimented with word order and sentence structure.
  • Rich was highly aware of how cinema provides a sequence of different images or ‘cuts’. In this poem she tried to imitate this cinema technique.
  • Rich wrote poems on everyday experiences.
  • In this poem, she shows her fascination with science and who controls science.
  • Rich has been one of America’s most important female poets for the past fifty years.


  • The poem is a loosely structured reflection on the use of power in the health industry and in the science industry. It is written in what seems a stream of images and thoughts. It depends on the reader making associations or connections between seemingly different things.
  • The poem considers two case studies from the history of medicine dating back a century before it was written: one an accidental archaeological find of fraudulent healing from the 1870’s, the other the life of a great researcher in medical science born about a century before the poem was written.
  • The first image refers to objects or evidence from the past. When these survive we can examine them as evidence. Some remain as deposits left in the soil from a previous historical period.
  • The next section of the poem describes the discovery of a one hundred year old bottle of yellow [‘amber’] coloured liquid, a so-called cure once offered for sale to cure an unlikely range of ailments including high temperature and depression. Perhaps its maker argued that is was especially useful in winter-time.
  • The thought comes to mind that it may have been a confidence trick used to earn money by a so-called quack, a self-styled but unqualified healer. The maker of this liquid probably exercised a power over people desperate enough to buy his bottles of so-called ‘tonic’.
  • It looks like it was thrown away unused, maybe after disappointment with a previous bottle of the same liquid.
  • This first find refers to a medical hoax.
  • In the third section the poet mentions that she was reading about the discoverer of radiation, Marie Curie, at the same time as she came across the news of the archaeological find.
  • The inventor of radiation was born close to the time that the old fashioned and useless yellow ‘tonic’ bottle was on the market. She would advance medicine in a way that the producer of the fake tonic never could.
  • Surprisingly the poet dwells on the illnesses Marie Curie got from her work with radiation.
  • They built up over years as she worked to purify radium.
  • The mention of ‘test tube’ separates Marie Curie’s work from the unscientific amber bottle.
  • Curie suffered cataracts in her eyes. But she was in a sort of denial and ignored the warning signs.
  • She denied these cataracts were the consequence of her work on radiation as she feared that if fellow scientists realised this link then her work would be endangered.
  • The skin on her fingertips became cracked and filled with pus. But Curie hid the truth behind this even from herself.
  • Curie continued her work until she became physically unfit to hold basic laboratory tools like test tubes and pencils.
  • In the final section Rich comments that Curie knew of her fame, but ignored the cause of her illness, as she didn’t want to put the public off radiation.
  • At the end of the poem Rich assumes that Marie Curie ignored her injuries because she didn’t want to undermine it in the eyes of the men who controlled medicine and science.
  • The poet thinks Curie feared that progress in the use of radiation would set back if the men in charge of permitting new medical products or awarding Nobel prizes knew of her physical distress.
  • By a curious twist of logic, Rich claims that Marie Curie got her wounds from those who gave her power. By this Rich is referring to those who awarded Curie the Nobel prizes and made the key decisions regarding the use of radiation in medicine.


1. Self-sacrifice

Blindness and disability were the price paid by Marie Curie for her discovery and development of radiation in the treatment of patients. Marie Curie accepted this suffering as a necessary sacrifice for science. She suffered ‘cataracts’ and had puss oozing from her fingers as she endured incurable radiation sickness. The poet repeats the word ‘denying’ in the final section. It is unlikely the inventor of the bogus amber bottle of a hundred years before suffered the same ‘wounds’. The bottle of amber tonic was offered for sale for wrong financial gain. This is the complete opposite to Curie’s attitude. She sacrificed herself for the sake of medical advances.

2. Power

What people will do for power In the first description, Rich portrays the ruthless ways of people who want to earn money. The thrown-away bottle is an indication of a trickster who gained power over desperate peasants in order to sell a general cure for mental and physical ailments. It shows the power of false persuasion. It implies the power of money. The second illustration shows the power of radiation to damage and kill people. But most of all it shows the lengths someone will go to in order to retain power over their invention. Through Curies’ denial, the poem shows the power of those who award scientists for discoveries and the power of those who permit the use of new inventions in general medical practise. Curie had to hide and deny the causes of her illness in order to maintain her influence on those who exercised power in medical matters. This suggest that unknown to herself, Curie was oppressed by those more powerful than her in the world of science. The story about Curie also showed she couldn’t protect herself the powerful element, radium, that she had discovered.

3. History

Rich is using two examples from history, both a hundred years old, to shed light on the use of power in society. The contrast between them shows the positive and negative forces at work in society. The fact that Curie was born around the same time the tonic was sold helps us realise the enormous scientific progress that Curie made for humankind. She was a truly historical figure, a female hero in the male dominated world of science.

4. Success

  destroys By describing the details of Curie as shown in the summary above, it is possible to construct an argument that as Curie couldn’t control or resist her success, she ruined herself by continuing her dangerous work. Denial was essential to her success, but denial ruined her health.


  • Form The poem is a loosely structured comparison and reflection. It is written in what seems a stream of images and thoughts. The poem follows the method in film of placing cuts of different scenes in sequence. It depends on the reader to make associations or connections between seemingly different things.
  • Structure The poem is divided into four parts of different length without obvious structure. It is experimental. Because it is written by a modern established poet, such experimentation is accepted as poetry.
  • Language The fact that the poem contains phrases divided by extra spaces makes it difficult to fully understand. Apart from that, the individual phrases are straight-forward.
  • Diction Many of the words are everyday words. Some medical words like ‘suppurating’ [seeping an unpleasant discharge], ‘cataracts’ [partial eye blockage] need to be explained to understand the poem. They give a technical basis to the word ‘wounds’.
  • Full Stops and Commas The poem is written as a sequence of fragments without most regular punctuation apart from capital letters and one colon. This unusual approach to punctuation captures the way anybody’s mind can ramble over topics.
  • Comparison/contrast [difference] The poem contrasts a false healing material to a genuine advance in healing medicine.
  • Imagery The amber bottle, test tubes, pencils and the description of Marie Curie’s physical problems are the main images in the poem.
  • Irony In referring to the fact that Curie wounded herself the poem is ironic. The contrast between the amber bottle and the test tube is ironic.
  • Mood /Atmosphere The description of both examples of science is offered in a calm, unemotional voice. The mood is neutral, a putting side by side of facts.
  • Hyperbole [Exaggeration] The idea that one liquid could cure both emotional and physical problems is hyperbole.
  • Paradox [apparent contradiction] The last line of the poem shows the paradox that Curie’s advances for medicine killed her.
  • Allusion The poem contains references [allusions] to two historical incidents.
  • Tone The tone is detached and neutral, leaving it up to the reader to decide the emotional impact of the poem. The description of Curie may cause pity in the reader, but the poet keeps her feelings to herself. She merely says she was ‘reading’ about the matters she includes in her poem.
  • Repetition This is not a musical poem in the normal sense, yet there are plenty of vowel and consonant repetitions as noted in the notes below this. Certain words like ‘source’, ‘today’ or ‘deny’/‘denying’ are repeated in order to convey the poet’s meaning as well as to create verbal music. ‘Today’ links both the bottle and Curie. ‘Denying’ is the main point the poet is making in the poem.
  • Rhyme There are two rhymes achieved, based on two repeated end words: ‘end’ and ‘denying’.
  • Assonance [similar vowel sound repetition] The ‘is sound is repeated across the first line and the fifth line. The ‘e’ sound dominates the tenth line and reinforces the word ‘denied.
  • Consonance [similar consonant sound repetition] ‘L’ recurs in the first stanza and creates a type of verbal music for the amber bottle. ‘S’ recurs a lot in the remainder of the poem, creating a type of music for the story of Curie.
  • Alliteration [repetition of consonant sounds at the start of nearby words] ‘s’ in ‘same source’
  • Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound] Note how the ‘s’ sounds in the seventh line emphasises Marie Curie’s suffering.


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