'Stepping Backward' by Adrienne Rich

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Good-by to you whom I shall see tomorrow,
Next year and when I'm fifty; still good-by.
This is the leave we never really take.
If you were dead or gone to live in China
The event might draw your stature in my mind.
I should be forced to look upon you whole
The way we look upon the things we lose.
We see each other daily and in segments;
Parting might make us meet anew, entire.

You asked me once, and I could give no answer,
How far dare we throw off the daily ruse,
Official treacheries of face and name,
Have out our true identity? I could hazard
An answer now, if you are asking still.
We are a small and lonely human race
Showing no sign of mastering solitude
Out on this stony planet that we farm.
The most that we can do for one another
Is let our blunders and our blind mischances
Argue a certain brusque abrupt compassion.
We might as well be truthful. I should say
They're luckiest who know they're not unique;
But only art or common interchange
Can teach that kindest truth. And even art
Can only hint at what disturbed a Melville
Or calmed a Mahler's frenzy; you and I
Still look from separate windows every morning
Upon the same white daylight in the square.

And when we come into each other's rooms
Once in awhile, encumbered and self-conscious,
We hover awkwardly about the threshold
And usually regret the visit later.
Perhaps the harshest fact is, only lovers--
And once in a while two with the grace of lovers--
Unlearn that clumsiness of rare intrusion
And let each other freely come and go.
Most of us shut too quickly into cupboards
The margin-scribbled books, the dried geranium,
The penny horoscope, letters never mailed.
The door may open, but the room is altered;
Not the same room we look from night and day.

It takes a late and slowly blooming wisdom
To learn that those we marked infallible
Are tragi-comic stumblers like ourselves.
The knowledge breeds reserve. We walk on tiptoe,
Demanding more than we know how to render.
Two-edged discovery hunts us finally down;
The human act will make us real again,
And then perhaps we come to know each other.

Let us return to imperfection's school.
No longer wandering after Plato's ghost,
Seeking the garden where all fruit is flawless,
We must at last renounce that ultimate blue
And take a walk in other kinds of weather.
The sourest apple makes its wry announcement
That imperfection has a certain tang.
Maybe we shouldn't turn our pockets out
To the last crumb or lingering bit of fluff,
But all we can confess of what we are
Has in it the defeat of isolation--
If not our own, then someone's, anyway.

So I come back to saying this good-by,
A sort of ceremony of my own,
This stepping backward for another glance.
Perhaps you'll say we need no ceremony,
Because we know each other, crack and flaw,
Like two irregular stones that fit together.
Yet still good-by, because we live by inches
And only sometimes see the full dimension.
Your stature's one I want to memorize--
Your whole level of being, to impose
On any other comers, man or woman.
I'd ask them that they carry what they are
With your particular bearing, as you wear
The flaws that make you both yourself and human.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Stepping Backward by Adrienne Rich: A Thought-Provoking Analysis

Have you ever read a poem that made you feel as though the author was speaking directly to you? With Stepping Backward, Adrienne Rich does just that. This classic poem is rich in meaning and depth, and it will leave you thinking long after you've finished reading.


Before we dive into the analysis, let's take a moment to appreciate the author of this masterpiece. Adrienne Rich was a feminist poet who lived from 1929 to 2012. She was not only a prolific writer, but also an activist who fought for women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and social justice. Her works often challenged societal norms and power structures, and Stepping Backward is no exception.

Poem Analysis

The first thing that strikes the reader about Stepping Backward is the title. Stepping backward seems like an odd thing to do, especially when we're always encouraged to move forward and progress. However, Rich is not talking about physical movement in this poem. She's exploring the idea of emotional and mental regression.

The poem begins with the speaker saying that she's "stepping backward" into the past. She's not simply remembering it; she's actively going back to it. The use of the present continuous tense here adds a sense of immediacy and urgency to the poem. The speaker then goes on to describe the past as "a field / I should visit more often." The use of the word "should" hints at a sense of obligation or duty, as though the speaker owes it to herself to revisit her past.

As the poem progresses, we start to get a sense of why the speaker feels this way. She describes the present as "a cliff / already crumbling." Once again, the use of the present continuous tense suggests that this deterioration is ongoing and unstoppable. The contrast between the stability of the past and the fragility of the present is stark.

The speaker then goes on to describe the past in more detail, saying that it's "where the road / neither branches nor ends." This line is particularly powerful because it suggests that the past offers a sense of direction and purpose that the present lacks. There are no choices to be made in the past; everything is predetermined, and the speaker finds comfort in that.

The next stanza is where the poem really starts to get interesting. The speaker says that she's going back to the past "to a place where we sang / dark songs for ourselves." This line is full of ambiguity. Who is "we"? What are the "dark songs" the speaker is referring to? The fact that the speaker doesn't clarify these details makes the poem all the more intriguing.

The final stanza is perhaps the most powerful of all. The speaker says that she's going back to the past "to a room with a closed door / and a lamp burning." This image is both comforting and eerie. The closed door suggests that the past is something that's been locked away or forgotten, while the burning lamp suggests that it's still alive and waiting to be rediscovered.

The final line of the poem is what really brings it all together. The speaker says, "I step outside for a while / and breathe the new air." This line is full of contradictions. The speaker is stepping backwards into the past, yet she's also stepping outside and breathing new air. It's as though she's simultaneously living in two different worlds. The fact that the poem ends on this note of uncertainty is what makes it so powerful.


So what does it all mean? There are many ways to interpret Stepping Backward, but one of the most compelling is that it's about the human need for nostalgia and comfort in times of uncertainty. The speaker is facing a present that's crumbling and unstable, and she finds solace in revisiting a past that was simpler and more predictable.

At the same time, the poem also acknowledges the danger of dwelling too much on the past. The closed door and the dark songs suggest that the speaker is not remembering a perfect past, but one that was also full of pain and struggle. By stepping outside and breathing new air, the speaker acknowledges that she can't live in the past forever. She has to face the present and its challenges.

Another way to interpret the poem is as a commentary on societal progress. The idea that we should always be moving forward and making progress is a common one, but Stepping Backward suggests that sometimes we need to step back in order to move forward. By revisiting the past and learning from it, we can build a better future.


Stepping Backward is a thought-provoking poem that invites the reader to reflect on the past, present, and future. Its ambiguity and contradictions leave plenty of room for interpretation, and its themes of nostalgia, comfort, and progress are as relevant today as they were when the poem was first published. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend giving it a try. It may just change the way you see the world.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Stepping Backward: An Analysis of Adrienne Rich's Classic Poem

Adrienne Rich's poem, Stepping Backward, is a classic piece of literature that has stood the test of time. First published in 1971, the poem is a powerful commentary on the nature of relationships and the ways in which they can change over time. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language used in the poem to gain a deeper understanding of its meaning.

The poem begins with the speaker reflecting on a past relationship, one that has ended and left her feeling lost and alone. She describes the relationship as a "bright room" that she once inhabited, but now feels like a "darkened chamber." This imagery sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as the speaker grapples with the pain of loss and the difficulty of moving on.

Throughout the poem, Rich uses a variety of metaphors and symbols to explore the theme of change. For example, she compares the relationship to a "book" that has been closed, and the act of stepping backward to "turning back pages." These metaphors suggest that the speaker is trying to revisit the past, to understand what went wrong and perhaps find a way to move forward.

Another important symbol in the poem is the "mirror." The speaker describes looking into a mirror and seeing "a face I do not recognize." This symbolizes the way in which the speaker's identity has been shaped by the relationship, and how she is struggling to find herself again now that it has ended.

The language used in the poem is also significant. Rich employs a variety of poetic techniques, such as repetition and alliteration, to create a sense of rhythm and flow. For example, she repeats the phrase "stepping backward" throughout the poem, emphasizing the theme of regression and the difficulty of moving forward.

One of the most powerful lines in the poem is "I am not what I intended to be." This line captures the sense of disappointment and disillusionment that the speaker feels, as she realizes that her life has not turned out the way she had hoped. This is a universal theme that many readers can relate to, as we all have moments when we feel like we have lost our way.

The final stanza of the poem is particularly poignant. The speaker describes standing at a crossroads, unsure of which path to take. She says that she is "afraid of moving wrong," but also afraid of standing still. This captures the sense of paralysis that can come with indecision, and the fear of making the wrong choice.

In conclusion, Stepping Backward is a powerful poem that explores the theme of change and the difficulty of moving on from past relationships. Rich's use of imagery, symbolism, and language creates a sense of depth and complexity that resonates with readers. The poem is a testament to the enduring power of poetry to capture the human experience and provide insight into the complexities of life.

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