Dreams Before Waking by Adrienne Rich

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –
You yourself must change it. –
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? –
You yourself must change it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Dreams Before Waking

This is the last stanza of a much longer poem by Adrienne Rich – you can read the whole of it by clicking on the title above but it was this stanza in particular that caught my attention – perhaps because we have been through, are still going through, so much uncertainty and often despair.

By now, I imagine you know how much I love questions in poems and here she offers three to make you reflect. What meaning would you make of living where people were changing each other’s despair into hope? Changing hopelessness into an aspiration that something good may happen. And her answer: You yourself must change it. It is not a passive hope; she matches desire with action.

Her second question, what would it feel like to know / your country was changing? seems particularly relevant in this century, though this was written almost 40 years ago. And again her response: You yourself must change it, must change it even though your life felt arduous / new and unmapped and strange.

But it is the final line which is riveting for me: what would it mean to stand on the first / page of the end of despair? What if we could imagine, whether your loss of hope be personal or global, that you are at the beginning of the end of despair? It’s a question we can only each answer for ourselves. And even if there is no answer right now, it is a question worth holding.

10 thoughts on “Dreams Before Waking by Adrienne Rich

  1. Wow Jan, really interesting poem. I read the whole poem. Rich really captures something so real, visceral – and yes, despair – powerfully. And I so appreciate your summary. I too am struck by the last line – to stand on the first page of the end of despair. I’ll carry the sense of this throughout my day.
    Thank you Jan. Lisa xo

    Like

  2. Dear Jan: A soul-searching poem that rings true for me. You are right: the last lines have the effect of a tuning fork, orienting me to conscious intention and hopeful, if imperfect, action. Thank you! Love – Mary Lou

    Liked by 1 person

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