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At A Bach Concert

Adrienne Rich

Coming by evening through the wintry city


We said that art is out of love with life.
Here we approach a love that is not pity.

This antique discipline, tenderly severe,


Renews belief in love yet masters feeling,
Asking of us a grace in what we bear.

Form is the ultimate gift that love can offer -


The vital union of necessity
With all that we desire, all that we suffer.

A too-compassionate art is half an art.


Only such proud restraining purity
Restores the else-betrayed, too-human heart.

Adrienne Rich’s “At a Bach Concert” is a poem that successfully illustrates the necessary links
between the themes of form, art, and love. Rich presents the reader with a speaker who celebrates
the discovery that art not only gives order to life, but also that order gives meaningful life to art.
The poem is concerned mostly with form’s effect on art. She calls form “a love that is not pity”
(line 2). The speaker claims that form does not restrain, but gives way to an art that is pure and
proud, not pathetic. It is the “ultimate gift that love can offer” (7).
Rich uses form in the structure of this poem to show how vital form is to a piece of art. In the
title alone she alludes to Johann Sebastian Bach, an early eighteenth-century composer and
musician. He was acclaimed for incorporating a depth of intellect and beauty into a technically
challenging format.
By titling the piece “At A Bach Concert,” Rich not only gives readers a physical setting, but also
invokes all of the restraints that Bach put on his own works and sets up a running implied
comparison between music and poetry. Bach started with a certain meter, or time, and then filled
in his measures with the most beautiful things that he could fit within them. While he was strict
in implementing musical theory, Bach also manipulated rhythms and sounds within the rules he

so closely observed. Rich is referring to Bach’s music as “this antique discipline, tenderly severe”
(4). Bach’s music requires discipline, but the reward is in how the musician is then able to control
an expressive force. Music of this kind is beautifully strict. Today, his music remains some of the
hardest structurally to play, but it is also among the most unified and beautiful.
Rich relates Bach’s use of creativity within structure to poetry by putting in into practice. Like
Bach, she chose to adhere to a strict form: four stanzas of iambic pentameter, with the first and
last lines of each stanza rhyming. Within her chosen form, the poet manipulates words and
sounds, and occasionally adds a musical, flourish-like extra syllable to the end of a line, all to
compose a meaningful piece that beautifully communicates a love of form in art.
The speaker not only celebrates restrained art, but also conveys her disinterest in art that enforces
no restraint when she states, “A too-compassionate art is half an art” (10). When art is conceived
only of human feeling and emotion, the outcome cannot always be trusted to communicate
effectively.
The same is also claimed of love without restraint. Without this “proud restraining purity,” or
love controlled by form, the too-human heart cannot be restored to a place conducive to creativity
and life (11). By using form to guide emotion, art “renews belief in love, yet masters feeling” (5).
Art that is guided will not be overcome by feelings and can then speak as a piece of art not too
compassionate.

“Love” as a piece of vocabulary is used in two ways. The first is the literal meaning. Love is an
emotional attachment between two people. Taking this meaning, the poem warns against love
without any sort of restraint in the same way it warns against using an artistic mode without
restraint. In the second meaning in this poem, love is a form of art, or expression, that has
married feeling and emotion with rationality and order. It is “the vital union of necessity with all
that we desire” (8-9). Emotion and reason were meant to be used together in human relationships
with each other, but in art, the emotion and reason become the medium of communication.
The poem progresses from “approaching” love in the first stanza, to finding a way to restore the
human heart, and art, to its right order through form in the last stanza. The rhythm of the poetry
keeps one reading straight through it to the end, like listening to a piece of music being played. It
does not repeat, but carries on. If it revisits a theme, it is a variation, and is included to
emphasize the main theme. This may be to further the implied comparison between poetry and
music.
In “At A Bach Concert,” Adrienne Rich has used her medium, like Bach, to create a celebration
of the marriage of necessity and desire, of emotion and reason. Her tone is one of hope. Though
it may be said that “art is out of love with life,” (2) the speaker in the poem continues on to
explain where to look for art that is still in love with life, and it can be found where there is form.