Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the elder of two sisters. Her father, renowned pathologist Arnold Rice Rich, was the Chairman of Pathology at The Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her mother, Helen Elizabeth (Jones) Rich, was a concert pianist and a composer. Her father was from a Jewish family, and her mother was Southern Protestant; the girls were raised as Christians. Adrienne Rich's early poetic influence stemmed from her father who encouraged her to read but also to write her own poetry. Her interest in literature was sparked within her father's library where she read the work of writers such as Ibsen, Arnold, Blake, Keats, Rossetti, and Tennyson. Her father was ambitious for Adrienne and "planned to create a prodigy." Adrienne Rich and her younger sister were home schooled by their mother until Adrienne began public education in the fourth grade. The poems Sources and After Dark document her relationship with her father, describing how she worked hard to fulfill her parents' ambitions for her—moving into a world in which she was expected to excel.
In later years, Rich went to Roland Park Country School, which she described as a "good old fashioned girls' school [that] gave us fine role models of single women who were intellectually impassioned." After graduating from high school, Rich gained her college diploma at Radcliffe College, where she focused primarily on poetry and learning writing craft, encountering no women teachers at all. In 1951, her last year at college, Rich's first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by the senior poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; he went on to write the introduction to the published volume. Following her graduation, Rich received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study at Oxford for a year. Following a visit to Florence, she chose not to return to Oxford, and spent her remaining time in Europe writing and exploring Italy.