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'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' (1923) is a poem about female sexuality and desire written by Edna St Vincent Millay. Don't let its short length and seeming simplicity fool you, this poem carries a lot of complexity and leaves a lot of room for debate.
This article deals with sexual themes.
|Aspect||'I Being born a Woman and Distressed'|
|Written in||The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923)|
|Written by||Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)|
|Genre||Anti-romantic, feminist poetry|
|Metre||Iambic pentameter with variations|
|Rhyme scheme||Fixed rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CDCDCD|
|Tone||Assertive and honest tone or mean, impersonal tone; either way, there are hints of an ironic tone|
|Mood||Strong, empowering mood or harsh mood|
|Themes||Sex and sexuality, desire and lust vs. reason, feminism|
|Summary||A woman asserts that although she can't help but feel attracted to her sexual partner, her attraction is just sexual attraction and nothing more.|
|Interpretations and meaning||This is a feminist poem that affirms female sexuality. Some have interpreted the poem as an external struggle between the speaker and her sexual partner, and others as an internal struggle between lust and reason.|
Let's look first at the background of the author.
Edna St. Vincent Millay is a celebrated 20th-century poet known for her sonnets. While many Modernists were busy throwing out and innovating traditional literary forms, Millay was perfecting her sonnets. In her poetry, Millay found expression for her experiences of gender and sexuality, conveying feminist messages.
She was at the height of her popularity in the early 1920s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for her poetry collection, The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems (1923), which included 'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed'. Millay was open about sex and sexuality, openly identifying as bisexual and having several flings with both men and women. Millay's public image was defined by her talent, sexual liberalism, and beauty.
In the same year, after rejecting many suitors, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, the widower of a leading American suffragist. The two had an open marriage – with both consensually engaging in sexual affairs – for 26 years.
Some contemporary critics dismissed Millay's work for its adherence to traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet. Her subject matter – women's sexuality – was also often dismissed as frivolous.
This adherence to traditional forms is perhaps why she is not studied alongside the other great women poets of the time, such as the more experimental, modernist poets H.D., Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy.
What about the social context of her work?
Edna St. Vincent Millay has been hailed a 'New Woman' icon and 'I, Being born Woman and Distressed' examines new forms of womanhood taking shape amidst the social and cultural change of the early 20th century.
The New Woman
The umbrella term for women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and who challenged gender norms and Victorian ideals.
The New Woman pursued her own needs and desires, seeking financial, social and sexual freedoms and independence. The New Woman is politically engaged, educated and pursues her own career. The term 'New Woman' does not refer to a singular female identity, but encompasses the many ways women broke away from gender norms in the early 20th century.
The poem is set in the 1920s, a time of prosperity and social and cultural change. In 1920, the United States government passed the 19th Amendment and women were given the vote. By being given equal voting rights to their male counterparts, women were officially recognised as people in their own right.
Many women wanted to be members of society on an equal footing with men; many moved to urban centres to pursue their careers. To get in on the fun, women began to dress in less conservative clothing and pursued romantic and sexual connections without marriage as a necessary end goal.
Here is 'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' (1923) by Edna St. Vincent Millay in its entirety:
1 I, being born a woman and distressed
2 By all the needs and notions of my kind,
3 Am urged by your propinquity to find
4 Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
5 To bear your body's weight upon my breast:
6 So subtly is the fume of life designed,
7 To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
8 And leave me once again undone, possessed.
9 Think not for this, however, the poor treason
10 Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
11 I shall remember you with love, or season
12 My scorn with pity,—let me make it plain:
13 I find this frenzy insufficient reason
14 For conversation when we meet again."
'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' is about a woman examining her feelings and coming to the conclusion that all she feels is lust for the man to whom she is attracted.
The poem works against the expected, traditional content of a sonnet, therefore creating a slightly ironic, mocking tone.
When something is inconsistent with our expectations of what it should be, or when something means something very different from what is said.
The irony comes from the fact that sonnets are traditionally declarations of love, but this poem is instead an unromantic declaration of lust and an affirmation of female sexuality.
Some readers think that the poem is actually tongue-in-cheek and ironic and that the speaker is not actually overcome by her desires. The speaker's use of hyperbolic ('distressed', 'stout blood against my staggering brain') and overly-formal language ('propinquity' meaning closeness) hints at the sonnet being a mockery of such dramatic expressions.
Or the speaker could be genuine. What interpretation do you find more convincing - that it is or is not ironic?
There is also debate over whether this poem is about an internal or external struggle. Is the poem spoken out loud to the addressee or is she speaking to herself?
Furthermore, is there an implication that something happens in the real world between the speaker and the man she is addressing? When the speaker says that she was 'undone, possessed', it could be interpreted that she acts on her lust and she sleeps with him. The poem also holds the implication that they will 'meet again', perhaps because they are lovers.
Or, it could be interpreted that she is left 'undone, possessed' by her own lust because it 'clouds' her mind temporarily. The fact that the poem ends with the refusal of conversation with this person ('I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again') can be taken as evidence that this utterance was never said out loud.
Would the poem be more powerful if it was said out loud to the man? Is the poem more powerful if the speaker is being honest with a man, or is it just as powerful that she is being honest with herself?
Let's first look at the themes of the poem, so you can keep them in your mind as we discuss the different literary elements and poetic devices used.
The poem's central theme is female desire and sexuality. In this poem, a woman talks openly about her sexuality, which was rare at the time.
Millay's declaration that women have sexual 'needs and notions' is important because, at the time, it was believed that women didn't have sexual desires as men did. On top of this, it was believed that men could separate love from lust, but that women could not.
To what extent are these attitudes toward female sexuality still prevalent today?
The poem is blatantly honest about female sexuality, yet it is not just a straightforward proclamation of female desire, as the speaker seems to resent her sexual feelings for this man.
The main tension in the poem is between the body and the mind, or between lust and reason. By using reason, the speaker is able to discern between love and lust; just because you feel a strong attraction to someone, it does not mean you love them.
Essentially, the poem has a 'mind over matter' message: through reason, the speaker can assert control over her body; you can't control who you're attracted to, argues the speaker, but you can use reason to control how you act. It is this prevalence of reason over passion that makes the poem so anti-romantic: as in a romantic poem, passion triumphs over reason.
This tension is reflected by the juxtaposition of mind and body terms in several lines: line 7 juxtaposes the speaker's 'pulse' with her 'mind', line 10 juxtaposes 'blood' with 'brain' and line 13 juxtaposes 'frenzy' with 'reason'.
Millay's poem implies that women who want to explore their sexuality should use reason to protect themselves from ending up with the wrong man, as lust can be distracting. The speaker's body tries, and fails, to fool her into thinking that she is in love with him by making her heart race ('clarify the pulse') and making her forget about his flaws ('and cloud the mind').
It is possible that her coldness toward him is a response to the 'red flags' he has exhibited. Although the speaker doesn't explain why, she says that she feels 'scorn' for the man she is attracted to. The poem itself seems to be a response to the man mistaking her attraction for love, which leads her to address him in a defensive tone, 'Think not for this, however, the poor treason'.
Despite the fact that her body wants her to be close to this unsuitable suitor, she must use reason to keep her distance from him – whether that's physical or emotional distance.
But does her mind truly succeed over her bodily urges? In the end, she says they will meet again.
How about form?
'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' is written in the form of a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet.
A sonnet traditionally has fourteen lines, and a Petrarchan sonnet divides these fourteen lines into two sections:
the octave (an eight-line stanza)
composed of two quatrains (two sets of four lines)
with a rhyme pattern of ABBA ABBA
the sestet (a six-line stanza)
composed of two tercets (two sets of three lines)
with a rhyme pattern of CDC DCD or CDE CDE
Traditionally, the octave presents a problem that is resolved in the sestet.
One view is that Millay subverts our expectations of the problem and resolution structure of the sonnet by making the conflict an internal one between the speaker's body and mind, a conflict between lust and reason.
Millay further subverts the Petrarchan sonnet by renouncing intimacy in the concluding sestet, rather than giving in to her lustful feelings and calling it 'love'.
The speaker's ability to frankly declare that she does not feel any love mocks the confusion of love for lust that often takes place in the sonnet form. (Is Shakespeare's 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day' truly a declaration of love, or is it one of lust?)
Why did Millay write sonnets?
Sonnets were an outdated literary form by the time Millay came to write them. They were exultations of love written by men to woo women. So why does Millay use the form at all rather than discard it and write in a more modern literary form?
Petrarchan sonnets are traditionally written in iambic pentameter.
A line of verse with five iambs (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).
A line of iambic pentameter reads like, 'da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM'.
'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' is written in iambic pentameter, with some significant variations.
For example, there are two key spondees.
A spondee is a metric foot made up of two stressed syllables.
I, being born a woman and distressed"
In the first foot, 'I, be' are both syllables that are stressed. Spondees are used for emphasis. The poem opens with an emphasis on the speaker's self, kicking off the poem with a burst of high energy that presents us with a self-assertive female speaker.
This spondee is coupled with a caesura (a break in the middle of a line), as a pause is abruptly created by the comma between 'I' and 'being'. The speaker immediately asserts herself and disrupts the flow of the sonnet, telling the reader that this won't be a traditional sonnet. This disruption in metre and rhythm highlights Millay's disruption of the sonnet form by making a woman the speaker and lust the subject, as opposed to love.
However, if you think that the opening to the poem is ironic, you might read this caesural spondee as purposefully over the top and dramatic.
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,"
The spondee here is 'stout blood'. These stressed monosyllabic words with strong consonants create a strong, thick sound, connoting the thickness of the speaker's 'stout' blood. You can almost feel these words pulsating against the line of the poem like blood in a vein.
This spondee serves to highlight the way the speaker's sexual desires overwhelm her mind.
Another key variation to note is the expansion of most of the lines in the sestet: lines 9 through 11 and 13 hold an extra syllable, making up eleven syllables per line as opposed to the ten syllables expected of poetry written in iambic pentameter.
Perhaps, these lines have been engorged like veins ('stout blood') as lust tries to take over the poem, but the speaker's reason triumphs over her lust, subduing the final rhyming lines - lines 12 and 14 - back to ten syllables.
As we have seen, the rhythm of the poem is immediately halted within its first metrical foot by the use of caesura.
A pause near the middle of a line of poetry.
The rhythm remains pretty steady for the rest of the octave until it ends with a halt:
This pause in the rhythm implies that she has momentarily given into her lust. Caesuras are also used in the final sestet to create a sense of relentlessness:
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity,—let me make it plain:"
There is a sense of defensiveness in the caesuras, showing firmness in the speech: the speaker does not love the addressee and she wants to make this perfectly clear to him.
The poem follows a rigid rhyme scheme typical of Petrarchan sonnets: ABBA ABBA, CDC DCD.
We can interpret the consistency of the rhyme scheme as a sign that the speaker always retains a degree of control throughout the poem, even as she is moved by feelings of lust. The rhyme scheme also heightens the ironic tone of the poem, as the words 'zest', 'distressed' and 'breast' sound comical when put together, rather than creating the romantic and sensual tone expected of a sonnet.
Millay inverts the traditional role that women have occupied in sonnets with her female speaker. In this sonnet, the woman is the subject, not the object, of desire.
The tone can be interpreted as:
Could we describe the speaker's tone as cold and even hurtful?
The poem creates a slightly humorous mood through its clever mockery of the sonnet form. By the end of the octave, there is a sense of overwhelm, but the speaker's assertiveness makes for an energetic, triumphant conclusion.
A sonnet is often full of high praise for the object of desire, but Millay's sonnet is devoid of romantic, endearing language.
Millay uses overly-formal language that portrays her desires as out of her control:
Am urged by your propinquity to find"
The speaker says she is 'urged' by his proximity to find him attractive. She can't help finding him attractive but this isn't because he is particularly attractive, it's just because he is nearby.
'Propinquity' is an overly-formal word meaning 'closeness', but ironically, because of its formality and outdatedness, it actually connotes distance, not closeness.
The speaker also uses understatements to show she feels nothing more than lust, which create a mocking, ironic tone:
The speaker's refusal to 'season' her 'scorn with pity' is interesting as it calls to mind the domestic role women are expected to fulfil, cooking and seasoning men's meals to their liking. She refuses to perform the domestic role expected of her by refusing to enter into a romantic connection with the addressee.
The poem is full of physical, bodily imagery, such as:
The use of bodily imagery contributes to the theme of body vs. mind in the poem. Millay's depiction of the female body rebels against the way the female body was often sexualised and objectified in sonnets by male speakers.
Alliteration is a prominent feature of the poem, being used in almost every line and even spilling into other lines through enjambment.
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast
This use of plosive alliteration amplifies the speaker's experience of lust. It also accentuates the shift in tone to suddenly a sexual nature, taking the reader by surprise.
The repetition of 'p' and 'b' sounds.
There is a lot more to uncover in this poem, so don't let the analysis end here. What is your interpretation?
'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' was written in 1923 by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' is a Petrarchan sonnet with fourteen lines, divided into an octave and a sestet following the traditional rhyme scheme and metre of a Petrarchan sonnet with iambic pentameter, but with some crucial variations.
The key themes of 'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' are gender and sexuality and the conflict between the body vs. the mind.
Edna St. Vincent Millay is known for her lyrical verses and for her sonnets. Her most 'Renascence' (1912, 'First fig' (1920), 'I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed' (1923), 'The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver' (1922).
Her most famous poems are 'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed' (1923) and 'Renascence' (1912), a long lyric poem.
What are some key facts about Edna St. Vincent Millay?
A common critique of Millay's poetry is that it is too traditional.
What, or who, is 'The New Woman'
What are the Roaring '20s?
Why can the poem be seen as 'ironic'?
There is debate over whether the poem depicts a ___ or ___ struggle.
External or internal struggle.
What are the key themes of the poem?
What is the form of the poem? How does Millay subvert our expectations of the form?
What metre is the poem written in? What are the key variations in metre?
Which poetic device is used at several points in the poem to break up the rhythm?
Caesura, which is when a pause is created near the middle of a line of poetry.
What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?
ABBA ABBA, CDC DCD.
Who is the Speaker?
What are some words that we might use to describe the tone of the poem?
What can we say about the poem's diction?
The poem uses a lot of ___ imagery?
Sensual and romantic
Almost every line, including enjambed sentences, includes alliteration.
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