By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’ is a 1923 poem by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). The poem is a love poem, although not a conventional one. The form of the poem is also a curious choice given Millay’s subject-matter.
‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’ plays out what the English writer D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) described as the battle between the blood and the brain: Millay is biologically programmed to desire and want romantic and sexual companions, but at the same time she doesn’t want to be ‘undone, possessed’ by men but instead wishes to retain her independence. The poem sees her rejecting the idea of spending more time with a romantic partner.
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
In the poem, Millay addresses her male lover. She begins her poem with the lyric ‘I’, describing herself as ‘distressed’ by her inherent womanhood. All women, she suggests, are in thrall to their ‘needs and notions’: their nature, their desires. She is compelled to find the man attractive, simply because he is close to her and they have been intimate together.
Such intimacy is hinted at in the reference to the ‘zest’ or enthusiasm she is expected to feel for the prospect of her male lover climbing on top of her (to do what? we probably don’t have to wonder for too long).
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Indeed, human nature has been ‘designed’ so that we will feel the quickening of the pulse and the clouding of the mind when we feel desire for someone: we cannot think straight. If you’re a woman, you become ‘undone’ by such desires, completely under the power of your bodily desires, ‘possessed’ with a desire to be possessed by a male lover.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity,—let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.
But then we come to the volta or ‘turn’ in the poem (of which more below): having told us all this, Millay goes on to say that, actually, she feels quite differently. Although society expects her heart to flutter in the presence of someone of the opposite sex, and for her to need a man, she doesn’t think such palpitations or excitations are sufficient grounds for making something more serious out of their acquaintance.
Indeed, she very much wants to consign her fling with the man to the past, and talk about other things when they next see each other.
In some ways, this modern sonnet is a traditional Petrarchan sonnet, in that it rhymes abbaabba cdcdcd. A Petrarchan sonnet is a sonnet, a poem of fourteen lines, divided into an eight-line unit (an octave) and a six-line one (the sestet). The octave is always rhymed abbaabba, as in Millay’s poem above. The sestet can be rhymed a number of ways, although Millay’s adopted rhyme scheme – cdcdcd – is perhaps the commonest choice.
Many English (or Anglophone: Edna St. Vincent Millay was American) writers of Petrarchan or Italian sonnets liked to innovate with the form and end their sonnet with a rhyming couplet, a quintessentially English variation on the Italian form. But ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’ is lacking this English innovation of the final rhyming couplet, instead sticking to the cdcdcd scheme.
But although its form may be in keeping with traditional Petrarchan sonnets, Millay’s poem departs from the subject matter of traditional sonnets. Specifically, the poem departs from the courtly love tradition, and instead contains a female speaker writing about female desire and, by implication, consummated relationships rather than unattainable unions.
Nevertheless, Millay uses other features of the Petrarchan sonnet to reinforce her argument in this poem: for instance, the volta or ‘turn’ – a shift in the direction of the poet’s argument or line of thought – usually occurs at the beginning of the sestet, in the ninth line of the poem.
And we can see how Millay’s thought turns exactly at this point in the sonnet, with the words ‘Think not for this, however …’ Having outlined how she should feel towards her lover, as a woman, Millay proceeds to state how she actually feels about him.
Of course, she acknowledges that she does feel some of the things she’s expected to feel, too: but this ‘frenzy’ of rapid heartbeats and an inability to think clearly because she is sexually excited is ‘insufficient’ justification for renewing her acquaintance with this man when they meet again.
Their coupling belongs in the past; the new, sexually liberated women of 1920s America (the famous flappers) don’t have to marry every man they have gone to bed with. It’s possible to have a casual fling and then move on.
The metre of the poem is very regular: iambic pentameter, as is usually the case with sonnets. However, note that the first line, beginning with that ‘I, being’, opens with a spondee: a foot where both syllables carry a heavy stress. The rest of the poem follows the iambic metre; Millay is using a conventional form and sticking to it, so that we focus on what she is saying – and how it overturns traditional attitudes to male-female relationships – rather than becoming distracted by metrical variations or surprises.
‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’, in the last analysis, is a modern female American poet’s overturning of earlier poetic conventions in order to assert independence over sexual and romantic desire.