‘I, Being born a Woman and Distressed,’ also known as Sonnet XLI, by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a Petrarchan, or Italian sonnet, that is divided into one set of eight lines, or octave, and one set of six lines, or sestet. The first eight lines rhyme in a pattern of ABBAABBA while the sestet rhymes, CDCDCD.
Explore I, Being born a Woman and Distressed
The poem begins with the speaker describing her own emotions when she is confronted with a potential lover. The man, just through his presence, is able to make her feel the “notions of” her kind. Her female biology makes her desire him whether her brain wants to or not. It is a feeling of “zest” she gets for the weight of him upon her.
She knows, from experience, and from what she has been taught, that sex is meant to be a way that a man comes to possess a woman. The overpowering emotions that come along with it can cloud a woman’s mind until she cannot see or think straight. Many believe this is how it has to be, but it is not.
In the final section, she describes how she has the power to walk away from any man she chooses. She can be with a man, and then leave him if they have no emotional or mental connection. She is not made to be possessed.
Analysis of I, Being born a Woman and Distressed
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
This sonnet begins with the speaker reiterating the title of the piece. It is also the starting point from which all the ideas, emotions, and problems she presents throughout the poem, arises.
Throughout this poem Millay’s speaker will describe the desire she feels for a would-be lover. She is moved by her own biology to be with this man and knows that other women experience the same things.
She describes the“zest” she and all other women feel, in the presence of a lover. She knows that as a woman, who is confined by the “notions” of her kind, or the biology of her sex, that his proximity, or “propinquity,” to her will make her want him. Just due to the fact that he is a man, and she is a woman, his “fair[ness]” can influence her. She continues this thought into the next lines.
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
The “zest” she feels makes her desire the “weight” of his body on her “breast.” It should be, she says, a simple enough equation. Women are made, subtly, to want what will overtake them. They are given no control over whether or not it happens, it will and it does. Or at least this is what society has taught her, and all other women, and men, to believe.
Their female emotions and notions have been perfectly designed so that they may be taken, and used, by men. During and after sex, their position, and lives, should be, and sometimes are, clarified to them. Their minds should once more be cast into “cloud[s],” from which they cannot see straight to think for themselves.
After the act is done the woman will be left “once again undone” and repossessed by the man. It is through sex, the speaker says, that man reasserts his control over the female body and mind. While the speaker might be saying these things, it is important to read them in tandem with the thoughts that finalize her position on male/female relationships in the last lines of the poem. She sees these ideas, that are held by the majority of the population to be only partially true. They are not truly, naturally one way or another. Women are not, naturally, subservient and so easily controlled by men. They have a choice.
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.
Between the previous section, and the last six lines, Millay’s speaker has made her own choice. While she may feel the desire for physical contact with this potential lover but she also has the ability to say no. She will remember this lover as she moves through her life, but the “stout blood” of her body does not overpower her brain. Her physical wants will not force her to be with him. She does not hold any genuine, fulfilling emotion for him. He is to her just another relationship that has ended, she feels neither “scorn” or “pity.”
In the last three lines, she reiterates the point she is trying to get across. The “frenzy” that she feels when she is with him is not enough reason for her to stay. There is no need for them to ever speak again.
About Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892. She was raised, along with her two sisters, by a single mother, from whom she learned self-sufficiency and gained an appreciation for art. She became involved in writing poetry at a young age and was awarded a scholarship to Vassar College where she became involved in theatre. While there she continued to write and had a number of relationships with several women. She published her first book in the year of her graduation, Renascence and Other Poems. In 1923, Millay married Eugen Boissevain who gave up his own career to manage Millay’s literary one.
She would become one of the most respected poets in the United States and would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her collection of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Her popularity stemmed from both her remarkably crafted sonnets and her bohemian lifestyle, including her political stances, and open relationships. Millay died in 1950 at the age of 58.