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I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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“I, being born a woman and distressed” by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a Petrarchan sonnet that is divided into two distinct groups: the octave and the sestet. The octave is a set of eight lines which follows a strict rhyming scheme of typically expresses desire or a problem the speaker or poet is faced with. The sestet follows the octave and is the final six lines of the poem and follows the rhyme scheme. The sestet is where the issue, addressed in the octave is resolved, oftentimes aided with a shift in rhyme and tone, called a volta in order to convey the message the poet is trying to communicate. “I, being born a woman and distressed” details the emotional hysteria relationships can bring about in a woman and how one is capable of abandoning a relationship freely. This discourse seeks to examine Millay’s rejection of the societal view of women as delicate, sensitive, needy, and submissive. Through rejecting these presumptions of femininity, Millay attempts to establish herself, how women should be viewed, far stronger than the public is willing to believe. This analysis will seek to examine how Millay expresses her rejection of the society’s view of women in addition to the manner in which she presents how women should be viewed. This will be done through close examination of Millay’s language, and sardonic tone used throughout the course of her work. Moreover, this analysis will aim to explain that the sonnet form was chosen by Millay to further mock and antagonize the contemporary societal view of women as fragile or demure.

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Throughout the octave, Millay sets the speaker up as the prototype woman by portraying her as how society viewed women during that period; weak, submissive, emotion driven, and irrational. Millay takes the first four lines to establish the character of the speaker. Her choice of diction is excellent as it augments the image of the archetypal woman as she uses words such as: “distressed”, “needs”, “notions of my kind”, “urged”, and “propinquity” to convey the idea that her speaker is the same as all other women during the time this work was written. The first verse gives the reader the impression that the speaker exhibits a strong desire for her lover, to the point that she is biologically moved to be with them. The use of the word “distressed” is deliberate as it is often associated with women who are helpless, thus linking the speaker more closely to the typical image of a woman. Millay then establishes the speaker as a salve to her sexuality, as she is “urged” and driven by the irrationality of female thinking or “notions of her kind”, as well as by her emotions, particularly her desire which is expressed by Millay as her needs. Millay continues to set her speaker up as the archetype female as she suggests that her speaker is “urged” to be with her lover due to his proximity to her. This suggests that in addition to be being a slave to her emotions and sexuality, our speaker is also rather frail and is driven towards her lover perhaps due to their superior physical presence, suggesting that her lover is a man. Millay’s diction not only played a pivotal role in establishing the speaker’s character but it helped establish a clear picture of the events happening in the poem.

Millay’s facade continues to lure the reader from lines five through eight as she continues to prove how similar her speaker is when compared to how women were regarded at that time. Once again her diction is nothing short of impeccable as it effectively showcases how the speaker and in effect, all women according to Millay come to exhibit all of her “qualities”. The use of words such as: “cloud” “undone” and “possessed” are used rather strategically to showcase how Millay further portrays her speaker as a frail, emotionally driven, and irrational. In this passage, the poet goes on to explain that the speaker enjoyed the intercourse she had with her lover. Moreover, after intercourse both partners positions and purposes in life should become more clear to them. This is because during the act of intercourse both partner’s mind are clouded to a point that neither of them can think rationally. After intercourse she is left subdued or “undone” by the man who will come to invade and be in possession of her. Thus, the poet is insinuating that sex is the means by which the man comes to possess the woman’s body and mind. Additionally, Millay goes on to insinuate that the speaker’s existence and purpose in life has been constructed to be at the mercy of men. Women’s sentiments and notions have been crafted by society in order for them to be used at the will of men.

It can be argued that the sestet is the most important part of Millay’s piece as it is within the sestet that the overall tone of the poem is revealed and the poet’s message is thus fully understood. The sestet is critical in exposing the overall tone of the poem. It is not until the sestet that the reader fully grasps the notion that “I, being born a woman and distressed” has a very sardonic tone to it. This notion is suddenly conveyed during the volta, as Millay details: “Think not for this, however, the poor treason / of my stout blood against my staggering brain” and when she exclaims: “let me make it plain: / I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again//”. Lines nine to fourteen explain that while the speaker (who at this point is synonymous with women in society) desires and enjoys the physicality of her affair she is capable of walking away from it. Moreover, her brain will not be overpowered by her “stout blood” or stubborn nature. More clearly stated, Millay is trying to explain that though her speaker enjoyed the physicality of the affair, it does not serve as a strong enough basis for her speaker to be with this man as she feels no emotional connection with him. This lends the impression that this affair is of equal meaning to that of a one night stand, the speaker views her affair with little regard and her “lover” as nothing but a means to an end. The last lines of the poem uncover the speaker and highlight the message Millay is trying present: that the emotional hysteria or “frenzy” she feels when she is with her lover is an insufficient reason to want to stay in this relationship with him. It can be argued that the sardonic tone in this poem comes from the fact that for a large part of the poem Millay sets up the speaker to be the quintessential demure and fragile female. She continues to flesh out the character of the speaker in the last half of the octave, conforming her speaker to match that of the average woman. However, that all comes to a crashing halt in the sestet where the speaker abruptly dismisses the affair and deems her lover as unfit to speak to.

As previously mentioned, “I, being born a woman and distressed” is structured as an Italian sonnet, thus is divided into two parts: the octave, and the sestet. The former expressing desire and surrender, as she yearns for her lover and thus offers no resistance against seduction. The latter showcases a rejuvenated speaker, one who is able to overcome her “shortcomings” and rejects her lover, walking away from the relationship while reminding the reader that she is intelligent and independent. Something of particular interest is the rhythm of the sestet, as it seems to display the scheme of CDCDCD as opposed to CDECDE. This faster rhythm contributes to the witty and cynical tone Millay displays throughout the work. Additionally, Millay’s sonnet seems to lack is vivid imagery, which further alienates her sonnet from the tradition form. Instead, her diction provides the reader with image of the quintessential woman, as well as images of the physicality of her affair; “to bear your body’s weight upon my breast”. Ultimately, most sonnets tend to be associated with the topic of strong emotional feeling and love, as many poets of sonnets often reminisce over it. Millay however, expresses the exact opposite view, she instead challenges the tradition of the sonnet through crafting one of her own that conforms to qualities opposite to what is expected, similar to how she views the image of women.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I, being born a woman and distressed” is a poem of witty cynicism that mocks the conventional view of women being demure and submissive. Through her clever use of diction and tone and the sonnet form Millay conjures a brilliantly crafted poem expressing her rejection of society’s portrayal of women and instead attempts to redefine the image of femininity and womanhood. 

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