Edna St. Vincent Millay's "I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed": A Deeper Look
By Jessica Barnes
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet, “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed,” serves as an excellent example of a multi-faceted piece. From one angle, it is simply a Petrarchan sonnet, written with a slight variation on rhyme scheme – but that variation, taken deeper, reveals new layers of meaning. Added to Millay’s choice of meter and end-stop, along with a background of Millay’s person, this sonnet seems not so “simple” after all.
Millay, though she married in 1923, was known to have extramarital affairs, purportedly with both women and men. (wikipedia.com) In the context of this particular sonnet, such seems revealing indeed – for it seems the speaker of the sonnet is involved in some sort of affair. Or perhaps Millay’s sonnet is addressed to her husband, for it was published in 1923; however, that seems unlikely, since the sonnet frames a rejection of her lover. More likely, I see it as a final ‘goodbye’ to her lover before marriage, for she “find[s] this frenzy insufficient reason” to continue seeing him (or her). Though Millay had an “open” marriage – that is, she and her husband consented to each other’s affairs – she likely did not want to begin her marriage with two lovers.
The 1920s was a booming period, and Millay fit in perfectly with her independent demeanor. Women had gotten the right to vote in 1920, and this, I think, furthered Millay’s interest in independence, and perhaps caused her to think about the “traditional” roles of women. The typical image of a ‘damsel in distress’ fit her poorly; hers was a more forthright existence. On the outside, however, she was a woman, and was thus restrained by her own appearance – much as she restrains herself in her rhyme scheme. Instead of the usual five rhymes used for an Italian sonnet, Millay uses only four – this both hearkens back to Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” and applies its own meaning to the poem.
In Wordsworth’s sonnet, he uses only the four rhymes to show that, even in constraining himself, he is still free. He may be confined to a cell or a rhyme scheme, but it is in such confinements that he finds liberty. Millay, too, is playing off of this idea – simply by being a woman she is confined by society, but through her poetry she can recognized for the brilliant writer she is; hence, she quite literally frees her poetic reputation by constraining herself to such strict bounds. The irony in this reference to Wordsworth’s work, however, is the contrasting subject matters – he writes of metaphorical nuns, while she writes of rejection and lovers.
The second interpretation of Millay’s constrained rhyme scheme is a fair bit simpler. Her choice of words throughout the work is calm and cool – distanced from the audience. There is none of the anger that usually accompanies a lovers’ breakup; Millay is reserved, restraining her emotions. This translates through to her rhyme scheme, which is also reserved. Here, she pulls back both from her lover, and from tradition.
The sonnet’s meter, on the other hand, is a bit more erratic, and betrays more feeling. Most of the piece is in a steady iambic pentameter, but it varies – four times – just after the “turn” (line 8) of the sonnet. Three of those lines draw further attention by their trochaic shift. The increase in syllables for the four ‘variation lines’ (marked on the attached sheet) creates a stumbling feel, different from the rest of the piece – almost as if the speaker were angry or had wavering convictions. In this case, however, the speaker betrays herself only through dactyls and anapests, rather than through a visual clue, such as wringing her hands. Since we cannot see her, this is our only hint that her composure may be a sham. In the tenth line, “my staggering brain” seems also to be a more obvious reference to this disturbance in the meter – particularly because the “staggering” is an anapest, which throws it out of beat with the rest of the line. Thus both the meter and the reader’s voice stagger, in imitation of the speaker.
The speaker, as well, is imitating – but her imitation is of a style; a Petrarchan sonnet. I say ‘imitation,’ for her sonnet belies the very idea of a Petrarchan sonnet, which is generally addressed to the ideal woman – a goddess, almost – and written by a love-besotted man. Millay’s sonnet, though it follows the Italian rhyme scheme fairly closely, is making a mockery of the Petrarchan ideal. Hers is addressed to an unidentified lover, from the perspective of a jaded woman, and speaks more of rejection than of love. By framing it as a Petrarchan sonnet, Millay is rejecting not only her lover, but also the traditional roles of a woman, by which she feels trapped. (She is “distressed/By all the needs and notions of my kind” – that is, trapped by feminity.) She asserts her independence from the ‘damsel in distress’ ideal by equating herself to the male writer of the Petrarchan sonnet and simultaneously proving her prowess as a poet. She does not portray herself as some goddess on Earth, but rather speaks as a rational human, which lies in stark contrast with her choice of the Petrarchan form.
Though she does not stay true to the Petrarchan ideas, Millay does stick to the Italian style of an octet followed by a sestet. The turn of the sonnet, right after the octet, is marked also by an extra syllable (which forms an anapest) and a brief shift in meter. In the octet, the speaker explains how, because of the “notions of [her] kind,” she is physically attracted to her lover, to the point that it “cloud[s] the mind.” After the turn, however, she presents her refusal to continue their affair – in this, the turn becomes almost literal as the speaker turns a cold shoulder to her lover. The fact that both the octet and the sestet are strongly end-stopped lends an air of finality to her turning away, as does the use of rhyme.
One of the rhymes in the sestet, in particular, closes the sonnet. Millay’s use of brain/plain/again has a stronger feel than the rest of her rhymes, and thus ends the piece definitively. These three stick out from the rest because of their harsh sound – none of Millay’s other rhymes have ‘a’ as their vowel. As the rhymes become harsher, so too does the speaker, for these three lines are her part of her definitive refusal of her lover.
The end-stop and enjambment in Millay’s sonnet are really more background features, in this case, enhancing what’s already there. The strongest end-stops finish the octet and the sestet, as said before; thus, they create a small pause – in which the finality of the speaker’s words can sink in. In the sestet, end-stop alternates with enjambment: each line ending with an ‘ain’ rhyme (brain/plain/again) is end-stopped, while the others are enjambed. This brings even further attention to those rhymes, and subtly builds up to the final, authoritative end-stopped line – by that last line, the reader can already expect a pause after any ‘ain’ rhyme, so the ending comes as no surprise.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, though she lived as a woman in times where women had just barely gotten the right to vote, was independent and assured of her skills. This reflects in her poetry; particularly “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed.” Millay took an established form, and ‘altered’ it to fit her meaning – even taking its original purpose into consideration – to create an ironic sonnet that broke with the norm. After an analysis of both the technical and social features of this sonnet, its hidden meanings and subtle emotion become readily apparent.
The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fifth Edition. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, & Jon Stallworthy. Copyright 2005, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
“Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Wikipedia. 21 October 2005. Non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. 31 October 2005.
Gale, Robert L. “Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Life.” Modern American Poetry. Accessed: 31 October 2005. (This source was used solely to confirm the information on Wikipedia.)
© Jessica Barnes