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Speaker, Subject, and Theme in Edna St. Vincent Millay's "I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed" (Sonnet XLI)

by Ngoc Nguyen
“I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” (Sonnet XLI)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
 
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:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
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. 
 
 
In Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet the speaker is a woman “distressed/ By all the needs and notions of my kind.” She is apparently a woman caught and frozen between her anger or resentment—that is, “the fume of life designed”—and her obvious sexual attraction for the recipient in question, most likely a man but also possibly another woman. She is a woman who helplessly finds herself in a circumstance or situation that is a contradictory state of affairs: “this frenzy insufficient reason/ For conversation when we meet again.” Finally, in more dramatic language, she is a woman caught and suspended between her nigh uncontrollable desire and longing for and yet undeniable resentment and stone-heartedness against the recipient in question, which are all at the same time occurring and transpiring in the same breadth of emotional  turmoil and impossible disentanglement.
 
The subject of this sonnet revolves around a woman's inability—or perhaps ambivalent reluctance and unwillingness—to disentangle two contradictory and antithetically antipodal emotions for the same person. On the one hand, she is moved and possessed by her libido and sexual attraction for the recipient, “By all the needs and notions of my kind,” and feels the desire and pull of her need to engage the recipient sexually at the mere sight and closeness of him or her, as “I...Am urged by your propinquity to find/ Your person fair, and feel a certain zest/ To bear your body's weight upon my breast.” However, on the other hand, she is also moved and persuaded by her resentment or hostility toward the recipient to the degree that it emotionally, physically, and perhaps even visibly upsets and perturbs her outward composure: “So subtly is the fume of life designed,/ To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,/ And leave me once again undone, possessed.” The sonnet's subject is in essence a portrait of a woman suspended and transfixed between the dichotomous and opposing emotions of sexual, erotic love and attraction for versus the lasting scorn and rancor for the recipient insomuch that she has to force herself to draw the line (in the sand) and put her foot down with him or her by pointedly declaring that they are not to be on speaking terms during their inadvisable—yet possibly next—encounter, as in the following, concluding lines of the sonnet: “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.”
 
The theme of this sonnet is essentially about romantic love that is afflicted with irreparable difficulty and internal damage, and thus deteriorates and dissolves because of unresolved conflict between two lovers, the speaker and her recipient in question. For reasons not given or elaborated upon by the speaker, she and her spurned suitor are at an impasse in their strained relationship because of these unspoken sources of conflict and disagreement. Perhaps—one can argue—the recipient wounded her feelings somehow? Or perhaps he or she was careless and insensitive to her needs or desires? Or perhaps even he or she was unfaithful and disloyal as a lover? Whatever the case may be, she cannot find it within herself to forgive him or her for their perceived and egregious offense against her—or should one say transgression of the heart (against her)?—and simultaneously resist her nearly overpowering, sexual attraction and desire for the recipient notwithstanding; but nevertheless still manages to retain enough personal presence of mind and character to insist in very clear and unequivocal language to the offending, erstwhile lover that he or she in essence must go—all of which is strangely ironic and paradoxical (for the speaker to behave this way), the reader might observe, which in turn is noteworthy in itself. Moreover, because of the speaker's inexplicably paradoxical emotions for the recipient, the hostility and anger she feels for him or her exist and fester like a raw, open wound while at the same time the pity she feels for herself is in spite of herself because of her possibly self-perceived moral weakness and lapse of fiber for allowing herself to harbor such contradictory feelings and emotions within herself for the recipient—which, in her mind one can suppose—cause her to doubt her resolve and determination (as a strong, modern, and contemporary woman) to feel and know her own power of certitude and strength in this battle between herself and the rejected recipient. For the speaker, this troublesome and ultimately unacceptable state of internal affairs for her is emphatically and incontrovertibly expressed and articulated in the following, nearly self-avowed lines: “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.” Finally, in conclusion, the overarching theme of this sonnet is in essence a portrayal of irreconciliation between two possible lovers when their relationship and bond for one another reach an insurmountable impasse and begin to disintegrate and decay like a lifeless, dead, rotting, and decomposing corpse lying in an open field, exposed to the denaturing effects of the full heat of the sun on a hot and torrid day in the middle of summer.