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 ...
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...er 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.)
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