“I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” (Sonnet XLI)
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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, albeit that is unlikely. However, she is a woman who finds this a contradictory state of affairs: “this frenzy insufficient reason/ For conversation when we meet again.” Finally, in more dramatic terms she is a woman caught and suspended between her lust for and resentment against the recipient in question all occurring in the same breath.
The subject of this sonnet revolves around a woman's inability—and perhaps subconscious reluctance—to disentangle two contradictory and opposing emotions for the same person. On the one hand, she is moved and possessed by her lust 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, 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 anger 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 conflicting and opposing emotions of sexual, erotic love and lasting scorn and rancor for the recipient insomuch that she has to draw the line (in the sand) and put her foot down with him by demanding that they are not to be on speaking terms during their next encounter, as in the following, final 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 goes south, so to speak, and thus sours 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 source—or sources—of conflict and disagreement. Perhaps—one can argue—the recipient wounded her feelings somehow. Or perhaps he was careless and insensitive to her needs or desires. Whatever the case may be, she cannot find it within herself to forgive him for his hypothetical or imagined offense against her—or should one say transgression of the heart?—and simultaneously resist her nearly overruling, sexual attraction for the recipient notwithstanding and all the while insist in very clear and no uncertain language that he must go, in essence—all of which is strangely ironic and paradoxical (for the speaker to behave this way), one might observe, which in turn is noteworthy in and of itself. Moreover, because of the speaker's inexplicably paradoxical emotions for the recipient, the scorn and anger she feels for him exist and fester like a raw, open wound while at the same time the pity she feels for herself is in spite of her because of her possibly self-perceived moral weakness and lapse for allowing herself to harbor such contradictory feelings and emotions within herself—which, in her female mind one can suppose—cause her to doubt her resolve and determination as a modern woman to feel and know her own power and strength in this battle of the sexes between herself and the rejected recipient. For the speaker, this troublesome and ultimately unacceptable state of internal affairs for her is unequivocally and incontrovertibly expressed and articulated in the following 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 lovers when their love and relationship begin to disintegrate and decay like a lifeless body.