‘I, being born a woman’ is a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, also known by its longer title ‘I, being a woman and distressed (Sonnet XLI)’. It explores the feelings of a woman regarding a lover, breaking many societal expectations surrounding the role of women at the time. Millay was born in 1892 in the United States and died in 1950 aged 58. She was acclaimed during and after her lifetime, having been only the third woman in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the second woman to receive the Frost Medal for her contributions to American poetry, and is particularly well regarded for her sonnets. She also became well known for her feminist activism.
This poem could be included in the AQA English Literature exam as part of the ‘Love Through the Ages’ Post-1900 Anthology, meaning that it is important to study, understand and revise this poem. Click here to see notes and analysis for all poems in the ‘Love Through the Ages’ Anthology.
Interpreture gives ‘I, being born a woman’ a difficulty rating of 4, meaning that it is deemed to be a relatively difficult poem. While this poem is made more challenging by the older style of writing, being the earliest poem in the collection being studied, the meaning is still something that can be understood from key phrases in the poem. In addition, the choice of language and structural techniques give a range of options to analyse, however some may be challenging for some students.
‘I, being born a woman’
The title of the poem is drawn from the first line of the poem because Millay gave the piece no full title. In some ways the poem is left to ‘speak for itself’ and make its own impression on a reader, although through the repetition of the line it does also emphasise the ideas that are being communicated. A reader is likely to infer that the poem will go on to criticise the the viewpoint of the line, due to the critical tone it generates. The plosives from “being born” (and “and distressed” if included) would be noticeable, likely creating a more forceful and critical tone, emphasising the speaker.
‘I, being born a woman’ Context
The poem was first published in 1923 as part of the collection ‘The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems’, and this was a time when sex, sexuality and the treatment of women by men and society were still approached in a very conservative manner in comparison to today. As such, the clear and sustained exploration of these topics through this poem would have been controversial at the time. However, this would have perhaps been anticipated with Millay known for her exploration of female sexuality and feminism from earlier works such as ‘A Few Figs From Thistles’ in 1920, which itself drew controversy. In addition, Millay was openly bisexual, which gives an extra element of understanding to the poem considering that it does not make it clear as to whether it is a man or a woman being talked about. You can read more about Millay at the Poetry Foundation.
Structure and Language
The poem follows the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, with an ABBAABBA octave and CDCDCD sestet. It is important to note this structure because of the way Millay uses it to construct the ‘story’ of the poem. Octaves typically express a desire, problem, or reflection; in this case, the octave arguably expresses all three. Then in the sestet, these elements are seen to be resolved, with the shift in rhyme and tone achieved by the form helping to emphasise what is being communicated. It is interesting to consider why Millay has chosen this structure, with some readers perhaps considering how this use of classical form is designed to encourage acceptance of the language and thoughts being expressed, rather than using an unusual structure, which could have proven to be distracting from the poem’s message.
The metaphorical clouding of the mind is a key feature of ‘I, being born a woman’, with repeated references to the brain, thought and emotion, used to help communicate the key meaning of the poem. Describing life as a “fume” would likely have a range of negative connotations for a reader due to the association with pollution. This would then further make this “cloud” on the mind seem negative, offering a strong visual depiction of the narrator’s internal thoughts, effectively conveying the impact that their lover is having on them. Some readers may find the description particularly interesting because of a potential between clouds and heaven, opening up the poem to interpretations based on religion. This mix of connotations would further help a reader to appreciate the confusion of thought experienced by the narrator.
Millay also uses the interesting technique of combining emotive words with ‘scientific’ words throughout the poem. Examples of emotive words include “distressed”, “urged” and “possessed” which contrast words such as “designed”, “mind”, and “reason”. The way in which the poem shifts between these two sides helps to emphasise the internal thoughts of the narrator, and help a reader to emphasise, as they too are likely to relate to the concept of head versus heart thinking. This contrast between the two types of words is not only present on individual lines, but also shown throughout the poem as it transitions from “distressed” on the first line, to “reason” and “conversation” on the last lines, once again reflecting the poem’s Petrarchan structure.
“Am urged by your propinquity”
“Propinquity” is another word for proximity and closeness, so in this line Millay is describing how the closeness of her lover is what is causing her to feel this way. “Urged” is an interesting choice because it suggests that these feelings are natural, even uncontrollable, which would have been particularly controversial viewpoint at the time when the poem was published.
Just this single word is very important for the poem, because it would likely reflect the views of many contemporary readers, in a world where sex and sexuality was much less discussed, and women were typically overlooked in favour of men’s desires. The use of “possessed” could be interpreted as evoking ideas of devil-like imagery. Some readers today may find this strange considering that Millay was battling for greater acceptance at the time, however it could also be seen that her control over this description gives power as it could no longer be used as effectively against her and the movement she was a part of.
“I find this frenzy insufficient reason”
The alliteration of the ‘f’ sound in this line is interesting because it helps to draw particular attention to it when read aloud, emphasising how direct the narrator is being while describing her emotions, and unwillingness to see her lover again. While today this idea may be less notable due to society’s viewpoint of sex, a contemporary reader would be likely to find this much more shocking, and would be a key factor in shaping their view of the poem by being placed at the end.
‘I, being born a woman’ Themes
As part of the theme of love present with all poems in the ‘Love Poetry through the Ages’ Anthology, ‘I, being born a woman’ specifically looks at the theme of sexuality and desire. It is interesting to consider how this poem has arguably managed to remain relevant almost a hundred years after it was first written, showing how unusual it would have been at the time. Millay specifically considers the female perspective, and the power of female sexuality in relation to love.
Quick Focus Questions
- ‘I, being born a woman’ is written in the first person. Consider how the reaction of a reader could be different between this narrative style and if the poem was written in the third person.
- What impact does the use of punctuation have on the poem?
- Which line of the poem could be seen to be most significant for a modern reader? Would this be different to the most significant line for a contemporary reader?
‘I, being born a woman’ is a striking poem even for an audience today, which makes it particularly interesting to consider the response from contemporary society. The combination of modern viewpoints with traditional structural techniques makes for a poem with lots to analyse, and while it can at first be difficult to appreciate the full meaning of the poem, it is one that ‘unlocks’ with further thought. It is also interesting to consider how the poem fits into the ‘Love Through the Ages’ anthology, and the stark contrast with poems such as ‘After the Lunch’ due to the different focus and structure.