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.
Background to the poem
The sonnet form is traditionally employed to declare love for someone or something. Here, however, Edna St Vincent Millay uses the fourteen‑line form to claim that her ‘staggering brain’ can at times be overcome by lust. The poem implicitly mocks the idea in Millay’s contemporary society that women should be demure and fragile.
Consider the importance of the word ‘born’ in the title. Is Millay suggesting she can’t help her actions because she is a woman (and is therefore deemed incapable of using reason to tame her senses), or is there irony here? What tone do you think is being employed in the first eight lines of the poem? Is it humorous or serious? Is the speaker close to or at a distance from the lover she dismisses?
Notice how the voice changes at the start of the last six lines of the poem. ‘Think not for this, however’ is assertive and uses the language of reasoned argument, establishing that, although her brain is ‘staggering’, her ‘stout blood’ will enable her to resist future temptation. Such stoutness is evident in her colloquial directness: ‘let me make it plain’. How convinced are you by her claims?
About Edna St Vincent Millay
Edna St Vincent Millay was an American poet who combined accomplishment in traditional forms with progressive attitudes. She also became known for her open bisexuality and her pacifism during the First World War. She was much admired as a reader of her poetry.
Millay’s childhood was unconventional. After her parents’ divorce, she travelled with her mother and sisters from town to town, living in poverty but always with a trunk of great literature. By the age of eight, Edna had had her first poem published.
Millay’s poetry was bold and non‑conformist in its time: her collection A Few Figs from Thistles met with some disapproval for its exploration of female sexuality. Millay also wrote verse dramas, including the pacifist play Aria da Capo. She nonetheless participated in the war effort during the Second World War by creating propaganda. Despite her receiving universal acclaim and many prestigious prizes, her reputation suffered and has only more recently been reclaimed.