The sonnet has experienced many modifications and innovations throughout the ages. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43”, both Petrarchan sonnets, have diversified and helped pave the way for future female poets. In order to address and capitalize on ideas of gender connected to sonnet form and content, Edna Millay and Elizabeth Browning both revolutionize the traditional male-dominated sonnet form as females, Browning expresses overly sentimental and passionate emotion through content and Millay contradicts the social norm of female sexuality as well through content.
Millay and Browning revolt against the male-dominated sonnet. Popular among prominent male poets, the sonnet was deemed unworthy for females, as men were far more educated and capable of fulfilling its high standards and strict guidelines. Both poets proved common beliefs wrong by excelling in the sonnet form. They used the Petrarchan sonnet, playing close attention to rhyme scheme and using iambic pentameter.
They even incorporated the Volta between the octave and sestet, while using the first three lines in the sestet to introduce the change in tone and the last three lines in the sestet to conclude, invariably identical to the traditional Italian sonnet. At a time where women did not even have the right to vote, Millay and Browning both struggled to find a place in poetry writing, especially the sonnet form in which their predecessors were all male. The literary cannon and the Romantic Era consisted of all male poets who directed the sonnets to their lovers in regard to express their profound appreciation.
Love has been the preferred sonnet theme since the 1300’s when the sonnet was created and both, Millay and Browning, stuck with the same traditional concept of love and lust as their topic. Being one of the most popular, sought out forms of poetry, the sonnet was the perfect way for nineteenth-century women to get out into the limelight and start a feminist movement. Or possibly, women poets stumbled toward the sonnet form due to its oppressive rules of rhyme scheme, structural shifts, meter and syllable count, it provided them a ready-made metaphor, suggesting difficulties in communication.
Extremely restrained, the sonnet form helped make inexpressibility apparent, it therefore presented women sonneteers with an irony that revealed their circumstances of restricted speech and forced silence. Female poets, who incorporated the strict sonnet form, at a time difficult for women to freely embark in the lyric tradition, did so only to promote gender variance. Elizabeth Browning uses exceedingly sentimental emotions in her “Sonnet 43”. She either does so for ridicule or freedom for women to express themselves.
By the use of such diction she is using satire and mockery of overly melodramatic reactions and feelings of a typical woman. “… With my lost saints! -I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears, of all my life!… (12-13)”, even with the usage of several exclamation marks, she creates emphasis on the over exaggeration. In her Sonnet 43, Browning proclaims the pleasure love brings and pleads for a complete surrender to love, which seems far too corny. Or perhaps, she is just being herself, demonstrating to fellow females to be confident and unafraid of articulating and communicating your feelings.
Following the thematic convention of rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter, Browning either wants to represent stereotypical females with her portrayal of unrealistic sensations or she wants to prove that even a completely feminine sonnet can create attentiveness to gender difference. Edna Millay challenges the social standards of female sexuality. Millay’s poem explores a female-centred perspective which opposes the widespread male-dominated presumptions of women.
It is indeed a very sexual poem, revealing her sexual attraction and intentions to a particular man. Female sexuality was silenced in those times and rarely did women speak so openly and fearlessly of personal matters. She created a new realm of subject matters to women authors and helped support a liberated approach to life. The style of her poetry is formal with typical meter and rhyme scheme. Critics have repeatedly pointed out her bizarre connection of conventional poetic forms and structures with completely unconventional ideas and expressions.
We must recognize and appreciate Millay for revealing the love ’em and leave ’em tactic normally exercised by males. However, because of the poet’s reversed gender, this strategy seems more modern, harmless and considerably humorous. There is irony and originality in a female using such rebellious content, perhaps she is scrutinizing normal male intentions, as it is regularly the women who are hurt in the end because they long for a relationship while the men are only looking for sex.
The form may receive validity of tradition while the content concurrently mocks tradition. With the help of this poem she gained a reputation of a free-spirited and revolutionary social figure whose work followed her commemoration of life. Edna Millay’s poem fights for sexual freedom originally claimed by men, it fights for equality of the double standard that exists, which inhibits female sexuality and encourages male sexuality.
Writing as women has led them to run “counter to” their culture and “against the grain of time” to echo Pounds’ words. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” redefine the standards of genre and gender norms. Millay and Browning both revolt against the regularly male sonnet form, they were attracted to its structural affinity to promote gender variance. Browning creates emphasis using ordinary female emotions, while Millay challenges normality of female sexuality.
However at the same time there are distinct contrasts apparent, Browning’s poetry has a feminine quality with such passion and sentimentality while Millay’s poetry has a masculine quality, as it resists sentimentality with her ability to look beyond the status quo and her completely opposite lifestyle of love affairs. However, both poets attempt to reconcile with convention while contributing to gender capitalization, hoping to establish diversification equally valid for females. Both are icons for womanhood, both are masters of the sonnet forms and both are nurturers of ambition, independence, outspokenness and flaunting sexuality.