This sonnet of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a literary piece shows many faces and expresses so many meanings. But even if it has many meanings, the general message and meaning is about unrequited love. It expresses overpowering feelings; longing and a desire for a lover. The interesting factor of “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” is the intriguing features of the sonnet conflicting message and desires expressed.
Saying that she is “born a woman and distressed” signifies that she surrenders to such fate that she is of the female gender with its consequent circumstance surrounding women. Followed by the sultry acknowledgement of the “propinquity” (nearness) of a lover, the sonnet defines what pleasure such nearness brings. The sonnet yearns that the two bodies of the lover be near to each other. It is because such nearness enables the “fume to clarify the pulse and cloud the mind”, meaning such nearness allows the savoring of their mutual scents. Wherein, it is further expressed that such nearness and feeling of “undone, possessed” brings them to higher levels of joy.
However, the sonnet defends that such extreme happiness of being together does not necessarily mean that it deters rightful reason or thinking as “stout blood” is “against my staggering brain”. It is just that such nearness always invoke joyful sojourn and leaves fond memories. Furthermore, such nearness reaffirms the commitment and conviction of love shared and cherished. Nevertheless, amidst all the “frenzy”, the confusion, the sonnet evoke the inability to truly express in words that could make a reasonable conversation “when we meet again”.
The entire sonnet is a slow mode of rising feelings from the beginning until the conclusion that apparently can leave one expressionless, wordless. There is a possible paradox wherein the sonnet embody humongous run of feelings and yet could not find the words to say them. There is also the possible inconsistency that inasmuch as the rise of feelings is joyous, yet, they may not be wanted. Maybe it is because it is so difficult to contain enormous feelings of love and joy, that it might be better not to have the feelings anymore than not being able to contain them. It is like as if the sonnet portrays a lover’s dual role of being “both [a] winner and [a] loser. It is because there is “zest”, frenzy”, “seduction”, “staggering”. (Hubbard, 1995)
The sonnet somehow refers to such incongruent thoughts and paradox to the fact that the feelings and emotions come from a woman – who is not capable of such enormity of feelings. This sonnet explains that “being born a woman” is not the fault of anyone – thus, it is not anyone’s fault that the subsequent experience and nurturing such passion and joy could not be contained.
The ultimate interesting part is that despite all the paradox, the sonnet is convinced that there is complete reason and awareness as to what pleasure such passion and joy beings. The sonnet finally intends to illustrate that even if there is confusion in such situation and such enormity of feelings, it is still right to nurture such feelings. The sonnet confirms that love and passion is a right and it is logical.
Hubbard, Stacy Carson. “On ‘I Being Born a Woman and Distressed”. 1995
Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal
Modern American Poetry