I, Being a Woman and Distressed
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “I, Being a Woman and Distressed” focuses on the reasons and emotions. Through its central symbol, the poem establishes the opposition between the justification and the personal desire to engage in sexual activities. Subtly, it criticizes the feministic views on abstinence.
Women abstain from sex because they feel as if engaging in sexual activities delegitimizes their femininity, as seen by the subject of the poem, I, Being a Woman and Distressed. Femininity strives to represent independence, power, and purity. While sex is a passionate act committed by impulse causing the mind to corrupt with lust and savagery. A lustful mind causes a woman to feel distressed in absolving herself to feed her sexual desires. Ultimately, she feels guilty for engaging in sexual activities, in which delegitimizes her femininity.
Initially, the sonnet suggests that women cling onto their dignity empowering them to feel intellectually equal to men of society. The word “propinquity” (line 3) is defined as nearness in relation. However, according to the Elizabethan Era, “propinquity” describes women wanting to cling onto their dignity. This refers to how femininity strives to represent independence, power, and purity. “Woman” and “Distressed” are the focuses of attention in the title and in the sonnet itself. The word “distressed” (line 1) carries a sarcastic attack on feminine inferiority and in relation to the “woman”. Although, women are seen as strong, independent, powerful, and pure, they feel distressed for the high expectations that they have set for themselves.
The octave of the sonnet mainly emphasizes the passion and lust of women for sex. While sex is a passionate act committed by impulse, it causes the mind to corrupt with lust and savagery. As analyzed in line 4, the subject feels a “certain zest.” Zest describes lustfulness and the urge of sexual desire. The next line describes the subject wanting a man to “bear your body’s weight upon my breast.” The two lines explicitly describe her sexual impulse as a form of passion. Moving onto the line 6 and 7, Millay composes the phrase “fume of life” for the subject to blame for her passion towards her sexual desire. The “needs and notions” (line 2), in which describes her sexual needs, cause the woman’s mind to be corrupted. In line 7, Millay begins to address how sex has a tendency to “clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,” which refers to the corruption of the mind. It can be inferred that the subject is not happy with the corruption with the sharp-sounding poetic alliteration in this line. Lastly, in line 8, Millay uses “possessed” as the choice of word to describe the subject. Possessed refers to an animalistic view of a person. Moreover, possessed can be a definite term to describe savagery. To use this word, Millay describes the mind of the subject corrupted with lust and savagery.
In most sonnets, there is a turn of events at the octave. In Millay’s sonnet, the octave describes the turn of events from the woman abstaining from sexual activities, to finally allowing herself to engage. From this turn of events, it can be inferred that a lustful mind causes a woman to feel distressed in absolving herself to feed her sexual desires. As examined from above, line 8 describes the animalistic trait of the woman. “Leave me once again undone, possessed” (line 8), suggests that the subject has absolved herself to be ‘open’ to sex. The word “again” also suggests that she has been “undone” before, causing her to desire old passions. Moreover, going back