I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed Analysis – A Level Post-1900 Poetry

For today’s subject, we pore through one of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s works with this I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed analysis. Read on…



I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed Analysis

Overview of the Poem

I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed is perhaps an insincere or satirical view of a woman’s sexual desires for a partner overtaking her. However, the speaker in the poem is able to separate her feelings of love from feelings of lust and decides that while she will see her partner again, she is not in romantic love.


Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American female poet who came to prominence in the 1920s. Among her contemporaries was fellow poet Robert Frost. Though Modernists were experimenting with traditional forms and structures, Millay bucked the trend by refining her use of the sonnet form, marking her as a traditionalist. However, contained in these precise sonnets are bold feminist themes exploring gender, identity and sexuality.

Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, for her collection The Harp Weaver. The sonnet I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed was first published as part of this collection. Millay was open about her sexuality; she identified as bisexual and had meaningful romantic and sexual encounters with both genders throughout her lifetime. Her public image was defined by her poetry, sexual liberalism and her good looks.

In the same year that she won the Pulitzer, Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain after rejecting many suitors. Boissevain was a widower, previously married to a leading American suffragette. Throughout their 26 years of marriage, the couple had a committed open relationship; both had consensual sexual relationships with others.

Edna St. Vincent Millay is celebrated as ‘A New Woman’ icon. The notion of the ‘new woman’ was born in the early twentieth century, during a period of significant social and cultural change. In 1920 women received the right to vote in America. Women broke away from the societal and gender norms, desiring to be on an equal footing with men; the new woman seeks her own desires and needs, along with financial, emotional and social independence.

The poem I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed was written during this period. In it, the female speaker examines her feelings and realises she feels only lust for her partner and little else. It arguably advocates for women’s sexual freedom, implying that women should examine their feelings to empower themselves in relationships.

About the Author

Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American lyrical poet who penned most of her works during the 1920s. This decade is often referred to as the Roaring Twenties, for this was a time of liberalism, freedom and economic prosperity, when new forms of fashion and music were bursting forth. This setting befits Edna St. Vincent Millay who, despite her refinement of traditional poetic forms, was something of a free
spirit in her personal life and became a feminist icon in her own lifetime.

Key Quotes

‘I, being born a woman and distressed’
‘Am urged by your propinquity’
‘find / Your person fair’
‘And leave me once again undone, possessed.’
‘stout blood’
‘staggering brain’
‘I find this frenzy insufficient reason’


Sex and sexuality – the poem boldly states that its female speaker is not only aware of her ‘kind’ desires, but fulfils them on her own terms.

Lust versus reason – as much as the speaker speaks of her lust for her partner, she does not mistake it for love. Doesn’t stop her from enjoying herself though!

Feminism – this poem presents a sexually independent woman, very much in the theme of ‘the new woman’ who challenged society’s ideas of how women should be and act.

Form and Structure

Sonnets were outdated when Millay came to write them. Perhaps Millay chose this form to carve a space to explore themes pertinent to women. Often her content contrasts with the traditional form. Sonnets were historically used to make declarations of courtly love by distant male admirers.

Millay’s more personal, sexualised content works against this and thus creates a gently ironic, mocking tone. One interpretation is that the clash between form and content could represent the battle between the speaker’s rational mind and her emotions, which she calls ‘a certain zest’.

I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed follows a fixed rhyme scheme and structure, typical of Petrarchan sonnets. The first part of the sonnet forms the octave, an eight-line stanza, following the ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme. In the octave, the speaker presents the problem that her sexual feelings ‘cloud the mind’, possibly overtaking her rational thought.

The six-line stanza, the sestet, resolves the problem presented in the octave and follows the rhyme scheme of CDCDCD. The poem concludes that she finds ‘this frenzy insufficient reason’ and that she is able to separate her sexual desires from genuine love.

Millay also uses iambic pentameter, with some variations, which makes this poem feel older than it really is. There are two occurrences of spondees (a metric foot of two stressed syllables). The opening line of ‘I, be’ asserts the speaker’s identity and
independence. The caesura tells us this is not a traditional sonnet.

Critics suggest that this is all rather playful and that Millay is poking fun at past uses of the sonnet to make grandiose gestures of love.


Millay’s language in I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed is both formal and hyperbolic. Some readers feel that this was intended to be an ironic, tongue-in-cheek response to dramatic expressions of love.

Millay uses hyperbole to present the speaker’s feelings as arguably overwhelming, such as ‘distressed’, ‘possessed’, ‘scorn’. She also uses old-fashioned, formal language for perhaps the same reason: she calls closeness ‘propinquity’.


Two presiding images in the poem are the physical effects that intense sexual attraction has on the speaker, and her ability to distance herself from this. The speaker talks of how she ‘bears your body’s weight upon my breast’, which could be a reference to a past sexual encounter between the two or her desire for one to occur.

There is also the clash between the internal and the external, of her ‘poor treason of stout blood against staggering brain’, implying arousal has momentarily overtaken the speaker’s other senses. These all leave the speaker ‘undone, possessed’.

Yet, as befits a ‘new woman’, the speaker can overcome these intense feelings. She rises above ‘the fume of life’ which can ‘cloud the mind’. She tells her partner that she shall ‘remember you with love’, implying that she will move on from him. Or, in a bold feminist statement, perhaps she will give in to her feelings ‘when we meet again’. She confidently states ‘let me make it plain’ that she is not interested in ‘conversation’ when they see each other again.

Key Terms

  • Petrarchan sonnet
  • Octave
  • Sestet
  • Iambic pentameter
  • Spondee
  • Irony
  • Satire
  • Feminist
  • Anti-romantic

Here at Beyond Revision, we put many a poem under the microscope in support of your study. This I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed analysis is just one of them and you can access a wide range of assessment support through our blogs here! You can also subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.

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