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On "I Being Born a Woman and Distressed"

Stacy Carson Hubbard

The speakers of Millay’s sonnets, many of whom draw upon the carpe diem motif, could never be accused of… sexual coyness: they are outspoken in their defiance of both Death and lovers whose possessiveness resembles Death’s embrace. Itemizing the woman’s bodily charms as perishable commodities, the blazon identifies the poet-lover both with the potential buyer and with the merchant who displays the woman’s wares. Millay’s women, on the other hand, aim to do their own spending. They refuse the association of sexual power with youth and beauty, portraying the body’s ruin as its badge of sexual authority and the sign that it has been well-used: Millay’s speaker is the prize that robs itself, proclaiming to Death and its agents that with the "force I spend / … [I’ll] leave the hungry even in the end" ("Thou famished grave, I will not fill thee yet"). It is she who would spend her "force," burning her candle at both ends, eating up life and love before they manage to eat her…

Millay’s love-weary women exist beyond the wholeness that virginity bodies forth and that a poem such as "To His Coy Mistress" [by Andrew Marvell] threatens to undo. Although the traditional carpe diem urges upon the virgin a change of state, it is nonetheless the virginal body that it catalogues, precisely because it is the prolongation of the virgin’s state that provides the poem’s own principle of generation. Where the virginal addressee is a woman with a future bearing down upon her in the form of a lover with Time at his back, Millay’s speaker is a woman with a past that has already taught her the ephemerality of all things…

It is true, as some feminist readers complain, that the language of sexual conquest and possession remains central to these poems, but with the difference that the woman speaker often claims for herself the roles of both winner and loser, as in "I Being Born a Woman and Distressed," where she plays all the available roles in the sexual contest simultaneously: she is at once "zestful" and "frenzied" seductress and "staggering" victim, silent beloved and scornful mistress, "distressed," "urged," "undone," and "possessed," yet fully capable of a stylish exit. Since she submits to no one but herself ("the poor treason / Of my stout blood against my staggering brain"), she wins either way, making a game of such "undoing" by emphasizing its reversability and repetition – "once again undone, possessed" (emphasis added). The poem’s concluding refusal of conversation ("I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again") confirms what the internalization of the sonnet’s erotic drama already suggests, that this is not an I / thou encounter, but the woman’s way of talking to herself. In its translation of the amorous tussle between man and woman into a battle of blood against brain, the poems illustrates Millay’s strategy of displacing male / female poetic relations to the interiority of the woman speaker. Her response to the difficulties of the woman’s self-positioning in the sonnet is to take up neither the male nor the female role, but to internalize the sexual drama, all but erasing the role of the eroticized and addressed Other… The internalized erotic contest figures the woman poet’s internalization of the poetic tradition, her struggle with the love sonnet’s seductive yet (for women poets) impossible plot: she both yields to poetic convention and walks away from it.

Stacy Carson Hubbard, "Love’s ‘Little Day’: Time and the Sexual Body in Millay’s Sonnets" in Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal. Diane P. Freedman, ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995; 104-107

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