Today, I’m turning to another Millay sonnet, a piece I regard as one of the most brilliant, succinct put-downs of all time. The poem is called ‘I, being born a woman and distressed’ and you can read it in its glorious entirety here.
This sonnet bristles with arch energy: ‘my kind’, ‘propinquity’, ‘undone, possessed’. The speaker in this poem is admitting an intense physical attraction to someone, while denying the prospect of an intellectual (or perhaps even emotional) connection. To me, the sestet is basically a very eloquent, elegant way of saying: ‘alright, mate – if we sleep together, it doesn’t mean I’ll want to talk to you if I see you in the street’. No love, no pity, just animal attraction. The speaker is refusing to couple desire with love, a fairly radical sentiment for a woman to articulate publicly in 1923. Millay is subverting the conventions of the sonnet too, making the woman an active subject rather than passive object.
I love the deliberately ridiculous images – the ‘staggering brain’ of line 10. There’s a comical, almost slapstick quality to it. There’s something incredibly assertive about the statement that comes just before the final couplet: ‘let me make it plain’. Millay’s language here seems to foreshadow the blunt directness I associate with more contemporary poems by male authors, like Don Paterson’s ‘An Elliptical Stylus’ (‘to be blunt’). This contrasts with the unexpected delicacy of the expression ‘season / My scorn with pity.’ Despite its driving pace and bold rhetoric, Millay’s sonnet retains a certain lightness of touch. It’s an iron fist in a velvet glove. Only Millay would find a less cliched way of characterising it.