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Re-inscribing the Self in Genre: Patterns of Idiosyncrasy in the Modern Sonnet

By: Alicia Lapeña-Barry

As a poetic form which occupies a significant amount of space in the English literary canon, the sonnet is a genre which has consistently been revisited and revolutionized. In The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet, editors A.D. Cousins and Peter Howarth examine the sonnets variations throughout time. The sonnet is described as having a historicized relation to form, in which its internal music and cultural resonance converge (Cousins and Howarth 4). Its form is decisively shaped by its interactions with tradition and experimentation, vision and revision, and social and cultural forms, all of which emphasize the variability in its designs and uses (Cousins and Howarth 4). In light of this account, I suggest that the sonnet, as it is engaged by poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Claude McKay, is used as a subversive practice within the poetic tradition. Millay’s “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” and McKay’s “America” mark a point of departure within the genre as they are written from the standpoint of a marginal figure. In tackling the sonnet as an expression of the personal “I,” each poet rewrites themselves within the rigid confines of a sonnets theme and structure.

As Debra Fried notes in her seminal essay, “Andromeda Unbound: Gender and Genre in Millay’s Sonnets,” Millay’s sonnets have often been dismissed as a form of “copybook bohemianism” (Fried 1). In comparison to other modernist poets, Millay’s poetry has often been read as “retrograde schoolgirl exercises amidst the vanguard verbal dazzle of H.D., Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein, and Marianna Moore” (Fried 1). Despite these critiques, Fried suggests that a re-interpretation of Millay’s work is necessary, for Millay appropriates the traditional sonnet form in order to subvert it in a feminist way. In this sense, Millay’s re-deployment of the sonnet can be understood as an act of defiance. Fried emphasizes this sentiment, stating that: “The power of Millay’s sonnets […] derives from the readiness with which, while working within formal boundaries, they challenge the figurations for which the sonnet has been traditionally a receptive home” (Fried 2). Hence, by re-configuring the confines of the traditional form, Millay’s sonnets, in particular, “I, being Born a Woman and Distressed,” promotes a greater sense of agency for the female poet working within the rigid genre.

Millay begins “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” with a gendered lust, through which the initial male/female dichotomy is solidified:

I, being born a woman and distressed

By all the needs and notions of my kind,

Am urged by your propinquity to find

Your person fair, and feel a certain zest. (1-4)

Millay employs the Petrarchan sonnet in a wistful tale of physical attraction. Although remaining faithful to the structure, she subverts the sonnet thematically. Traditionally, the Petrarchan form is employed as a declaration of ideal love. In this instance, however, the male/female relation is a cause of torment. The physical attraction which the speaker must bear becomes overwhelming:

To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:

So subtly is the fume of line designed,

To clarify the pulse and cloud of the mind,

And leave me once again undone, possessed. (Millay 5-8)

In these lines, the speaker is overpowered by emotion and loses self-control as she succumbs to her lover through sex. She is ultimately subsumed by the man, as her intoxicating desire “possesse[s]” her (8). In this sense, just as the speaker loses control of her body when faced with the male body, Millay exposes the dangers of love and in doing so subverts the appropriate thematic focus of the sonnet.

Millay satirizes the idea that women are to remain passive or demure in their social context. Despite exterior impositions, despite the negative consequence of becoming “undone” by a man, the woman acts on her desires. In this sense, Millay is talking back to both her implied reader and her social milieu. Moreover, in the concluding lines Millay resolves the carnal act through the use of assertive language:

Think not for this, however, the poor treason

Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,

I shall remember you with love, or season

My scorn with pity—let me make it plain:

I find this frenzy insufficient reason

For conversation when we meet again. (Millay 9-14)

By mentioning the speaker’s body and brain, Millay illustrates the dichotomy between reason and desire. Despite their physical encounter, the speaker denies the possibility of an emotional or intellectual connection with the lover. The speaker articulates her feelings of disassociation in relation to the male counterpart in this final address; she submits to no one but herself. The passionate tryst is thereby presented as a temporary fixation, and insufficient reason to engage in a relationship thereafter.

The speaker’s abiding refusal to speak confirms that this poem does not present a dual encounter between a man and a woman, but instead consists of a woman talking to herself. Millay surfaces the interiority of the female speaker through the use of her bodily exterior. Although the speaker acknowledges the “distress” she experiences towards sex as she fears becoming “undone” and “possessed,” she does not let herself be confined by her feelings (Millay 5-8). The speaker simply carries on with her existence, noting the ephemerality of such intimate occasions. By rejecting typically ‘feminine’ behaviours and norms in the concluding lines, the speaker reclaims power over herself by negating a sense of compliance and passivity towards a male figure (Millay 9-14). The poet thus rejects the restricting thematic elements of the sonnet and reclaims the form to carve out a space of her own. In playing with the thematic elements of the sonnet, Millay re-imagines life as a departure from cultural expectations of femininity and the female poet. Millay thereby subverts, questions, and disavows poetic practices of the traditional, as well as the culture that has shaped the tradition.

Similarly, in “America,” Claude McKay employs the sonnet as a means of reconstructing the self in the face of tradition. McKay articulates a violent and animalistic interaction between the speaker and his constructed America. As the sonnet begins, the dual position between subject and man is reified;

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! (McKay 1-4)

Here, the speaker is at once fed “bitterness” and is bitten; his “breath of life” is stolen and yet he continues to “love” that which harms him. Thus, the speaker is represented as both a victim and a survivor. Accordingly, it is his confession of love in the face of an adverse cultural setting that keeps him alive. The speaker pushes through societal impositions and overcomes strife as a marginal figure in the American landscape. Additionally, McKay presents a physical scene between both subjects as an unequal transaction. Although the Other’s conquest of America is empowering, the speaker must push through physical and emotional barriers in order to surmount its violent constraints:

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate.

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer. (McKay 5-10)

In these lines, McKay shifts the first person speaker from a subordinate subject position to one of dominance. His strategy of displacing poetic relations from the to interiority to the exteriority of the speaker is significant. In this way, he is standing up to both the American society as well as to traditional poetic conventions by means of the personal. McKay’s response to the difficulties of positioning himself in the social and sonnetic world is to internalize the violence, hence negating the role of the eroticized and addressed America.

By way of metaphoric language and technique, McKay constructs a vicious, violent and restrictive world. Although the ominous threat of the past and future remains—the speaker looks the future, emphasizing the transitory nature of life and its ability to change:

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. (McKay 11-14)

In these final lines, McKay concludes with a focus on the self and its temporal relation to society. In this context, time can be read as an “unerring hand” which will be the great decider between the elimination of social and cultural barriers, of physical and emotional strides, and of love and hate. In reference to the primary subject of McKay’s sonnet, ‘Time’ is emphasized as the greatest possibility for change in a world filled with violence and destruction. Moreover, throughout the text, McKay employs elements of both the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet to convey feelings of love and hatred towards America. By adapting the traditional rhyme scheme of the poem in fusing both types of sonnets, McKay is able to transgress its traditional form. In playing with the idea of the past and the future, of tradition and the modern, McKay’s employment of the sonnet can be read as a metaphorical inscription of the self in the context of a shifting social world. As a result, McKay constructs an erotic drama of bitterness and preservation as a black man and poet in the United-States.

In each case, Millay and McKay restructure the sonnet in order to suitably express the condition of the marginal self. In doing so, the poets produce self-reflexive and subversive moments in their respective social and cultural contexts. By playing on the traditional, Millay and McKay cement their positions as great modernizing forces, which is ironic given their use of an archaic form. In both sonnets, then, the iconography of the sonnet is playfully rewritten into a new and self-defined poetic form. By playing with the formal elements of the sonnet, the poets develop a space to redefine themselves within a rigid poetic structure.

Works Cited

Cousins, A. D., and Peter Howarth. The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet. Cambridge University Press, 2012

Fried, Debra. “Andromeda Unbound: Genre and Genre in Millay’s Sonnets.” Twentieth Century Literature, 1986

McKay, Claude. “America.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: v. 1. Modern Poetry, edited by Robert O’Clair et al, 2003, p. 503.

O’Clair, Robert, et al. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: v. 1. Modern Poetry. W.W. Norton, 2003. Pages 512, 503.

St. Vincent Millay, Edna. “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: v. 1. Modern Poetry, edited by Robert O’Clair et al, 2003, p. 512.

Photo: “Fall Poetry,” Jeff Koehn