The birth of the female self and desire in sonnets

Marie Under and Edna St. Vincent Millay (II)



In 1917 two great female sonneteers published their debut poetry collections: Marie Under in Estonia and Edna St. Vincent Millay in US. Both poets gave voice to the desiring and self-conscious New Woman in their sonnets: their sonnet series are openly erotic and sensual, their female personas do not believe in eternal love and desire sensuous pleasure now and here.

The first part of the article gives an short overview of Petrarchism and female sonneteers, who have given voice to the woman in this primarily masculine discourse. It also points out the different cultural contexts of Millay’s and Under’s desiring sonnet series. Millay’s sonnets mark a break with tradition, whereas the female voice of Under’s sonnets continue a line of female poets, whose roots trace back to the Estonian folk song.

The second part of the article gives a comparative analysis of the semantic world of Millay’s and Under’s love sonnets. Their both personas give expression to similar attitudes, but from this similarity emerges also the difference between them. Unlike Millay’s female persona, the voice of Under’s love sonnets objectifies her desired one entirely, mainly by using Petrarchan self-reflection in its extreme. While this kind of objectifying has been seen as something overly masculine in feminist criticism, in the case of Under’s poetry the critics have described it as a primarily female characteristic. Under’s desiring sonnets become completely autoerotic in her sensual nature sonnets which lack any object of desire: in the midst of desirous and exuberant nature the persona enjoys herself and the beauty of her body. Here as well, the formation of the persona takes place through mirroring, but here the nature itself is used as mirror (flowers, butterflies, bees, sea etc.), not the loved one as in the case of Petrarchism.

Although soon after publishing most of the critics praised the novelty of Under’s sonnets, afterwards their importance in the critical discourse of Estonian literature has been diminished. That is probably why the author herself later censored her sonnets and exluded the most erotic ones from the revised editions and poetry collections. However, the main conclusion of the article is that Marie Under’s sensual sonnets written in her Siuru period were innovative not only in Estonian poetry, but in the context of the whole tradition of Petrarchism.