An Introduction to Aphra Behn and her Poetry


All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn … for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. (Woolf, 1945, p. 55)

  In spite of this praise Aphra Behn was frequently damning of her own sex, finding women stupid and all too prepared to conform to the gender stereotypes of the age. However she knew how difficult it was to fight against these proscribed roles, being in such a position herself as a woman writer in a male arena. In her professional life she had to struggle with contemporaries who placed women writers in the same category as prostitutes (for instance William Prynne and Robert Gould [see Todd, 1992, p. xxviii]). Women who wrote were too unusual to be regarded without suspicion; too exotic and foreign for the patriarchy to accept. Fortunately Behn had too much of a sense of humour and was too pragmatic to care too much what they thought of her. In fact she made no attempt to refute it: if her reputation gave her a readership then so much the better. She was a savvy businesswoman, writing plays she knew would sell and indulging the public by composing prose and poetry that was often risqué: ‘Since her aim was to please she sought to be in fashion; when the taste appeared to be for tragicomedy she provided it – when for bawdry she provided that too’ (Todd, 1992, p. xxix).
  In Behn’s poem The Disappointment the fair maiden, Cloris, is a passive creature who all but succumbs to Lysander’s desire. It is not a sudden return to reason on her part which ‘saves’ her but an inadequacy on Lysander’s part; thus it is would seem still to be the man who has the power, even if he cannot unleash it. However, The Disappointment hides a secret. It pertains to be an amorous poem; keeping in the traditional style of the genre it is full with groves, boughs and ‘wanton tricks’ (Todd, 1994, p 5.). Its fascination with premature ejaculation is not unusual either, as this was a theme explored by other poets of the period:
[Behn] … examines the significance of premature ejaculation in a way which both continues and contrasts with other (male) writers who use the topic… The difference in Behn’s treatment is in the exploration of the consequences of desire. (Wiseman, 1996, p. 20 -21)
  Cloris is the desirable maid and Lysander the pursuing swain, both are ensconced in passionate embrace - but after this things do not quite go to plan. Although Behn fervently makes the point that Cloris is unsatisfied and ashamed, for the reader, especially if she is female, not only is it highly amusing that the supposedly potent lover cannot perform his duties but it is also somewhat edifying that Cloris has escaped with her ‘honour’ still intact. The image of Cloris’ speedy trajectory through the forest, ‘like lightning through the grove’ (Behn, 1680, p. 2170), acts as a cruel, but funny, contrast to the ‘weeping’ of Lysander’s ‘insensible’ (p. 2169) organ. More importantly Cloris’s flight is analogous of her freedom at the climax of the poem. She is free and unconfined, whereas Lysander is a slave to the desire which is trapped within him. Cloris is essentially already in the place Lysander so desperately desires. On a feminist reading it is as though Behn is pointing out that women have within themselves the ability to take control of their situation, if only they could become aware of it.
  In On Desire. A Pindarick the speaker bemoans the sudden loss of control she has suffered as a result of falling in love and harkens back to a time when ‘tho youth assail’d, / … Beauty prostrate lay and fortune woo’d, / My heart insensible to neither bow’d’ (Todd, 1994, p. 41). The difference between men and women is here elucidated – power belongs to a woman until she starts to desire, at which point her control slips away. A man will come to power by possessing the object of his desire. As Wiseman reminds us, ‘in the language of courtly love… sexual intercourse is articulated as ‘conquest’’ (1996, p. 19). The point to be aware of in much of Behn’s amorous poetry is this: her women are already powerful and are therefore on the defensive; conversely her men want power and are therefore on the attack. The question of who holds the most power is not an easy one to answer. One thing that is clear and which Behn makes much of in her poetry is that both sexes are vulnerable to desire:
Love in Fantastique Triumph satt,
Whilst Bleeding Hearts a round him flow’d,  
For whom Fresh paines he did Create,  
And strange Tyranick power he show’d (Todd, 1994, p. 5).
  There is no further detail regarding who the ‘Bleeding Hearts’ belong to, and the poem returns to further describe its despotic subject, who has seemingly stolen his weapons from the speaker and an unidentified other. The significance of this poem is that throughout its sixteen lines the identity of the speaker is never made clear, therefore it is not known whether ‘the Victor’ mentioned at the end is a man or a woman. When it comes to developing the characters of her poems Behn continues to beguile her readers through confusing the proscribed behaviour of men and women: making the one behave like the other and vice versa. Frequently the male lover will be envisioned asleep  or prostrate on the ground immobilized by his passion , while the fair maiden will be upright and stern, unmoved by pleading minions. In Damon being asked a reason for Loveing, the ‘Swain’ ‘With womens answers … must reply’: ‘I know I love, because my reasons gon’ (Todd, 1994, p. 26). Similarly in On Desire. A Pindarick the female speaker bemoans the loss of her ‘Peace’ and ‘ease’ and wonders,
… by what subtil Art,

You got such vast Dominion in a part
Of my unheeded, and unguarded, heart (Todd, 1994, p. 40).   
  The concept of love as something which ensnares is often propounded in Behn’s poetry. Wiseman notes her preoccupation with the idea that desire is dangerous for a woman and ‘likely to lead to disaster’ (1996, p. 18). Thus the women who are safe are the ones seemingly oblivious to desire, for instance Phillis in The Surprize. Here the protagonist is resented for her disinterestedness and apparent exemption from the net of love. In this sense love is demonized once again, and when Phillis is eventually ‘got’ by desire it is suggested that she had it coming and has received her comeuppance: ‘Love is reveng’d for all her Scorn’ (Todd, 1994, p. 11).   
  Behn clearly makes the case that desire causes a woman’s downfall. However she is not suggesting through her poetry that woman should not love (she was not enough of a radical for that; feminism was after all still in its early stages). Instead she attempts, firstly, to open their eyes so they can see the power they already possess, and which men covet. Secondly she attempts to teach them how to use this power to their own ends, in much the same way as the ‘Swain’ in the SONG ‘Cease, cease, Aminta to complain’ uses Aminta. We can almost hear Behn as the speaker who chides Aminta for her ‘Languishment’ and who encourages her to be realistic:
All things in Nature fickle prove,
See how they glide away;
Think so in time thy hopeless love
Will die, as Flowers decay. (Todd, 1994, p. 16).
  Love dies, flowers die, but some things last longer than others. In the case of Aphra Behn not only did her reputation live on but her attempts at emancipating her sex came to fruition, because, as Virginia Woolf confirms: ‘The middle-class woman began to write’ (1945, p. 54).
   
 

Bibliography

  Behn, Aphra. (1680) ‘The Disappointment’, In M. H. Abrams (Ed. et al.) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, (pp. 2167-2170). 7th Edition, Vol.1, London & New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  Todd, Janet. (1994) Aphra Behn: Poems – A Selection, London: William Pickering.
  Todd, Janet. (1992) The Works of Aphra Behn – Volume 1. Poetry, London: William Pickering.
  Wiseman, S. J. (1996) Aphra Behn, Plymouth: Northcote House.
  Woolf, Virginia. (1945) A Room of One’s Own, Edinburgh: Penguin Books.