The history of English poetry during the Restoration of Charles II and the reign of James II seems to have no room for Aphra Behn. The reasons, all having little or nothing to do with her true poetic abilities, are fairly obvious. To form a composite of the Restoration poet, one must begin with an outline of a gentleman who wrote verse for other gentlemen and a few literate ladies, who directed his efforts to a select group of coffeehouse and drawing-room wits, who wrote about politics, religion, scientific achievement, or war. He wrote poetry to amuse and to entertain, and even, on occasion, to instruct. He also wrote verse to attack or to appease his audience, those very persons who served as his readers and his critics. Thus, the Restoration poet vied with his colleagues for recognition and patronage—even for political position, favor, and prestige. He hurled epithets and obscenities at his rivals, and they quickly retorted. Of course, that was all done in public view, upon the pages of broadsheets and miscellanies.
Reflect, for a moment, upon the career of Dryden, who dominated the London literary scene during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. He stood far above his contemporaries and fulfilled the practical function of the Restoration man of letters: the poet, dramatist, and essayist who focused upon whatever subject or form happened to be current at a particular moment. Dryden succeeded because he understood his art, the demands of the times upon that art, and the arena in which he (as artist and man) had to compete. Around 1662 to 1663, he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the earl of Berkshire and sister of Sir Robert Howard. Sir Robert introduced the poet to the reestablished nobility, soon to become his readers and his patrons. In 1662, Dryden joined the Royal Society, mainly to study philosophy, mathematics, and reason, in order “to be a complete and excellent poet.” One result, in 1663, was a poem in honor of Walter Charleton, physician to Charles II; the poet praised the new scientific spirit brought on by the new age and lauded the efforts of the Royal Society and its support of such geniuses as Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton. In February, 1663, The Wild Gallant, the first of Dryden’s twenty-eight plays, appeared on the stage; although the comedy was essentially a failure, it marked the beginning of an extremely successful career, for Dryden quickly recognized the Restoration theater as the most immediate outlet for his art.
Certainly Dryden became involved in the major religious and political controversies of his day, both personally and poetically, and his fortunes fluctuated as a result. His reputation, however—as critic, dramatist, and poet laureate of England—had been secured, and he remained England’s most outstanding, most complete writer. As a poet, he headed a diverse group of artists who, although not consistently his equals, could compete with him in limited areas: the classicists of the Restoration, carryovers from an earlier age—Edmund Waller and Abraham Cowley; the satirists—Samuel Butler, John Oldham, Sir Charles Sedley, the earls of Rochester and Dorset; the dramatists—William Wycherley, Sir George Etherege, Nathaniel Lee, Thomas Otway, William Congreve,George Farquhar, and Behn.
The point to be made is that unlike Dryden and his male counterparts, Behn had little time and even less opportunity to develop as a poet. Sexism prevented her from fitting the prototype of the Restoration poet; she lacked access to the spheres of social and political influence, mastery of classical languages and their related disciplines, and the luxury of writing when and what she pleased. The need for money loomed large as her primary motive, and as had Dryden, she looked to the London stage for revenue and reputation. She certainly viewed herself as a poet, but her best poetry seems to exist within the context of her plays.
One problem in discussing Behn’s poetry is that one cannot always catalog with confidence those pieces attributed to her and written by others. Also, there is confusion regarding those pieces actually written by her but attributed to others. For example, as late as 1926, and again in 1933, two different editors of quite distinct editions of the earl of Rochester’s poetry erroneously assigned three of Behn’s poems to Rochester, and that error remained uncorrected until 1939. Textual matters aside, however, Behn’s poetry still provides substantive issues for critical discussion. Commentators have traditionally favored the songs from her plays, maintaining that the grace and spontaneity of these pieces rise above the artificiality of the longer verses—the latter weighed down by convention and lack of inspiration. True, her major poem (at least in terms of its length) of two thousand lines, A Voyage to the Island of Love, while carrying the romantic allegory to extremes, does succeed in its purpose: a poetic paraphrase of the French original, and nothing more. Indeed, Behn, as a playwright, no doubt viewed poetry as a diversion and exercise; she considered both activities useful and important, and both provided added dimensions to her art. She was certainly not a great poet; but few during her time were. Her poetic success, then, must be measured in terms of her competence, for which she may, in all honesty, receive high marks and be entitled to a permanent place on the roster of poets.
At the head of the list are two songs from the play Abdelazar: Or, The Moor’s Revenge (pr. 1676), the first a sixteen-line lyric known by its opening, “Love in fantastic triumph sate.” Despite the trite (even by Restoration standards) dramatic setting—the usurper who murders his trusting sovereign and puts to death all who block his path to the throne—the poem reflects pure, personal feeling, as the poet laments over the misery of unrequited love. Behn depicts Love as a “strange tyrannic power” that dominates the amorous world; there is nothing terribly complicated, in either the sound or the sense of the language, for she relies upon simple sighs, tears, pride, cruelty, and fear. In the end, the poem...
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