Behn, Aphra (Poetry Criticism)
Aphra Behn 1640?–1689
(Pseudonym of Aphra Johnson or Aphra Amis; also Aphara, Ayfara, and Afray; also wrote under the pseudonyms Astrea and Astraea) English dramatist, novelist, poet, essayist, and translator. See also Oroonoko Criticism.
Willing to endure seventeenth-century society's disapproval of women writing for pay, Behn became the first female to earn her living solely as an author, openly competing for recognition with the male writers who comprised the English literary establishment. Her works, like the literary endeavors of her male contemporaries, catered to the libertine tastes of King Charles II and his supporters through social and political satire as well as plots involving amorous intrigues and sexual promiscuity. Behn's verse, which tends to be less coarse than her dramas, often focuses either on lovers or the historical events of the era. Her most studied poems challenge social mores by freely discussing female sexual desire and questioning gender roles.
Most critical studies of Behn speculate about her early life, but Behn's birthplace and date of birth, as well as the identity of her parents, have never been conclusively established. However, it is generally agreed that she and her family sailed to Surinam in South America, most likely in 1663, and that her father, who had been appointed lieutenant-governor there, died en route. Behn lived in Surinam for several months before the Dutch takeover, and her impressions of the country were later recorded in her novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. It is speculated that after returning to England in 1664 she married a man of Dutch descent. At this time Behn seems to have been wealthy, popular at the court of Charles II, and well known for her charm and wit. However, her husband died shortly after their marriage and, for reasons unknown, she was left an impoverished widow. It is only after this point in her life that substantial information about Behn has been documented. In 1666, Charles II employed Behn, a staunch royalist, to spy on a disaffected English group in Antwerp. Though the mission provided the crown with valuable information, Behn was not remunerated for her espionage efforts. She returned to England in poverty and spent a brief time in debtor's prison before ultimately deciding to, as she said, "write for bread." Until this time only a few women had been writers, but they were aristocrats who merely dabbled in the arts, and their works were not taken seriously. Thus, Behn's decision to join London's Grub Street hacks was both bold and unprecedented. The popularity of her first play, The Forced Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom, proved that a woman could successfully write the same bawdy material
that the male playwrights of the era were producing. Eventually, however, Behn's work was attacked as immoral by many of her contemporaries. Undaunted by the criticism, she continued to write and spent most of her literary career defending her works against charges of indecency; Behn claimed that critics unfairly singled her out because of her gender. Behn lived an impoverished life, and her material hardships contributed to a prolonged illness in her later years. After her death, she was honored with a burial in Westminster Abbey.
Much of Behn's verse appears in her plays. These poems are generally valued for their musicality and their contribution to the dramas in which they are contained, but have attracted little attention as independent literary pieces. Samuel J. Rogal has stated that they "reflect [Behn's] ability to manipulate verse as a reinforcement for dramatic theme and setting," and Vita Sackville-West downplayed the consideration due these lyrics by characterizing them as songs rather than poetry. Other poems by Behn were written in honor of noted figures or for occasions such as coronations, the birth of a child in the royal family, the death of famous individuals, and other events that she deemed worth celebrating in verse. Her most discussed poems, however, depart from literary tradition by treating the subject of romantic love graphically and from a female perspective. "The Willing Mistress" serves as a counterpoint to the view of women as coquettes or passive objects of passion, depicting them instead as willful beings driven by passion in the same manner as men. "The Disappointment" presents a woman who becomes sexually aroused by her lover but is then frustrated by his impotence. "To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More than Woman" has been interpreted by commentators as a celebration of lesbian love. In these poems and others, Behn challenged the orthodoxies of her day in print, just as her "writing for bread" challenged them in practice.
Though Behn enjoyed some popular success during her lifetime and had early supporters, she was dogged throughout her career with charges of lewdness. Her reputation was revived in the twentieth century by Virginia Woolf, who wrote in A Room of One's Own (1930), "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"; since then Behn has received much attention from feminist critics, who note her subversion of the patriarchal code in her life and her writing and praise her advocation of freedom for women in matters of love, marriage, and sexual and artistic expression.
Poems upon Several Occasions, with a Voyage to the Island of Love 1684
The Case for the Watch (poetry and prose) 1686
La Montre: or, The Lover's Watch (poetry and prose) 1686
Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion (poetry and prose) 1688
The Lady's Looking-Glass, to Dress Herself By: or, The Art of Charming (poetry and prose) 1697
The Works of Aphra Behn. 6 vols. (poetry, dramas, and novels) 1915
Selected Writings of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn (poetry, novels, dramas, and essays) 1950
The Uncollected Verse of Aphra Behn 1989
Other Major Works
The Forced Marriage; or, The Jealous Bridegroom (drama) 1670
The Amorous Prince; or, The Curious Husband (drama) 1671
The Dutch Lover (drama) 1673
Abdelazar; or, The Moor's Revenge (drama) 1676
The Town Fop; or, Sir Timothy Tawdrey (drama) 1676
The Rover; or, The Burnished Cavalier, Part I (drama) 1677
Sir Patient Fancy (drama) 1678
The Feigned Courtesans; or, A Night's Intrigue (drama) 1679
The Roundheads; or, The Good Old Cause (drama) 1681
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SOURCE: "To Mrs. B. on Her Poems," in Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion, Together with a Miscellany of New Poems by Aphra Behn et al., Joseph Knight and Francis Saunders, 1688, n.p.
[In the following poem, Kendrick praises Behn in exalted terms, likening her to a goddess and declaring her verse superior to that of Orinda (Katherine Philips), Sappho, and even Ovid.]
To Mrs. B. on Her Poems
Hail, Beauteous Prophetess, in whom alone,
Of all your fair Heav'ns master-piece is shewn.
For wondrous skill it argues, wondrous care,
Where two such Stars in first conjunction are.
A Brain so Glorious, and a Face so fair,
Two Goddesses in your composure joyn'd.
Nothing but Goddess cou'd, you're so refin'd,
Bright Venus Body gave, Minerva Mind.
How soft and fine your manly numbers flow,
Soft as your Lips, and smooth as is your brow.
Gentle as Air, bright as the Noon-days sky,
Clear as your skin, and charming as your Eye.
No craggy Precipice the Prospect spoyles,
The Eye no tedious barren plain beguiles.
But, like Thessalian Fields your Volumes are,
Rapture and charms o're all the soyl appear,
Astrea and her verse are Tempe...
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SOURCE: An excerpt in Athenian Mercury, Vol. 5, No. 13, January 12, 1691, p. 2.
[In responding to a reader's question, the editor opines that Behn's poetry is uncannily similar in spirit to that of Sappho, and wishes that Behn had produced her own translation of Sappho's verse.]
Quest…. Whether Sappho or Mrs. Behn were the better Poetess?
Answ. We must beg the Person of Honours pardon who lent this Question, if we can't help telling a pleasant passage before we answer it, 'tis met with in the Voyages of one Struts a Dutchman, about some 10 years since translated into English; and 'tis this, In the City of Ardebil in Persia are a Corporation of Whores, all Poetesses, whose chief Subject is the praise of the Emperor. This unlucky Story was brought to mind by some woful Loyal plays, which for 2 Reigns together pester'd the Theaters and Stationers, which is all we will say of 'em, considering whose they were, but come now to the comparison: Sappho wrote too little, and Mrs. Behn too much, for us to give 'em any just or equal Character, not but that by the little, very little we have of Sappho, we believe hardly ever were 2 Souls more alike than Mrs. Behns and hers. Mrs. Behn, its true, has writ many things, and some of 'em excellently well, in her own soft strain, few coming...
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SOURCE: "Works: The Poet," in Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea, The Viking Press, 1928, pp. 157-63.
[Vita Sackville-West was an English poet, novelist, biographer, and essayist. In the following excerpt, she judges whether Behn should more appropriately be considered a poet or a songwriter.]
Much has been written about Mrs. Behn as a playwright, and as a novelist she has been mentioned from time to time, but as a poet she has scarcely been mentioned at all. "Love in fantastic triumph sate,"—how many people can quote beyond that first splendid line? Yet she herself claimed that poetry was her talent, so it seems fair to examine, now that she is no longer there to speak for herself, what justification she had for that arrogance. I cannot help having some respect for the opinion that writers hold of themselves, even though their judgment almost invariably prove to be wrong. Had she said song-writer, we should be all agreement. Her songs were as good as the age allowed them to be; she was no genius to stride out beyond the conventions of her age, but as she was a perfectly competent maker of plays, so was she a perfectly competent maker of the sort of song then in fashion, and occasionally she rose above it, and produced something that was less a song than a pure lyric:
Yes, she could certainly write a song. She could write "The Libertine":
She could write "The...
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SOURCE: "The Poet," in Aphra Behn, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1968, pp. 102-15.
[An American educator specializing in English literature, Link has published editions of works by Behn, John Dryden, Hannah Cowley, and Walter Scott. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Behn's poetry.]
Most of Mrs. Behn's poetry is occasional—the work of a professional dramatist with a considerable lyric talent and a constant need for money. For her plays she wrote prologues and epilogues, only occasionally obtaining them from a fellow writer; these works constitute a clearly defined group. A second grouping is more miscellaneous: some forty songs written to be sung within the plays, several sets of commendatory verses, a number of topical pieces, and several translations. Elegies and panegyrics, often written in the loosely organized irregular stanza popularized by Abraham Cowley a generation earlier, make up a final group. A brief study of some of these poems suggests Mrs. Behn's unusual versatility and shows the quality of her best work.
PROLOGUES AND EPILOGUES
The prologues and epilogues are typical of the period. They are always in couplets, though more triplets appear than Pope would have approved; and they are usually satiric and topical. The speaker, usually one of the important characters in the piece, addresses the audience directly; comments on the state...
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SOURCE: "The Political Possibilities of Desire: Teaching the Erotic Poems of Behn," in Teaching Eighteenth-Century Poetry, edited by Christopher Fox, AMS Press, 1990, pp. 159-76.
[In the following essay, Barash argues that Behn 's erotic poems contest "the heterosexual assumptions on which lovers' language is based. " Barash focuses primarily on the poem "The Disappointment."]
I have taught the erotic poems of Aphra Behn (ca. 1640-1689) in Restoration and eighteenth-century survey courses, in courses about Augustan poetry, and in surveys of literature by women. I usually assign "The Disappointment," "To the fair Clarinda who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman" and "On Desire. A Pindarick" as a group, with either the Earl of Rochester's erotic poems or poetry by other Restoration women for comparison….
Students usually love Behn's poetry; and I begin by asking them why. Since part of my point in teaching these poems is to show the ways in which desire, particularly sexual desire—which many of them are apt to think of as something natural and unchanging—is constructed textually and historically, I begin by asking them questions about their own responses to Behn. What did they like, what did they find off-putting, for instance, in "The Disappointment"?
Students often speak first about the poem's energy, their vague sense of its sexual...
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SOURCE: "That Which I Dare Not Name': Aphra Behn's 'The Willing Mistress,'" in ELH, Vol. 58, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 63-82.
[In the following excerpt, Duyfhuizen explicates the poem "The Willing Mistress" through comparisons to other verse by Behn and to her drama The Dutch Lover, finding that the poem is a metaphor for a woman trying to retain her identity and control in a male-dominated world.]
In reclaiming ["The Willing Mistress"] for their landmark Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest the interpretive significance of "The Willing Mistress" when they comment that "although the Restoration circles in which she traveled permitted extraordinary licence to male artists like Behn's libertine friend and patron John Wilmont, earl of Rochester, the same circles expected women to remain decently silent about their own desires…. [H]owever, Behn did not maintain such silence." In an era when the major archetype for a female lover was either the "coy mistress" of poets such as Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell or the metonymie "cunt" of Restoration libertines such as Wilmont, Lord Buckhurst, and Sir George Etherege, control of female representation was considered a male province—as was essentially all poetry itself and all sexual feeling. Though libertines might rail against the reluctant woman, and carpe diem poets might try to persuade her to...
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SOURCE: "A Devil on't, the Woman Damns the Poet': Aphra Behn's Fictions of Feminine Identity," in Seductive Forms: Women's Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 69-113.
[In the following excerpt, Ballaster explores the relationship between Behn's poetry and her opinions about gender roles.]
Behn's best-known attempt at self definition is her vindication of herself as poet in the preface to a late play, The Lucky Chance (1687). Her writings on her writing, habitually triggered by the hostility of male 'wits', turn on the question of gender attribution. The preface to The Lucky Chance, a comedy of manners performed at the Theatre Royal in 1687, defines 'masculine' writing in two ways. The first definition refers solely to the question of content, and the double standard employed with regard to a woman playwright. Sexual explicitness is only permissible, she notes, for the male author. Addressing her female audience, Behn writes: 'Had I a Day or two's time, … I would sum up all your Beloved Plays, and all the Things in them that are past with such Silence by; because written by Men: Such Masculine Strokes in me, must not be allow'd'. Behn's second definition of 'masculine' writing raises, however, more complex issues. This time addressing her male peers in the theatre, she writes:
All I ask is the Priviledge for my...
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SOURCE: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Utopian Longings in Behn's Lyric Poetry," in Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Heidi Hutner, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 273-300.
[An American critic and educator, Gardiner has published a study on the verse of English poet and dramatist Ben Jonson and has also contributed essays to several publications devoted to feminist criticism and scholarship. In the following essay, she states that Behn expressed in her verse a desire for the liberation of women from repressive social and political norms.]
Aphra Behn was a poet of astonishing range and accomplishment. In her own time she was praised primarily as a poet, and she hoped that posterity would place her with "Sappho and Orinda" in a female lineage of poetry and in the ageless pantheon of fame. She awed men with her talent and fluency and inspired other women to write. Her later reputation is almost entirely as a playwright and pioneer novelist, however. "With their feeble personification and insipid allegory, almost all" of her poems are "equally dull," complained critic Edward Wagenknecht [in "In Praise of Mrs. Behn," The Colophon 18 (1934)]. "And she—poor lady!—considered herself a poet first of all." Today's feminists prefer her vigorous polemics in behalf of herself and other women to her lyrics on more traditional topics. However, her poetry forms a...
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SOURCE: "Contestations of Nature: Aphra Behn's 'The Golden Age' and the Sexualizing of Politics," in Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Heidi Hutner, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 301-21.
[In the following excerpt, the critics assess the coherence and principles of the ostensibly feminist ideology presented in Behn's poem "The Golden Age. "]
Recent feminist critiques of early modern science by Carolyn Merchant [The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, 1980], Brian Easlea [Witch-Hunting, Magic, and the New Philosophy, 1980], and Evelyn Fox Keller [Reflections on Gender and Science, 1985], have argued for the foundational status of the popular analogy (used by Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and others) that identifies "man's" exploitation of a feminized nature with the patriarchal repression of women. Although in the context of seventeenth-century natural philosophy, Aphra Behn's 1684 poem "The Golden Age" similarly offers a counter to masculinist constructions of nature and of women as passive sites for the inscription of male power, her idealization of a bountiful nature that exists prior to humankind's interventions ultimately reinscribes patriarchal structures even as it seeks to validate a "Golden Age" of unrepressed sexuality in which distinctions of gender, class, religion, and politics are subsumed within a vision...
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O'Donnell, Mary Ann. Aphra Behn: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986, 557 p.
Catalogue of Behn's works and critical commentaries on her writings; includes an introduction that summarizes her career.
Cameron, W. J. New Light on Aphra Behn. Auckland, New Zealand: University of Auckland, 1961, 106 p.
Cameron summarizes the study as "an investigation into the facts and fictions surrounding [Behn's] journey to Surinam in 1663 and her activities as a spy in Flanders in 1666."
Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640-89. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977, 324 p.
Account of Behn's life based on her works and the scant extant documents relating to or by her. Duffy examines Behn's works in so far as they offer insight into her life.
Goreau, Angeline. Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. New York: The Dial Press, 1980, 339 p.
Portrays Behn as a woman driven by contradictory personality traits: independence and emotional neediness.
Boehrer, Bruce Thomas....
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