Aphra Behn Behn, Aphra (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

The Second Part of the Rover (drama) 1681

The City Heiress; or, Sir Timothy Treat-all (drama) 1682

The False Count; or, A New Way to Play an Old Game (drama) 1682

Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister (fictional letters) 1684

The Luckey Chance; or, An Alderman's Bargain (drama) 1686

The Emperor of the Moon (drama) 1687

The Fair Jilt; or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (novel) 1688

The History of the Nun; or, The Fair Vow-Breaker (novel) 1688

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (novel) 1688

The Lucky Mistake (novel) 1689

The Widow Ranter; or, The History of Bacon in Virginia (drama) 1689

The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (dramas and novels) 1696

Love Letters to a Gentleman (letters) 1696

The Plays, Histories, and Novels of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn. 6 vols. (dramas and novels) 1871

The Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn (novels) 1969

Kendrick (poem date 1688)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Athenian Mercury (essay date 1691)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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V. Sackville-West (essay date 1928)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Frederick M. Link (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Carol Barash (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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"...

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Bernard Duyfhuizen (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Ros Ballaster (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Judith Kegan Gardiner (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Robert Markley and Molly Rothenberg (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 836 words.)