Other Literary Forms
In addition to her plays, Aphra Behn’s literary legacy includes many noteworthy works of fiction and poetry. The three-part novel entitled Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1683-1687) is both her earliest and her longest narrative effort. A fictionalized version of a notorious contemporary scandal, this novel was extremely popular at the time, but it is little read today. Of much more interest to present-day readers are the shorter novels such as The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688) and Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688). The latter is undoubtedly Behn’s most enduring literary creation in any genre. Allegedly based on her own experiences in Surinam during the 1660’s, the narrative relates the tragic history of a slave of African origin named Oroonoko and his wife, Imoinda, from the viewpoint of the author herself. As the story unfolds, Behn repeatedly exposes the deceitful and greedy nature of the European settlers and underscores the innate virtue of the novel’s eponymous hero. He is, therefore, one of the earliest fictional manifestations of the archetypical “noble savage.” Because of its implicit condemnation of slavery and colonialism, the novel is highly regarded as a harbinger of the crisis in political and social morality that was to trouble the conscience of Europeans in their dealings with the nonwhite population of the globe over the succeeding centuries.
Behn’s poetry is widely diverse in character. In keeping with the convention of the time, she made it a practice to provide her plays with prologues and epilogues in verse form. She also interspersed many songs within the prose dialogue of her plays. In both instances, the quality of her poetry is usually of a high order. Two of her most successful poems, in fact, appear in Abdelazer. The song that begins with the line “LOVE in fantastick Triumph sat” comes at the opening of act 1, and the one commencing “MAKE haste, Amintas, come away” is to be found near the end of act 2. Both of these songs are frequently anthologized. Likewise commendable are two short narrative poems entitled “The Disappointment” and “The Golden Age.” Although most of her occasional poetry consists of overly rhetorical panegyrics to illustrious personages, a few of the elegies are moving expressions of private grief. Perhaps the best of these are “To the Memory of George, Duke of Buckingham” and “On the Death of Edmund Waller, Esq.”
Being fluent in French, Behn began making translations from that language as a source of income late in her career. Among the French works that she translated are the maxims of the duke François de La Rochefoucauld and two works of fiction by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. More in the nature of an adaptation is her translation of Abbé Paul Tallemant’s Le Voyage de l’isle d’amour (1663), which she published under the title A Voyage to the Island of Love in 1684. Tallemant’s piece of fantasy is, for the most part, a prose narrative interspersed with songs, but Behn chose to render all the prose passages as rhymed couplets. In Lycidus: Or, The Lover in Fashion (1688), including an adaptation of Tallemant’s second voyage to the Island of Love, however, she adheres to the prose and poetry distinctions of the original text. One of the songs in Lycidus, starting with the line “A thousand Martyrs I have made,” has proved itself to be a perennial favorite with the reading public. The fact that Behn knew little Latin and less Greek did not prevent her from “translating” works written in those tongues. With the aid of French and English translations, she managed to turn out excellent versions of Aesop’s fables for an illustrated edition published in 1687. Working chiefly from a prose paraphrase, she also produced a rhymed translation of book 6 (Of Trees) from Abraham Cowley’s poetic treatise entitled Sex libri plantarum (1668). The...
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