“The Disappointment” is a poem on the sensitive and sometimes taboo subject of male impotence. Other English poets wrote on such topics before the twentieth century, none more infamously than Behn’s friend John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester, whose poem “Imperfect Enjoyment” was based on the same French original as Behn’s poem and first appeared in the same volume of poetry. Rochester was thought to have written both poems until scholars established Behn’s authorship from manuscript evidence. Whereas “Imperfect Enjoyment” sympathizes with the impotent man, who ends up cursing the temptress, “The Disappointment” sympathizes with the woman. In the last stanza, the narrative turns from the third person to the first as the narrator says, “The Nymph is Resentments none but I/ Can well Imagine or Condole.” “Resentments” here is closer to the French ressentiment, a feeling of injury, than to the modern sense of personal grievance. The female narrator can imagine the female lover’s position better than a male narrator possibly could, and so can offer condolence. The feeling of disappointment is mutual, and like other versions, Behn’s narrative ends with the man’s lament. When Behn’s shepherd curses the shepherdess and her “Influence,” he also curses the stars, and with just as much reason. “Influence” was a technical term in astrology, describing the way a heavenly body can affect humans through rays that flow into them, and Behn used the word in the old sense as well as the modern one. The man could as well blame the stars or planets as blame the equally unfortunate woman.
Behn reveals herself as a good psychologist, realizing that the real “Strife” is not so much between two lovers as between desire and fulfillment. She introduces Lysander as a man with “an impatient Passion,” which bodes ill. Before he can “perform,” he is “o’er-Ravished”—that is, overstimulated (stanza 7). He is “too transported,” or moved, by what he sees. His pleasure becomes pain, Behn explains in stanza 8, because “too much Love destroys” the pleasure. At this point no technique or “Art” can help him. His overzealous “Rage” for sex has “debauch’d his Love.” When Cloris tries to arouse him, she finds “a snake.” More specifically, she finds that he is “Disarm’d of all his Awful Fires./ And Cold as Flow’rs bath’d in the Morning-Dew.” The imagery suggests (but does not confirm) that he has ejaculated prematurely.
It took real spunk for a woman to write a poem like “The Disappointment” in the seventeenth century, and Aphra Behn certainly had it. She wrote plays for the stage at a time when humor was often bawdy, and she was notable for her love intrigues. The satirist Alexander Pope remarked of her stage presence that she “loosely doestread [the stage]/ Who safely puts all characters to bed.” She did not cater to men’s fantasies; she told it as she saw it. Women who read “The Disappointment” can understand why feminists from Virginia Woolf to Germaine Greer have embraced Aphra Behn as a true predecessor.