The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Disappointment” is a narrative poem in lyric form. It consists of fourteen numbered stanzas of ten lines each, and it tells the story of a single romantic tryst. It is written from the woman’s point of view, explaining her frustration or disappointment when her young “Swain” is unable to make good on his promise.

Sexual dysfunction was a subject of ridicule in erotic poetry long before it became a subject of concern in advice columns. There is a classical precedent for “The Disappointment” in the last book of Ovid’s Amores (Loves, 2 b.c.e.); however, the immediate source is an anonymous French poem, “Sur une Impuissance” (on an impotence, 1661), which Aphra Behn freely translates. Her poem is frankly erotic, and the author would have been called a “libertine” even in the relatively carefree days of King Charles II, affectionately known as the Merry Monarch. Behn was called much worse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but in the twentieth century was hailed as the first English woman to earn a living as a writer. Today “The Disappointment” tends to amuse readers rather than to shock or to titillate. Behn appeals to feminists as a woman who was comfortable with her sexuality.

The lovers in the poem have Greek names; he is “the Amorous Lysander,” and she is “fair Cloris.” They are said to be a shepherd and a shepherdess who meet...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The verse stanzas divide the story into a series of moments. Each stanza is composed of two quatrains and a couplet, rhyming abbacddcee or occasionally abbacdcdee. The rhymes are sometimes partial, as with “guess” and “exprest” in stanza 12, but these half rhymes only add to the comic effect. The last line of each stanza is a stately iambic pentameter, whereas the other lines are in iambic tetrameter; the longer line stops the movement and lets the reader savor the situation. For example, when Lysander approaches the “Altar” of love, Behn calls it “That Fountain where Delight still flows,/ And gives the Universal World Repose.”

The poem is thus more like a sequence of songs than a short story, more like a set of snapshots than a film. In photojournalism the trick is to capture interesting poses at the right intervals. Behn’s timing is just right—and certainly better than poor Lysander’s. The first seven of the fourteen stanzas are devoted to his approach, the last seven to his unhappy retreat. The first stanza stops with her eyes, the second with her speechless response to Lysander, the third with her acquiescence to his approaches, and so forth. Similarly, the last stanza ends with his curse, the penultimate with her disappearance, the third from last with her hasty departure. The poem’s central line reveals that Lysander is “Unable to perform.” The last line, indeed the last word, gives the diagnosis:...

(The entire section is 470 words.)