The Disappointment

by Aphra Behn

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The Poem

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“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 toward dusk in “a lone Thicket made for Love.” Their embraces become a kind of sexual warfare in which he prepares to take the victor’s “Spoils.” The story is straightforward. Lysander comes upon Cloris by surprise. He uses a degree of “force,” but she “permits” his advances. She does all the talking, saying no in a way that he takes, correctly, to mean yes (stanza 3):

My Dearer Honour ev’n to YouI cannot, must not give—Retire,Or take this Life, whose chiefest partI gave you with the Conquest of my Heart.

They kiss and touch until she is “half dead and breathless,” indeed “Defenceless.” She offers her virginity, but he is “Unable to perform the Sacrifice.” He tries to rouse himself but fails miserably. She offers to help, but she finds that it is no use and runs away. He is left alone, cursing (stanza 9):

He curs’d his Birth, his Fate, his Stars;But more the Shepherdess’s Charms,Whose soft betwitching InfluenceHad Damn’d him to the Hell of Impotence.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 470 words.)

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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: “Impotence.”

Behn uses poetic paraphrase to give the poem a comic seriousness. She says that Lysander spots Cloris as the sun is setting, or rather as “That Gilded Planet of the Day/. . . Was now descending to the Sea.” She uses poetic exaggeration, or hyperbole, to make the story seem serious but not too serious. The only light available is the light from Cloris’s eyes, which are brighter than the sun. She also employs mythological references to make the characters seem important, even while the reader realizes that they are mere flesh and blood. The chariot is that of Helios of Greek myth. When Cloris is still sufficiently in the dark to think that a “Potent God” awaits her, in stanza 11, Lysander’s organ is called “Priapas”—that is, Priapus, the god of male fertility. Yet Lysander’s Priapas turns out to be “Fabulous” (in the sense of being a fable, “as Poets feign,” not in the modern sense of being especially good). Cloris runs away as Daphne ran away from Apollo when Apollo accosted her, or as Venus ran from the sight of her “slain” lover, Adonis. Classical elements such as these give the poem a mock-heroic quality. Aphra Behn wrote poems under the pen name Astrea, a mythological reference to the Roman goddess of justice who was said to have lived on earth in the Golden Age.