Essays and Criticism
Behn’s poem “Ten Years after Your Deliberate Drowning,” given the poet’s focused subject of suicide, could have been, at its worse, a melodramatic rendering. There is material in this poem, such as a vivid image of a corpse, which could have justified an overflow of sobbing phrases. But Behn did not allow that to happen. Maybe it was the ten-year lapse between the actual event and the writing of the poem that provided her the needed objectivity, the space and time to remove herself from personal saturation of her emotions. Nonetheless, the emotions are still evident, and possibly they are even more intense in her silence. The purpose of this essay is to look at the ways Behn exposes herself to her readers, the way she subtly hints at the deep love she feels for her departed friend and at what she has endured since her friend’s death.
Right from the beginning, Behn causes the reader to pause with the wording of her poem’s title. Behn does not use the word suicide nor does she use the word death. Instead, she has chosen to refer to her friend’s passing as a “drowning.” But it is not an ordinary drowning. It is a “deliberate” one. And from this point, Behn tells her readers that she is angry. If she had merely used either suicide or death, she would have implied that her friend was gone. And with the use of either of those words, her message would have been flat. But Behn raises the tension, because the word deliberate implies a lot more than a simple passing. Rather it suggests that there was premeditation involved, that her friend had decided to kill himself. And that is what has baffled the poet. Why would her friend do this? Why had she not seen the signs? What was her part in his drowning? The death of a friend from natural causes is heartbreaking enough. But to be left with these unanswered questions causes more tension. Behn wants the reader to know this right from the beginning. The word deliberate is explicit.
In the first line of the poem, there is another subtlety. The speaker states that since the drowning, she works at night. If the statement of her title had not preceded this line, little might have been made of it. After all, most readers would probably have considered that the speaker works a regular job during the day; therefore, the only time allotted to the poet’s writing is at night. But there is another interpretation to ponder. If the first line is read along with the title, a fine twist might be implied. Holding the title in mind, one can infer that prior to her friend’s drowning, the speaker did not write at night, that the suicide of her friend has caused this change. And from that point, one might question why this change occurred. The obvious would be to realize that while the friend was alive, the speaker of this poem and the friend kept company at night. There was no time to write at night. This would imply that the speaker is insinuating that she is now lonely at night. Taken a step further, it could also imply that she has trouble sleeping. She might even feel restless at night and is led to her writing as a way of trying to make sense of her emotions that are keeping her awake.
So in just the first two lines of her poem, Behn, with only a few words that normally would not allude to the extent of one’s emotions, has exposed some of her innermost feelings. It is from this point that she begins her long metaphor through the symbol of moths. She states that on the glass in front of her, she has “decorative eyes” staring back at her, so she is not alone. Here, Behn employs understatement and tries to fool the reader into thinking this is an honest comment on her state of mind. It...
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