by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
It’s 1665, and you’re an Englishwoman married to a Dutchman, who dies suddenly, leaving you nothing but debts. You’re recruited as an ‘intelligence gatherer’ for King Charles II, using the code name “Astrea.” The Crown pays for your passage to Antwerp. Here you try to talk a disaffected Englishman, whose father was executed for participating in the regicide of Charles I, into turning double agent. But when the time comes for your return to England, there’s no response to pleas for payment of your fare, so in December 1666 you reluctantly borrow money to pay your own way. When you get home, the King continues to turn a deaf ear to all your requests for payment. By 1668, you’ve been thrown into debtor’s prison.
If you were like most 17th century women, after being left destitute in your late twenties, options would be limited – you’d probably barter your body, for your freedom if you were lucky, or for the food to keep you alive (imprisoned debtors were responsible for providing life’s necessities for themselves), if you were not.
But if you were Aphra Behn (1640–1689), you would get out. Because just two years after this impoverished widow was consigned to debtor’s prison, Aphra Behn had launched her writing career, which was to make her one of the most influential Restoration era playwrights, as well as a famous (and sometimes infamous) poet and novelist.
These lines from The Rover (1677) were probably inspired by the hard times of her past:
Pox of Poverty, it makes a Man a Slave,
makes Wit and Honour sneak, my Soul grow
lean and rusty for want of Credit.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Aphra Behn: 1640 is likely the year of her birth, but there are at least three different theories about who her parents were, and it’s not even certain if Aphra was her original given name, or one she chose for herself. Behn was her husband’s last name — at least it’s a common spelling of his surname, and she could have been married to him, but all we have for certain are a name and a nationality.
An essay by an unidentified “One of the Fair Sex” found attached to the collection of The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (1696) says that Aphra was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson of Canterbury. Johnson was a gentleman related to Francis, Lord Willoughby, who appointed him lieutenant general of Surinam, for which Willoughby was the royal patentee. Whether Aphra was the Johnson’s child, fostered by them, or in their employ, she did accompany the Johnsons and a boy, possibly her brother or in her charge, in 1663 on a voyage to the West Indies. John Johnson died on the way, while Aphra, Mrs. Johnson and the boy went on to live for several months in Surinam. Aphra Behn’s most famous novel, Oroonoko (1688), was based on her experiences there.
From the production of her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, in 1670, until her death, Aphra Behn earned her living as a writer, signing her work as a woman. Her plays were regarded as “scandalous” because they were written by a female.
In her poetry, Behn boldly tackled the sexual “double standard” and same-sex love. She often wrote poems in the voice of a character — in this case, a cynical seducer of women:
A thousand martyrs I have made,
All sacrificed to my desire;
A thousand beauties have betrayed,
That languish in resistless fire.
The untamed heart to hand I brought,
And fixed the wild and wandering thought.
I never vowed nor sighed in vain
But both, though false, were well received.
The fair are pleased to give us pain,
And what they wish is soon believed.
And though I talked of wounds and smart,
Love’s pleasures only touched my heart.
Alone the glory and the spoil
I always laughing bore away;
The triumphs, without pain or toil,
without the hell, the heav’n of joy.
And while I thus at random rove
Despise the fools that whine for love.
But in this song, she says girls should enjoy their youth to the full before it’s gone.
When maidens are young, and in their spring,
Of pleasure, of pleasure let ’em take their full swing,
Full swing, full swing,
And love, and dance, and play, and sing,
For Silva, believe it, when youth is done,
There’s nought but hum-drum, hum-drum, hum-drum,
There’s nought but hum-drum, hum-drum, hum-drum.
Then Silvia be wise, be wise, be wise,
The painting and dressing for a while are supplies,
——And may surprise—
But when the fire ‘s going out in your eyes,
It twinkles, it twinkles, it twinkles, and dies,
And then to hear love, to hear love from you,
I ‘d as live hear an owl cry, Wit to woo! Wit to woo! Wit to woo!
We think of date rape as a newer kind of crime, but this poem proves that it’s been going on for centuries. In this case, the maiden is saved by a sudden attack of impotence — or perhaps a niggle of guilt?
ONE Day the Amarous Lisander,
By an impatient Passion sway’d,
Surpris’d fair Cloris, that lov’d Maid,
Who cou’d defend her self no longer ;
All things did with his Love conspire,
The gilded Planet of the Day,
In his gay Chariot, drawn by Fire,
Was now descending to the Sea,
And left no Light to guide the World,
But what from Cloris brighter Eyes was hurl’d.
In alone Thicket, made for Love,
Silent as yielding Maids Consent,
She with a charming Languishment
Permits his force, yet gently strove?
Her Hands his Bosom softly meet,
But not to put him back design’d,
Rather to draw him on inclin’d,
Whilst he lay trembling at her feet;
Resistance ’tis to late to shew,
She wants the pow’r to say — Ah! what do you do?
Her bright Eyes sweat, and yet Severe,
Where Love and Shame confus’dly strive,
Fresh Vigor to Lisander give :
And whispring softly in his Ear,
She Cry’d — Cease — cease — your vain desire,
Or I’ll call out — What wou’d you do ?
My dearer Honour, ev’n to you,
I cannot — must not give — retire,
Or take that Life whose chiefest part
I gave you with the Conquest of my Heart.
But he as much unus’d to fear,
As he was capable of Love,
The blessed Minutes to improve,
Kisses her Lips, her Neck, her Hair!
Each touch her new Desires alarms!
His burning trembling Hand he prest
Upon her melting Snowy Breast,
While she lay panting in his Arms!
All her unguarded Beauties lie
The Spoils and Trophies of the Enemy.
And now, without Respect or Fear,
He seeks the Objects of his Vows;
His Love no Modesty allows:
By swift degrees advancing where
His daring Hand that Alter seiz’d,
Where Gods of Love do Sacrifice;
That awful Throne, that Paradise,
Where Rage is tam’d, and Anger pleas’d;
That Living Fountain, from whose Trills
The melted Soul in liquid Drops distils.
Her balmy Lips encountring his,
Their Bodies as their Souls are joyn’d,
Where both in Transports were confin’d,
Extend themselves upon the Moss.
Cloris half dead and breathless lay,
Her Eyes appear’d like humid Light,
Such as divides the Day and Night;
Or falling Stars, whose Fires decay;
And now no signs of Life she shows,
But what in short-breath-sighs returns and goes.
He saw how at her length she lay,
He saw her rising Bosom bare,
Her loose thin Robes, through which appear
A Shape design’d for Love and Play;
Abandon’d by her Pride and Shame,
She do’s her softest Sweets dispence,
Offring her Virgin-Innocence
A Victim to Loves Sacred Flame;
Whilst th’ or’e ravish’d Shepherd lies,
Unable to perform the Sacrifice.
Ready to taste a Thousand Joys,
Thee too transported hapless Swain,
Found the vast Pleasure turn’d to Pain:
Pleasure, which too much Love destroys!
The willing Garments by he laid,
And Heav’n all open to his view;
Mad to possess, himself he threw
On the defenceless lovely Maid.
But oh! what envious Gods conspire
To snatch his Pow’r, yet leave him the Desire !
Natures support, without whose Aid
She can no humane Being give,
It self now wants the Art to live,
Faintness it slacken’d Nerves invade:
In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid
To call his fleeting Vigour back,
No Motion ’twill from Motion take,
Excess of Love his Love betray’d;
In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,
Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands.
In this so Am’rous cruel strife,
Where Love and Fate were too severe,
The poor Lisander in Despair,
Renounc’d his Reason with his Life.
Now all the Brisk and Active Fire
That should the Nobler Part inflame,
Unactive Frigid, Dull became,
And left no Spark for new Desire ;
Not all her Naked Charms cou’d move,
Or calm that Rage that had debauch’d his Love.
Cloris returning from the Trance
Which Love and soft Desire had bred,
Her tim’rous Hand she gently laid,
Or guided by Design or Chance,
Upon that Fabulous Priapus,
That Potent God (as Poets feign.)
But never did young Shepherdess
(Gath’ring of Fern upon the Plain)
More nimbly draw her Fingers back,
Finding beneath the Verdant Leaves a Snake.
Then Cloris her fair Hand withdrew,
Finding that God of her Desires
Disarm’d of all his pow’rful Fires,
And cold as Flow’rs bath’d in the Morning-dew.
Who can the Nymph’s Confusion guess ?
The Blood forsook the kinder place,
And strew’d with Blushes all her Face,
Which both Disdain and Shame express ;
And from Lisanders Arms she fled,
Leaving him fainting on the gloomy Bed.
Like Lightning through the Grove she hies,
Or Daphne from the Delphick God ;
No Print upon the Grassie Road
She leaves, t’ instruct pursuing Eyes.
The Wind that wanton’d in her Hair,
And with her ruffled Garments plaid,
Discover’d in the flying Maid
All that the Gods e’re made of Fair.
So Venus, when her Love was Slain,
With fear and haste flew o’re the fatal Plain.
The Nymph’s resentments, none but I
Can well imagin, and Condole;
But none can guess Lisander‘s Soul,
But those who sway’d his Destiny:
His silent Griefs, swell up to Storms,
And not one God, his Fury spares,
He Curst his Birth, his Fate, his Stars,
But more the Shepherdesses Charms;
Whose soft bewitching influence,
Had Damn’d him to the Hell of Impotence.
Traveler; widow; spy; debtor; playwright; poet; novelist; proto free-lover; vividly talented, outspokenly opinionated; self-supporting; scandalous and legendary — Aphra Behn refused to accept the restrictions society imposed on women. She lived by her own rules, even in her last years, when illness made it difficult for her to write.
The Bodleian Library at Oxford has a manuscript copy of Behn’s play, The Younger Brother. The Public Record Office in London has letters and documents regarding Behn’s assignment as a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp. There are no other known original papers or manuscripts surviving.
Sources and Further Reading
“The Libertine” (aka “A Thousand Martyrs Have I Made”) — http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-libertine/
“Song” (“When Maidens Are Young”) — http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/song-842
“The Disappointment” from Aphra Behn: Selected Poems, Fyfield Books Series 2003, Rutledge Publishing — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43639
- The Forc’d Marriage, Or The Jealous Bridegroom, A Tragi-Comedy, As it is Acted at His Highnesse The Duke of York’s Theatre(London: Printed by H. L. & R. B. for James Magnus, 1671).
- The Amorous Prince, or, The Curious Husband. A Comedy, As it is Acted at his Royal Highness, the Duke of York’s Theatre(London: Printed by J. M. for Thomas Dring, 1671).
- The Dutch Lover: A Comedy, Acted At The Dukes Theatre(London: Printed for Thomas Dring, 1673).
- Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge. A Tragedy. As it is Acted at his Royal Highness the Duke’s Theatre(London: Printed for J. Magnes & R. Bentley, 1677).
- The Town-Fopp: Or Sir Timothy Tawdrey. A Comedy. As it is Acted at his Royal Highness the Duke’s Theatre(London: Printed by T. N. for James Magnes & Rich Bentley, 1677).
- The Debauchee: Or, The Credulous Cuckold, A Comedy. Acted at His Highness the Duke of York’s Theatre(London: Printed for John Amery, 1677).
- The Rover. Or, The Banish’t Cavaliers. As it is Acted At His Royal Highness the Duke’s Theatre(London: Printed for John Amery, 1677); modern edition, edited by Frederick M. Link (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967; London: Arnold, 1967).
- The Counterfeit Bridegroom: Or The Defeated Widow. A Comedy, As it is Acted at His Royal Highness The Duke’s Theatre(London: Printed for Langley Curtiss, 1677).
- Sir Patient Fancy: A Comedy. As it is Acted at the Duke’s Theatre(London: Printed by D. Flesher for Richard Tonson & Jacob Tonson, 1678).
- The Feign’d Curtizans, Or, A Nights Intrigue. A Comedy. As it is Acted at the Dukes Theatre(London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1679).
- The Revenge: Or, A Match In Newgate. A Comedy. As it was Acted at the Dukes Theatre(London: Printed for W. Cademan, 1680).
- The Second Part Of The Rover. As it is Acted by the Servants of His Royal Highness(London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1681).
- A Farce Call’d The False Count, Or, A New Way to play An Old Game. As it is Acted at the Duke’s Theatre(London: Printed by M. Flesher for Jacob Tonson, 1682).
- The Roundheads Or, The Good Old Cause, A Comedy As it is Acted at His Royal Highness the Dukes Theatre(London: Printed for D. Brown, T. Benskin & H. Rhodes, 1682).
- The City-Heiress: Or, Sir Timothy Treat-all. A Comedy. As it is Acted at his Royal Highness his Theatre(London: Printed for D. Brown, T. Benskin & H. Rhodes, 1682).
- Prologue to Romulus[single sheet with epilogue on verso] (London: Printed by Nath. Thompson, 1682); republished in Romulus and Hersilia; or, The Sabine War. A Tragedy Acted at the Dukes Theatre (London: Printed for D. Brown & T. Benskin, 1683).
- The Young King: Or, The Mistake. As ’tis acted at his Royal Highness The Dukes Theatre(London: Printed for D. Brown, T. Benskin & H. Rhodes, 1683).
- Poems upon Several Occasions: with A Voyage to the Island of Love(London: Printed for R. Tonson & J. Tonson, 1684).
- Prologue[to John Fletcher’s Valentinian, altered by John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester] [single sheet] (London: Printed for Charles Tebroc, 1684).
- Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man And his Sister, 2 volumes (London: Printed by Randal Taylor, 1684, 1687).
- A Pindaric on the Death of Our Late Sovereign with an Ancient Prophecy on His Present Majesty(London: Printed by J. Playford for Henry Playford, 1685).
- A Pindaric Poem on the Happy Coronation of His Most Sacred Majesty James II and His Illustrious Consort Queen Mary(London: Printed by J. Playford for Henry Playford, 1685).
- La Montre; or, The Lover’s Watch, Behn’s translation of a work by Balthazar de Bonnecorse (London: Printed by R. H. for W. Canning, 1686).
- The Luckey Chance, or An Alderman’s Bargain. A Comedy. As it is Acted by their Majesty’s Servants(London: Printed by R. H. for W. Canning, 1687).
- The Emperor of the Moon: A Farce. As it is Acted by Their Majesties Servants, At the Queens Theatre(London: Printed by R. Holt for Joseph Knight & Francis Saunders, 1687).
- A Congratulatory Poem to Her Most Sacred Majesty on the Universal Hopes of all Loyal Persons for a Prince of Wales(London: Printed for W. Canning, 1688).
- The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda(London: Printed by R. Holt for Will. Canning, 1688).
- Oroonoko; Or, The Royal Slave. A True History(London: Printed for W. Canning, 1688).
- The History of Oracles and the Cheats of the Pagan Priests, Behn’s translation of Bernard Le Bovier Fontenelle’s French adaptation of A. van Dale’s De oraculis ethnicorum(London, 1688).
- A Discovery of New Worlds. From the French. Made English by Mrs. A. Behn. To which is prefixed a preface, by way of essay on translated prose; wherein the arguments of Father Tacquet, and others, against the System of Copernicus … are likewise considered, and answered, Behn’s translation of, and preface to, a work by Fontenelle (London: Printed for William Canning, 1688).
- Agnes de Castro or, The Force of Generous Love. Written in French by a Lady of Quality. Made English by Mrs. Behn, Behn’s translation of a novel by J. B. de Brilhac (London: Printed for William Canning, 1688).
- Lycidus: Or The Lover in Fashion. Being an Account from Lycidus to Lysander, of his Voyage from the Island of Love. From the French. By the Same Author Of the Voyage to the Isle of Love. Together with a Miscellany Of New Poems. By Several Hands, Behn’s translation of a work by Paul Tallemant, with poems by Behn and others (London: Printed for Joseph Knight & F. Saunders, 1688)
- The History of the Nun: Or, The Fair Vow-Breaker(London: Printed for A. Baskerville, 1689).
- The Lucky Mistake: A New Novel(London: Printed by R. Bentley, 1689).
- A Pindaric Poem to the Reverend Dr. Burnet(London: Printed for R. Bentley, 1689).
- The Widdow Ranter or, The History of Bacon in Virginia. A Tragi-Comedy, Acted by their Majesties Servants(London: Printed for James Knapton, 1690).
- The Younger Brother: Or, The Amorous Jilt. A Comedy, Acted at the Theatre Royal, By His Majesty’s Servants(London: Printed for J. Harris & sold by R. Baldwin, 1696).
- The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn: In One Volume…. Together with The Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn(London: Printed for S. Briscoe, 1696).
- The Lady’s Looking-Glass, to dress herself by; or, The Whole Art of Charming(London: W. Onley for S. Briscoe, 1697).
- Histories, Novels, and Translations, written by the most ingenious Mrs. Behn; the second volume(London: Printed by W. O. for S. B. & sold by M. Brown, 1700).
The Poetry Foundation — Biography and Bibliography — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/aphra-behn
- Book cover design in the style of Restoration bookbinder Samuel Mearne
- Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely, 1670s
- Detail from “Le Baiser” (the kiss) painted by Paul-Emile Becat, 1930s
- Maypole dancers, artist not credited
- Detail from “At the Heights” by Maximilian Pirner, circa 1883
- Detail from “The Rape of Persephone” by Simone Pignoni, circa 1650
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud