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"DREAM, THE" Aphra Behn (1640?-1689) In
Aphra Behn's "The Dream," a four-beat line alternates with a three-beat line and projects a rhyming pattern of ababcdcdefef, continuing the every-other-line rhyme for a total of 36 lines. Behn adopts traditional mythological references to write of thwarted love and incorporates the erotic suggestions for which she became infamous in her era. As the 19th-century critic Edmund Gosse wrote of her dramas, "Living among men, struggling by the side of Settle and of Shadwell for the dingy honours of the stage, she forgot the dignity of her sex, and wrote like a man." Her dramatic bent surfaces in the dialogue and wide, sweeping gestures of the characters featured in her poetry. Later critics, most famously Virginia Woolf, would praise the eroticism that Behn's contemporaries publicly censored.
Dreams and visions remained an important device of classical literature, seen as early as Homer's Odyssey and widely present in religious writings as well. Behn adopts the dream as a trope for free, unfettered thought, a manner by which restrained desire could be released. Cupid, the god of love, is the main figure in her dream sequence, and Behn employs alliteration and imagery to set a negative tone in her opening line, "The grove was gloomy all around," supported in the second line by a stream that does not bubble or flow, but murmurs instead, as if scolding. The speaker follows in the steps of Astraea, a nickname applied to Behn herself, who had occupied a "bed of grass" previous to the speaker's arrival. After falling asleep, as befits the dream theme, the speaker sees a
. . . piteous sight, Cupid a-weeping lay, Till both his little stars of light Had wept themselves away.
The dreamer mentions pity again, deciding to ask Cupid why he cries, to which
. . . the sad boy replied, "Alas! I am undone!
As I beneath yon myrtles lay, Down by Diana's springs, Amyntas stole my bow away, And pinioned both my wings."
Cupid refers to the bow he uses to inflict a deadly wound through the human heart, causing his victims to fall in love with the next person they see, while Amyntas is the speaker's lover. Diana, goddess of the hunt, was also goddess of the moon, a traditional symbol for women, as well as protector of women. That she had taken Cupid's bow should have been a warning to the female speaker, but she does not heed the warning. Instead, she focuses on the fact that Amyntas apparently had control of Cupid's darts, which he in turn used to wound her. The imagery of penetration by the arrows or darts may be perceived as a sexual reference.
Angered that Amyntas had used Cupid's power against her, the speaker labels him an "amorous swain" and tells Cupid,
I'll set thy wings at liberty, And thou shalt fly again; And, for this service on my part, All I demand of thee, Is, wound Amyntas's cruel heart, And make him die for me.
Behn enjoys wordplay with the use of the word die, suggesting love or passion as the cause of death, a common trope of her time in reference to male ejaculation, as well as the vulgarized connotation of desire as a type of death. The speaker acts on her promise, although Cupid never confirms that he will do his part, saying, "His silken fetters I untied." Behn's adaptation of silk as the material that binds Cupid suggests erotica, as does her act of untying the love god, the act underlying the freedom from normal physical forces one may experience in a dream. Psychoanalytic critics would interpret the next lines as highly sexually suggestive, as Cupid's "gay wings" are "displayed," then "gently fanned," with Cupid "mounting" as he cries out. True to his male character, he betrays the speaker, crying, " 'Farewell, fond easy maid!'" She blushes "and angry grew / I should a god believe." The speaker acknowledges her own foolishness, as Cupid labels her "easy," another term with a pointed sexual connotation. Upon awakening, the speaker discovers her "dream too true," noting that she remained "a slave," ostensibly to love, or more concretely, to Amyntas.
Behn's vocation as a playwright is obvious in her dramatic scene setting and her use of dialogue. one interesting factor is her subdued use of fantasy elements. Although the poem represents a dream, its details remain realistic. The fantasy characters, Cupid and Diana, would not be of great interest, as they were common characters in 17th-century love poetry.
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