(1680) Aphra Behn's lengthy poem "The Disappointment" features the well-known tale of the shepherd Lysander and his unsuccessful attempt to rape the not unwilling nymph Cloris. Its source was likely the French poem Su rune impuissance by Jean Benech de Cantenac, published in 1661 in Amsterdam in the collection Recueil de diverses poésies choisies. While that work presented the problem from the male viewpoint, Behn relates the incident from the female point of view. Highly erotic, the poem supports Behn's reputation as a female poet bold enough to use topics considered by her contemporaries only appropriate to male writers. In a preface to one of her several Restoration plays, she defended her use of sexual themes in all of her writing, noting that society unfairly labeled her talents "my masculine part, the poet in me." Ignoring such criticism, Behn became the first English woman to support herself with writing, gaining popularity, but later dying in poverty. She remained an obscure writer until later 19th-century critics renewed interest in her, and Virginia Woolf declared all women writers to be in Behn's debt. By the mid-20th century, feminist critics revived her works, and her poetry became widely anthologized.
In "The Dream" Behn sketches in detail in 14 10-line stanzas "the amorous" Lysander's surprising of Cloris as he was "By an impatient passion swayed." What happens next represents at first a sexually charged rape scene, but by the poem's conclusion, Behn has subverted with irony the tale's traditional theme to suggest it tells of an attempted seduction by Cloris of Lysander. Behn complements the verse format with dramatic dialogue that clearly reflects her dramatist background as she replaces the original urban French setting with a pastoral English one.
When Cloris realizes that she cannot escape from "a lone thicket made for love," she
. . . permits his force, yet gently strove; Her hands his bosom softly meet, But not to put him back designed, Rather to draw 'em on inclined.
Cloris reacts in a manner traditionally credited to the female, long seen as a temptress, whose charms in the Garden of Eden doomed men to a life of misery. The narrator tells readers, "She wants the power to say—Ah! What d'ye do?," italicizing her silent plea for emphasis and using the term wants to mean "lacks." Cloris immediately regains her voice, first "breathing faintly in [Lysander's] ear," then crying to him,
Cease, cease—your vain desire. or I'll call out—what would you do? My dearer honor even to you I cannot, must not give—Retire. or take this life, whose chiefest part I gave you with the conquest of my heart.
Although Cloris makes the traditional plea to one for whom she willingly has pledged her metaphoric body and soul not to steal by force her physical virginity, that plea characterizing her as a victim allows her to exercise a peculiar power over Lysander. Readers not knowing the story of the famous duo at first might fear that Lysander will follow Cloris's command to kill her, especially in view of the fact that he is a shepherd, for whom the sacrificial lamb was a fact of life. He presses a "burning, trembling hand . . . Upon her swelling snowy breast," as Behn uses alliteration for momentum to support the action and employs the traditional image of snow to suggest purity. Later feminist critics question whether Behn intended such imagery as ironic, as Cloris may be seen to take charge of the situation, her very surrender promoting Lysander's defeat. Cloris is completely exposed,
Her loose thin robes, through which appear
A shape designed for love and play;
The speaker adds that "her pride and shame" seem to have abandoned her, as Lysander cannot complete the act. Playing upon the sacrifice theme, Behn adds that Cloris offers "her virgin innocence / A victim to love's sacred flame." That fact makes clear that Cloris is the active party, while Lysander remains a pawn to passion's whim, passively following his physical instincts without any thought to match Cloris's cunning. In the end, it is Lysander who is "o'er-ravished," "Ready to taste a thousand joys," but, "too transported," he loses his erection. Behn does not mince words as Cloris reaches for "that fabulous Priapus. That potent god," but instead encounters "a snake," supporting the familiar use of the serpent as a phallic symbol and again calling to mind the Garden of Eden scene of the temptation of Eve. Interestingly, this temptation originates with the man, not Satan.
In a clever switch of the center of desire from the male to the female, Behn describes Cloris as withdrawing her hand, "Finding that god of her desires / Disarmed of all his awful fires." Cloris becomes the figure filled with potency, while Lysander's potency has abandoned him. Cloris runs away, and the speaker inserts herself into the poem, commenting, "The nymph's resentments, none but I / Can well imagine or condole," as Behn calls attention to herself, a typical act on her part. Lysander curses every god he can think of, although as the speaker makes clear in the final lines, "the shepherdess's charms" became a "bewitching influence" that "damned him to the hell of impotence."
The poem remains of interest on several levels. First Behn updates a classic tale, enhancing its inherent erotic power with blatant sexual references. Second, she recasts the tale as a tension-filled drama, including a dramatic climax, reflecting her experience as a playwright. Third, in a feminist critical approach, the title "The Disappointment" could become a subtext, referring not to Lysander's feelings of impotence in an attempted rape, but rather to Cloris's disillusionment as Lysander cannot fulfill her sexual expectations; he is a disappointing combatant, leaving her with too easy a victory. Finally, another way of viewing Cloris is as one who uses her sexual allure, which ostensibly leaves her open to victimization, instead as a trap for the unsuspecting male. Of importance is the phrase "bewitching influence," in which the male's disappointing performance can only be caused by a monstrous female, a witch. Behn slyly reflects this traditional belief only in a final line, after having convinced readers that Lysander was, no pun intended, simply not up to the task.
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