Aphra Behn (1684) Feminist critics believe that Aphra Behn wrote "On Her Loving Two Equally" as a parody of the men of her era who were not socially censured for having both a wife and a mistress. Most of the humor of her three six-line stanzas is based on the fact that women ould not escape such censure if they publicly kept both a spouse and a lover, or if a single woman openly adopted multiple lovers. Wives were supposed to excuse or, even better for their husbands, disregard sexual arrangements outside marriage. Thus Behn highlights the gender inequality of her time, adopting a fickle voice that fits this light verse. While somewhat ironic, the poem is not meant to be taken seriously and thus lacks the edginess irony often gives to poetry.
The poem's persona begins with a rhetorical question, asking, "How strong does my passion flow, / Divided equally twixt two?" She responds that without one, the other would not appear so attractive:
Damon had ne'er subdued my heart Had not Alexis took his part; Nor could Alexis powerful prove, Without my Damon's aid, to gain my love.
The uneven rhythm caused by awkward wording draws attention to the awkward nature of the situation. Behn suggests by the need for opposite lovers the theory that one cannot experience love without experiencing hate or the more concrete rule that heat cannot be understood without cold. She thus implies that a woman's taking multiple lovers is a natural impulse, governed by natural causes. The argument that man's natural character created a greater need for sexual satisfaction than that of woman provides the basis for her parody.
In the second stanza the fickle tone grows more prominent, the persona openly declaring,
When my Alexis present is, Then I for Damon sigh and mourn; But when Alexis I do miss, Damon gains nothing but my scorn.
"ON HIS MAJESTY'S RECOVERY FROM THE SMALL-POX, 1633" 297
These lines support a claim that without Damon, Alexis could not successfully romance the speaker, a false logic that cleverly supports Behn's humorous tone. The ridiculous quality of the claim peaks in the final couplet as the speaker mourns, "But if it chance they both are by, / For both alike I languish, sigh, and die," as Behn uses the traditional comparison of love and sex to death to support her point.
The poem's third stanza opens with a plea to Cupid, "thou winged god," to solve the speaker's conundrum, as she will never be able to choose between her lovers. Behn extends her comparison of love to disease, leading to death, as her speaker begs for Cupid to cure "This restless fever in my blood." According to legend Cupid possessed both lead and gold darts; the lead darts he shot at false hearts, the gold at true hearts. The lover bases the next part of her plea on this tradition, requesting, "One golden-pointed dart take back:" then wonders, "But which, O Cupid, wilt thou take?" She concludes with a statement in which the reader can almost hear her pout: "If Damon's, all my hopes are crossed," meaning her desire for future love will be ruined, "Or that of my Alexis, I am lost." The never-spoken solution to her problem remains a suggested paradox, a common poetic conceit.
This slight poem aids reader understanding of Restoration period social mores, as well as of the poet's struggle for equality in her patriarchal world.
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