Fyge Egerton (1703) "The Repulse to Alcander" by Sarah Fyge Egerton adopts a female voice to counter the traditional seduction poem, made popular by Renaissance Cavalier poets. Egerton adopts the values that would become important in the Augustan age, as the new 18th century introduced a focus on proper behavior and logic. Rather than embracing the weepy sentimentality that gripped 17th-century literature, the new century would produce satire aimed at women's vice and, at times, a celebration of their virtue. But Egerton wrote in the century's first decade, when attacks on women writers and female artists in general remained frequent. The confusion between the bawdy adventures of the characters populating writing by women during the Restoration and their authors, often encouraged by the authors themselves in order to promote sales, no longer remained the rule. In "The Repulse to Alcander" Egerton's persona rebukes a man for his attempts at seduction, producing a strong, sure female voice that no reader could mistake as foolish or naive. In 56 lines of rhyming couplets with a meter of iambic pentameter, a woman castigates her would-be seducer without mercy.
Egerton begins with a direct question couched in a tone of disgust, demanding, "What is't you mean, that I am thus approached? / Dare you to hope that I may be debauched?" The voice makes clear that she recognizes duplicity of the man she rebukes as plying "seducing words," then attempting to beg for "pity, with a soft surprise." Egerton applies to her male subject the same indictment that had been applied to women for ages, expanding it by describing him as "one who loves, and sighs, and almost dies." Her persona reveals him as a hypocrite, at first holding seeming "vast respect" for her, yet then with an "excess of manners" growing "too bold." In no uncertain terms she tells him, "I hate and blush to see or hear" everything he does and says. She then gives as an example of the mannerly excess of her subject, playing, kissing, and pressing her hand, to the point of alarm. In a damning indictment she adds that "sacred laws and vows confine / Me to another," noting that he then framed his "lewd abuse" in "a thousand" excuses, including that of "Bacchus," indicating that he blamed his indiscretion on drunkenness.
Egerton makes several references to figures of mythology in addition to Bacchus, including to "amorous Phylaster," "Hymen," and "Cupid," to make the point that claims of instant attraction are based on fantasy. The object of her ire cannot claim to have been placed under a magical spell, such as that inflicted by Cupid, intended to "force a fondness which was ne'er designed"; nor can he blame his actions on a "foreign mode of complaisance." Even though she may have at first been tricked into believing such reasons supported his acts, his repetition of "amorous crimes" convinced her that he did not have her best interest in mind. She notes, "That to permit you would make mine [her own crimes] as great." For those who might be looking on, she makes clear that she did nothing to encourage his actions. Reflecting on her own personality, she explains,
I must confess I am not quite so nice To damn all little gallantries for vice (But I see now my charity's misplaced, If none but sullen saints can be thought chaste): Yet know, base man, I scorn your lewd amours, Hate them from all, not only 'cause they're yours. (35-40)
She appeals to "sacred Love!" not to allow the world to "profane / Thy transports, thus to sport and entertain; / The beau."
Finally, the speaker regrets her former false feelings of security, having experienced the invasion of privacy her attempted seducer represents. When the speaker notes that he "Affronts my virtue, hazards my just fame," Egerton speaks to a serious problem for women. Because female virtue remained so highly prized, slander could cause women to be excluded from polite society. Whether gossip proved true or not, the fact that a woman's virtue raised any question could literally ruin her future. Her poem asks of men a question that had plagued women for centuries, "Why should I suffer for your lawless flame?" where flame represents the heat of passion. Egerton's use of the adjective law less allows it to carry a double meaning. Not only did the male subject of her poem prove out of control by society's measures, but because the speaker was a married woman, he also transgressed civic law in approaching her. Because of her culture's double standard, however, Egerton knew that in such a situation the woman was far more likely to be held to those laws than men. Her speaker confirms the seriousness of the matter by adding,
For oft' tis known, through vanity and pride, Men boast those favours which they are denied; or others' malice, which can soon discern, Perhaps may see in you some kind concern, So scatter false suggestions of their own. (49-53)
The vicious attacks against women often lacked basis in truth, undertaken by men whose romantic approaches the women had denied. Their lies regarding sexual conquest quickly permeated the woman's social circle. The speaker concludes by noting that her choice of action is simply inaction: "No, I'll be wise, avoid your sight in time, / And shun at once the censure and the crime." Egerton's final couplet serves as advice to her female readers. The unfortunate truth, however, was that most women proved unable, through financial dependency on a husband, brother, or father, to "shun" "censure," regardless of whether a crime had been committed.
Poems such as Egerton's "The Repulse to Alcander" had a specific purpose. They promoted caution by women, forced to live in a society supported by a double standard. Women engaging in actions approved, or at least tolerated, when taken by men, would undergo immediate censure. Egerton often spoke out in her writing against such inequality, provoking the ire of some readers.
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