Aphra Behn, Gender, and Pastoral

by Elizabeth V. Young
Aphra Behn, Gender, and Pastoral
Elizabeth V. Young
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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SEL 33 (1993) ISSN 0039-3657

Aphra Behn, Gender, and Pastoral


In Scaliger's Ars Poetica, written in 1561, the author identifies pastoral poetry as "the mildest, the most naive, and the most inept."' E.K., the commentator in Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, notes that pastoral is an exercise that enables young poets to develop their skills: "this kind of wryting, being both so base for the matter, and homely for the manner, [serves] at the first to trye theyr habilitiesn2 And such is the critical view of pastoral throughout its literary history even to this day, when pastoral works by Virgil, Spenser, Milton, and Wordsworth are conceived of as preliminary watercolors before that masterpiece in oils, epic. It is revealing to observe how many of the Restoration and eighteenth-century female poets write pastoral. Pastoral is, perhaps, a "ladyliken form, one categorically disempowered by the critical generic hierarchy. But it is also a particularly subversive form that, in the hands of such an accomplished female poet as Aphra Behn, challenges conventions of both genre and gender.

The literary theory surrounding pastoral was relatively late and disparate in its development, a sign of the genre's inherent ambiguity. Theocritus, the apparent father of pastoral, created the ambiguity by combining the rustic and the mannered, a combination which served to emphasize his subject, namely poetry itself: language artistically contrived to appear natural in order to clarify and celebrate the connections between the natural world and the articulate human. Later Virgil grafted to the basic Theocritan form the structures of incongruity and opposition that characterize so much allegorical pastoral. Virgil's pastoral initiated the practice of incorporating contemporary political and historical allusions into the pastoral countryside. Using nostalgia and

Elizabeth V. Young is Assistant Professor and Graduate Coordinator of the English Department at California State University, Long Beach. She is writing a book about Aphra Behn's poetry.

metaphor, Virgil presented his experiences of civil war and political arbitration allegorically through the symbol of the (self-)exiled shepherd and the shepherds' merry boasts and contests for women and song. Nostalgia permits the poet to describe the current situation in "realn life and to offer possible alternatives to the current situation: nostalgia shows that the real world is not as it used to be in the golden age-but that it could be.

The structural and conventional characteristics of pastoral certainly establish the type of verse as one that is conducive to developing one's abilities as a poet. The structure is often dialogic, with two speakers addressing each other from opposing points of view. Poetic competition, courtship, storytelling-such are the contexts for pastoral. Having two voices enables the neophyte poet to highlight difference, to develop and shape character through juxtaposition, and to learn to manipulate the reader to particular points of view by giving weight to one speaker over the other. The dramatic nature of pastoral also allows the young poet to rely on external, rather than internal, conflict. The established conventions of idealization and allegory traditional in pastoral poetry also function to shape the new poet's imagery and symbolism.

But some of the conventions of pastoral are clearly at odds with the natural outlook of a young poet learning the essentials of basic verse writing; by the time of the English Renaissance pastoral was so conventional that it was a fairly rigid form, reiterating the cultural ideology effectively, if predictably. For example, Queen Elizabeth's government sounded pastoral for its capacity to reinforce established power. Louis Montrose observes about Elizabeth's court:

The operations of pastoral forms may have provided [society's elite] with a symbolic means to express and manage the threats and fears of living at or near the apex of the hierarchy, the center of power. . . . The pastoral pageants. . . might affirm a benign relationship of mutual interest between the Queen and the lowly, between the Queen and the great, and among them all.%

But we see in the young poets who wrote pastoral a deliberate effort to break away from the es'tablished limitations of the form. Thus Spenser recognized the dual capacities of pastoral convention to shield himself and to challenge authority as he exploited the form to create two different but inherently political means of expression. Pastoral was alternately used by Spenser as "either an

underground and subversive discourse or a show of favor to the holders of power to buy some personal freed~m."~

Later Milton also deconstructed the conventions of the form and wed pastoral to elegy in Lycidas, expanding the conventions in terms of form and content. By the 1670s, when Aphra Behn was writing, pastoral was not simply an exercise in applying convention, but the much more difficult exercise of employing convention in order to break it. With that development in the genre came the emphasis on gender politics that characterizes so much of Behn's poetry.

In "On a Juniper-Tree, cut dorun to make Busks," published in Poems on Several Occasions in 1684, Behn examines the issue of social identity by making the persona of the poem no person at all, but rather a tree.5 Assuming an identity that is not one, Behn is able to observe human activity with detachment and irony. The strategy also draws the reader's attention to the artful and contrived nature of identity itself, for the tree-Nature personified-feels and thinks like a human being. The allegorical perspective of pastoral dominates in this poem, though with a strong awareness of the artificiality of the imaginative act always hovering in the poem.

The poem begins with an assertion of ego on the juniper tree's part; we are immediately conscious of a powerful personality in the poetic persona as the tree claims:

Whilst happy I Triumphant stood,
The Pride and Glory of the Wood;
My Aromatick Boughs and Fruit,
Did with all other Trees dispute.

(P. 148)

The tree's pride and glory rest in its wealth and beauty and its independence. It is self-sufficient: evergreen, growing without special help from the sun, yielding tasty and aromatic juniper berries. The tree says,

My Wealth, like bashful Virgins, I

Yielded with some Reluctancy;

For which my vallue should be more,

Not giving easily my store.

My verdant Branches all the year

Did an Eternal Beauty wear;

Did ever young and gay appear.

With this opening statement of the juniper's self-reliance and strength, Behn appears to be establishing a traditional masculine pastoral persona: her speaker is a being that understands its place in the natural world, that values itself, that cultivates a witty and urbane detachment from the countryside even as it revels in its position there. That persona is complicated, however, with the emphasis on the tree as the object of other people's actions: it relinquishes its feminine, "virginal" seeds to another being reluctantly. The tree is also subject to external evaluation as it succeeds "In pleasing both the tast and smell" (p. 148), making us wonder whose taste and smell it pleases? Further, "to the touch I must confess, / [I] Bore an Ungrateful Sullenness" (p. 148). Characterizing the sharp leaves of the juniper as sullen and ungrateful, Behn undercuts the tree's initial self-satisfaction and superior attitude and makes the reader question whose touch draws such a response and why. The identity of the juniper tree reveals confidence mitigated by subjectivity: strength restricted by external action and evaluation. The dependent posture that starts to emerge is developed when the juniper takes its greatest importance from its position as shelter to the lovers, Philocles and Cloris, who rest beneath its shade. Behn emphasizes connection, blurring the issue of the tree's individual gender identity into its larger, social identity: its function dominates its form. As the tree identifies itself by its relation to the young lovers, so it is dependent on them.

The lovers depend on the tree as well:

Upon my Root she lean'd her head,
And where I grew, he made their Bed:
Whilst I the Canopy more largely spread


My Grateful Shade I kindly lent,

And every aiding Bough I bent.

(P. 149)

The relationship between pastoral Nature, in the form of the juniper tree, and human sexuality, in the form of the young lovers, seems to be traditionally pastoral as Nature contrives with the lovers to accomplish the seduction of Cloris. But Behn is not content to leave the poetic persona on the outside, detached and observant. Rather, the juniper tree becomes a participant in the lovers' intercourse. The tree steals kisses from Cloris while Philocles is otherwise occupied:

And every aiding Bough I bent.
So low, as sometimes had the blisse,
To rob the Shepherd of a kiss,
Whilst he in Pleasures far above
The Sence of that degree of Love:
Permitted every stealth I made,
Unjealous of his Rival Shade.

(P. 149)

The interactive connection between the pastoral setting (represented by the juniper tree) and the lovers is perversely personified as the poet-tree benefits physically and actually, as well as imaginatively, from the lovers' affair.

The imaginative act occurs when the tree experiences the erotic thrill of voyeurism as the couple consummates their love:

I saw 'em kindle to desire


Saw the approaches of their joy


Saw how they mingled melting Rays


Now like the Phenix, both Expire,

While from the Ashes of their Fire,

Sprung up a new, and soft desire.

Like Charmers, thrice they did invoke,

The God! and thrice new vigor took.

(pp. 149-50)

But then the tree is drawn back into the physical action as well: "The Shepherdess my Bark carest, /Whilst he my Root, Love's Pillow, kist" (p. 150). The hermaphroditic imagery of the tree as Love's root and Love's pillow emphasizes and augments the eroticism of the poem and breaks down the traditional binary opposition of love. The tree is la maison and a member of le 7ninage a trois here: surroundings become both the subject of and a subject in the action of this pastoral love affair. The shifts from action to imagination, and to action again, mark a vital rhythm in the poem that, with the dissolution of subjectivity, re-creates the sexual act for the reader. The reader, like the tree, is both watching and participating in the action.

When the tree realizes that the lovers will not have such an exciting encounter with it again, Behn emphasizes the devastation in losing one's capacity to be an agent of action:

And if before my Joyes were such,

In having heard, and seen too much,

My Grief must be as great and high,

When all abandon'd I shall be,

Doom'd to a silent Destinie.

(P 150)

Relegated to a tertiary role, the tree grieves at the recognition that it will no longer be able to kiss and be kissed, and will be "No more a joyful looker onw (p. 150). When even the action of voyeurism is taken away from the juniper tree, it considers that it would be better off dead, so Cloris cuts the tree down. In doing so, she gives the tree its agency again: it continues to act, as its treetop "was as fragrant Incense burn'd" at the altar of love, and

My body into Busks was turn'd:
Where I still guard the Sacred Store,
And of Loves Temple keep the Door.

(P. 151)

As the editors of Kisskg the Rod point out, a busk is a piece of wood or other material put down the front of a corset to support and shape it.6 The juniper tree's final position, then, is intimately associated with Cloris's body, where it serves love by "guardingw access to the woman's sexual "Store" or "Temple." Cloris gives the tree an opportunity to continue to participate in love as a subject of a love affair-part of the beauty of Cloris in determining her shape-and as a subject in a love affair, touching and guarding the private body of a lover.

In the poem, Behn's use of the juniper tree as the pastoral persona enables her to probe into matters of subjectivity, of gender and sexuality, and of the ideology represented and maintained by pastoral convention. By making the juniper tree sexually ambiguous, and by making it both the creator of the poem and the created thing-the busk-within the poem, Behn disorients the readers in their expectations of clearcut seductions of shepherdesses by shepherds. All three participants within the poem-tree, shepherd, and shepherdess-seduce and are seduced, act and are acted upon, create and are created. The reader experiences the sensation of truth shifting as what we "know" from previous experience of pastoral is cut down before our eyes. Behn's accomplishment in the poem lies not only in the deconstruction of the ideology of pastoral seduction, but also in the reader's experiential recognition that the sexual experiences

she offers in place of the traditional exploitation of a shepherdess are exciting, sensual, erotic, and productive. The poem acknowledges that personae, poets, lovers, and Nature itself can be, to use Behn's word, transformed from participants in an exploitive relationship to participants in a mutually rewarding relationship. Positing the juniper tree, Cloris, and Philocles as a stimulating and compatible trois, Behn opens and expands the possibilities of love and its connections with the natural world, moving it beyond a relationship of opposition to one of community.

In "The Willing Mistriss," also published in Poems Upon Several Occasions (p. 163), the landscape is separate from the people. Although the landscape provides shelter for the lovers, human passions of fear and desire are parallel to but beyond the control of the natural world in the poem:

Amjntas led me to a Grove,

Where all the Trees did shade us;

The Sun it self, though it had Strove,

It could not have betray'd us:

The place secur'd from humane Eyes,

No other fear allows,

But when the Winds that gently rise,

Doe Kiss the yeilding Boughs.

Nature cannot prevent fear: the wind's power makes the branches yield. The metaphor for sexual intercourse in itself is simple and pleasing: the weaker party willingly succumbs to the stronger force, whose sexuality is characterized by gentleness and kisses. But the image is more complex, for it comes after the introduction of the ideas of fear and betrayal, threatening possibilities in the pastoral world. The idea lingers, coloring the pretty metaphor by contrast and incongruity.

The lovers settle in for an afternoon of pleasure. The speaker, a woman, suggests that though the activity is delightful, she is still restrained, still fearful. The natural world has enabled her to feel desire; it has nurtured the lovers in their games:

Down there we satt upon the Moss,
And did begin to play
A Thousand Amorous Tricks, to pass
The heat of all the day.

Amany Kisses he did give:
And I return'd the same.

But the speaker realizes that the pastoral world she has idealized here is not the only world, and that Nature's innocence is the result of human imagination. She displays her dual consciousness when she concludes her description of desire with the comment that after a thousand kisses she was "willing to receive / That which I dare not name." Her fear of naming the body reveals the other world of which she is a part, the social world that prescribes modesty and repression for women. The speaker indicates that she has a name for what she received-she is not an ingenue-but rather that she must uphold an identity that is not her true self. That identity is a construction of a socially acceptable woman. The gesture, typical of allegorical pastoral as it sets up an opposition between the appealing pastoral world and the real or social world, creates the "dialectical, tensive structure" that Harold Toliver calls "characteristic of all worthwhile pastoral."'

In the final stanza of the poem, Behn synthesizes allegory and imagination. The speaker, no longer afflicted with fear or social demands, succumbs to her lover with pleasure and gratification. There is no falsehood coming between the lovers, and their contact and communication with each other are direct and honest. The poem itself sheds its protective allegory; it too speaks more directly to the reader. Actions become expressions of feeling: a look tells its "softning Tale," while kisses and embraces "his thoughts Exprest." The direct communication predominates until the very last lines, when the speaker subverts the idea of concealment by pretending to conceal all that she has made explicit in the poem: "[He] lay'd me gently on the Ground; / Ah who can guess the rest?"

With her rhetorical question, the speaker again is coy, but the tone is completely different from her acknowledgement of her inability to name her lover's body. Here, the question really is rhetorical: we know the rest, we do not even have to guess what happened. And of course the speaker knows that we know: the question becomes a way of uniting the speaker and her audience in an acknowledged, but secret, recognition that the woman desired and enjoyed illicit sexual activity. In doing so, this rhetorical question, and the previous lines that make the question simply rhetorical, serve as a code, a way of saying something that one is not permitted to say. That is of course what pastoral conventions do; Behn has found her mask. But the poem does more than simply express a politically radical idea without incriminating the speaker. The poem enables the reader to participate in the love affair imaginatively, as the reader does in "On the Juniper-Tree," discovering, accepting, and identifjing with the woman who speaks the poem. But this poem moves beyond the curtailed action she permits the reader to experience in "On the Juniper-Tree," for here Behn uses allegory to show the reader how the world could be, and then rhetorically requires the reader to make the world that way: the reader sees that love should be free and natural, and then must make it so by participating in the speaker's love affair- by "guessing the rest." Although clearly the love the reader experiences is imaginative, through it the reader is transformed. The poem brings about change as the reader is persuaded to discard the moral dictates of the social world and achieve a freedom of mind (and therefore potentially of body) to value love wherever there is tenderness and desire. The poem empowers the reader: to imagine the love between Amyntas and the speaker, and then to leap into their love affair. In "The Willing Mistriss," the reader becomes the juniper-tree: ultimately the subject in and of the poem.

Behn recognizes that to free the mind of its socially-dictated restraints is to change the world. Noting that the division between male and female is not the intellectual imperative it is often presented to be, Carolyn Heilbrun argues that men and women can learn to disregard the culturally ingrained opposition between them.s In many ways this is what Behn has argued centuries earlier: that women's differences from men are largely created differences, not differences inherent in humans. The mind itself is flexible for Behn; the society that fills the mind is more rigid. In her poem, "The Dream," Behn invokes the conventions of pastoral to emphasize the power and pervasiveness of deception in the creation and maintenance of male and female identity (pp. 18384). The poem shows how the capacity to imagine is used in the culture's established ideology to reinforce the social order and discourage imaginative acts that threaten that order.

"The Dream" is a song, a woman's complaint about the betrayal of her love. In it, the natural world is an extension of the woman's state of mind, and as the speaker enters into the pastoral scene Nature reflects her mood back upon her, forcing her to take action rather than to be restored by what Nature offers. Nature offers only a reflection of herself, so Astrae, the speaker (and, significantly, Behn's nom de plume), must contend with the internal conflict. There is no escaping the self, either within the world of the poem or in the poetic creation of that world. The poem begins:

The Grove was gloomy all around,

Murm'ring the Streams did pass,

Where fond Astrae laid her down

Upon a Bed of Grass.

(P. 183)

The speaker herself is gloomy and murmuring, discontent, and as she falls asleep she dreams of another, of Cupid, who cries and sighs as she does. Amyntas, the shepherd who has betrayed Astrae, has also betrayed Cupid, so within the dream the woman comforts the god who seems so much like her in circumstance. She volunteers to help Cupid, whose wings Amyntas has pinioned, if Cupid will take revenge for them both on Amyntas.

His Silken Fetters I Unty'd,

And the gay Wings display'd;

Which gently fann'd, he mounts and cry'd,

Farewel fond easy Maid.


The betrayal by Cupid, compounding the initial betrayal by Amyntas, suggests a solidarity between the manipulative god and the manipulative man: each takes what he needs or wants from Astrae and deserts her when she has given herself to him. Behn, like Spenser, "displays Cupid as a powerful deity-quite unlike the cherubic rococo boy of later c~lture."~

The issue is clearly one of power, and Astrae's willingness to trust, to extend herself to another, leaves her powerless when the trust is thrown aside and trampled on by man and god. She is, as she recognizes with fury in the dream, a fool to have been taken in by Cupid's deception. She realizes as she wakes that to have believed Amyntas and fallen in love was even more damaging: "And waking found my Dream too true, / Alas I was a Slave" (p. 184).Behn, whose Oroonoko depicts some of the violence and degradation of slavery, chooses a metaphor that resounds politically when she makes her speaker a slave, again establishing that sexual relationships are potentially political.

Astrae's change in perspective in the course of the poem, from trusting innocent to raging cynic, comes about in the course of a dream and in the connection between that dream and reality. The dream explains the reality of her conscious life: she is, we see, a slave to love because love tricked her. Again the conventions of pastoral enable Behn's speaker to reveal her true self with protection: the poem can be read, superficially, as a precious conceit, the dream of a world outside reality where gods flit about, are pinioned and freed, are capricious and malicious. The fact that the poem is clearly situated in a pastoral setting adds another dimension of artifice. The speaker is not herself, she is Astrae and asleep; she is not in this world, she is in a pagan, pastoral world. But behind the bucolic masquerade, behind the protective disguise, is the woman who wakes: who cuts through the masks and reveals herself. When the protection of the poetic convention disappears at the end of the poem, Behn's words ring sharply in our ears: "Alas I was a Slave." The arbitrary, cruel power that has enslaved her is not the power of true love, of course: that love does not forcibly bind. Rather, it is the power of the careless, grasping bowsman Amyntas and the mischievous, manipulative god Cupid, a power that seizes generosity and cages love.

The movement from pastoral through dream to reality shows the pervasive quality of deception; the poem is cynical, a bitter burlesque of love. Only the irony of the poem saves the poem from the sharp whine of a disenchanted Marvel1 or a petulant Waller. The irony emerges subtly, as it usually does with Behn: it comes in the autobiographical perspective of the poem, the connection between the first-person speaker named Astrae and the poet herself. When we realize, as we do at the beginning of the poem, that the poem is about the self, we realize that in fact Astrae is really no slave at the end of the poem. She may have been 'wounded by Amyntas's shooting Cupid's darts, but she has her own weapon and she knows how to use it. Her weapon is her pen, and she plies it well: the reader is outraged at the end of the poem by Cupid's betrayal and therefore by Amyntas's comparable betrayal. Like other slaves throughout history, Astrae resists her captivity subversively, by making the reader join with her in condemnation of arbitrary exploitation of female generosity. Her disillusion with Cupid and Amyntas, revealed not only by the anger she feels in the poem but by the very fact that she wrote the poem, indicates that Behn has come to see pastoral as a political tool, a means of exposing destructive power in order to deconstruct it. Once she realizes pastoral's political potential, she becomes a deadly pastoralist, like Milton in the condemnation of the clergy in Lycidas, or Spenser in his literally "unspeakable criti~ism"'~ of Elizabeth's government in The Shepheardes Calender. In conflating her self and her subject, Behn does not, as Ros Ballaster asserts, "[exploit] the image of the seduced and violated female body to enter the world of exchange"" so much as she restructures that world. Writing herself into her poetry, becoming the creator and the created, Behn constructs a world where both women's power and men's power reside in the proximity of word and deed.

One of Behn's most famous and accomplished subversive poems about the language and action of desire is "The Disappointment," occasionally attributed to Rochester, which reads most effectively as a refutation of Rochester's "The Imperfect Enjoyment."12 In Rochester's poem, the male speaker puts a curse on his own "dart of love" for making him unable to gratify Corinna. The curse on his own body becomes, however, a kind of misogyny as it concludes "And may ten thousand abler pricks agree / To do the wronged Corinna right for thee."13 The logic that the failure of one man to perform in a timely manner would make Corinna desire ten thousand men is problematic at best. It appears that Rochester is in fact transferring his rage at his own body to Corinna as he argues either that she will become a whore or, if already a whore, that she is motivated by sexual desire for her clients. Neither possibility is "to do right" to Corinna, and both possibilities operate by rendering Corinna the "deserving" subject of male exploitation. Rochester's speaker, in finding himself unable to serve the desirous woman, perceives himself in a position of weakness, owing something to-and therefore dominated by-a woman. He interprets his own weakness as female aggressiveness, what Jean Hagstrum describes as "open, lustful lack of temperance,"'* and he resists that aggressiveness forcibly. Kate Lilley notes that in Aphra Behn's elegy, "On the Death of the late Earl of Rochester," Behn presents Rochester as an "heroic, erotic figure of interdependent intellectual, verbal and sexual energy," a vital and admirable figure who is also "subordinated to feminine desire and sexual potency."15 Lilley goes on to point out that in the elegy, Behn appropriates Rochester's energy and subordinates it to her own, thus valorizing her own poetic power. A similar strategy occurs in "The Disappointment," as Behn appropriates the conventions of Ovidian seduction poems as Rochester had and complicates them by changing the point of view.

In Behn's "The Disappointment," the third-person speaker ultimately is revealed to be the female participant in the failed seduction (pp. 178-82). Cloris is "Surpriz'd" and can "defend her self no longer" when "Amorous Lysander" comes upon her (p. 178). The pastoral scene conspires with Lysander: the sun is setting, leaving "no Light to guide the World," and Lysander takes Cloris to "a lone Thicket made for Love" (p. 178). The sexual act is described in somewhat ambiguous terms; the darkness in the field symbolizes the lack of clarity in Cloris's desire and motivation. Behn suggests that Cloris is conscious of the socially prescribed need to appear modest, and then exposes the falsity of that appearance by indicating Cloris's sexual desire and her active role in the seduction:

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 'em on inclin'd:
Whilst he lay trembling at her Feet,
Resistance 'tis in vain to show;
She wants the pow'r to say-Ah! What dye do?

The obligation for women to appear naive and yet be knowing enough to resist men sets up the challenge to the gender dynamic which characterizes the poem. The reader sees the disparity between Cloris's pose and her feeling, and then starts to question why Lysander's "force" is necessary. The ambiguity of Cloris's position recedes as the poem continues: "Love and Shame confus'dly strive" in Cloris, and she is reluctant to sacrifice her socially constructed honor, and her body, to the man who has, as she says, conquered her heart, who has "forcedw her to confront the falsity of her resistance (p. 178). Cloris's choice is presented as one between social identity and personal identity, and when she decides to act upon her feelings we admire her courage and acknowledge the power of her desire.

Lysander is so overcome with his own desire-or, as Behn describes it, so "o'er-Ravish'd" (p. 180)-that he does not heed Cloris's feigned reluctance, nor does he acknowledge any conflict between her social and her private personae. Instead, he ignores the evidence that she has been overwhelmed by the conflict and has swooned, and he pursues his own gratification:

Mad to possess, himself he threw
On the Defenceless Lovely Maid.
But Oh what envying God conspires
To snatch his Power, yet leave him the Desire!

(p. 180)

Rendered impotent in a slightly different way than Rochester's speaker, Lysander like Rochester is filled with rage and embarrassment, which emotions are deepened by Cloris's unrelinquished desire. She wakes from her "trancew and acts upon her personal yearning, rejecting the notion that she should seem reluctant. She seeks her lover:

Her timerous Hand she gently laid
(Or guided by Design or Chance)
Upon that Fabulous Priapus,
That Potent God, as Poets feign.

(P. 181)

Risking social condemnation for abandoning her pose of modesty, Cloris appears resolved on gratification of her desire, and turns to Lysander for what feigning poets have taught her will be guaranteed fulfillment. She discovers that the poetry of priapic potency she has accepted as truth is in fact fictive:

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.

(P. 181)

The snake is not only a sign of masculine detumescence, but a sign of the wily and dangerous nature of masculine power, which seduces women to reveal themselves and render their social and sexual authority for the false promise of pleasure and gratification. The disappointment to Behn is not only sexual, but ideological: a physical and a social loss for Cloris, who has believed in masculine po,wer sufficiently to tender her own autonomy in exchange for, ultimately, nothing.

The false snake who has betrayed both Lysander and Cloris has killed their desire. Cloris is left with "Resentments" which, the speaker notes, "none but I / Can well Imagine or Condole"

(p. 182). The resentment stems from elicited and ungratified desire: the sense of betrayal after a difficult decision to relinquish herself to Lysander. Behn goes on to argue that with sexual impotence, other masculine powers are strengthened, motivated by men's shame and rage at their own failing. Lysander's rage, like Rochester's, is transferred into a hatred of Cloris:

He curs'd his Birth, his Fate, his Stars;

But more the Shepherdess's Charms,

Whose soft bewitching Influence

Had Damn'd him to the Hell of Impotence.

(pa 182)

Behn's poem not only reflects the masculine hostility born of impotence that imbues Rochester's "Imperfect Enjoyment," it also recasts a large portion of Rochester's poem to emphasize women's sexual desire, disillusionment, and danger. Rochester's Corinna comments on her sense of loss and disappointment as she

from her body wipes the clammy joys


"Is there then no more?


All this to love and rapture's due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?"

(P. 38)

Behn's decision to structure her description of male impotence in pastoral terms enables her to move beyond Rochester's limited interest in the woman's desire to a far more complex depiction of desire, of the shame and conflict that attend female desire, and of the process by which women give themselves away when they receive men sexually. Cloris gives herself to Lysander reluctantly, and, to Behn, the irony of her getting nothing she desires in return is not an unfortunate paradox, as Rochester views it, but rather a basic truth comparable to the knowledge that brought about the fall of man. When Cloris uncovers the snake, she not only learns the limitations of masculine physiology, she also learns that male sexuality is a threat hidden among the seductive and beautiful leaves of poetic patriarchal ideology. The poem is a warning to women to beware men's arbitrary social authority, which has its roots beneath the verdant leaves in the form of physical, sexual power.

Behn develops her theory of sexual politics in other pastoral poems, continuing to exploit the traditional form to argue that masculine and feminine gender are constructs which reinforce established power and fail to satisfy women's needs and desires. In "The Golden Age," the pastoral convention of nostalgia enables Behn to present a vision of a world without gendered social structure (pp. 138-44). As she presents an ideal, lost age where men and women lpved equally and freely, Behn revises the political arguments of Virgil, Spenser, and Milton, making them more easily applicable to the lives of her individual readers, including women. Rather than focusing on a political figure or specific political party, Behn examines the binary, gendered opposition long assumed to be truth rather than construct.

The world she looks back on was a world of natural and innocent beauty. Significantly, the earth itself, characterized as female, is free to produce what and when she will. No one imposes upon the earth and she is not coerced or forced into fruition:

The stubborn Plough had then,
Made no rude Rapes upon the Virgin Earth;
Who yielded of her own accord her plentious Birth,
Without the Aids of men;
As if within her Teeming Womb,
All Nature, and all Sexes lay,
Whence new Creations every day
Into the happy World did come.

(P. 139)

The freedom to act for herself makes the earth fertile and productive; the lack of arbitrary power systems makes the women on earth safe and carefree as well. They are so safe that they can enjoy everything they find in nature-even snakes. In the golden age, the shepherdesses do not need to draw back from male sexuality; it does not entail a deceptive or coercive ideology:

Beneath [the] boughs the Snakes securely dwelt,
Not doing harm, nor harm from others felt;
With whom the Nymphs did Innocently play,
No spightful Venom in the wantons lay;
But to the touch were Soft, and to the sight were Gay.

(P. 139)

The emphasis on beauty and innocence makes the world of the golden age idyllic, and it is only the intrusion of kings and gods, "those Arbitrary Rulers over men" that brings the golden age to an end (p. 139).With arbitrary rule comes the structure that organizes and sustains such power:

Right and Property were words since made,
When Power taught Mankind to invade:
When Pride and Avarice became a Trade


And to Inhaunce the Merchandize, miscall'd it, Fame,
And Rapes, Invasions, Tyrannies,
Was gaining of a Glorious Name:
Stiling their salvage slaughters, Victories;
Honour, the Error and the Cheat
Of the Ill-natur'd Bus'ey Great.

The poem becomes a denunciation of the concept of honor as Behn argues that honor represses natural feeling, particularly in women. The established kings and gods recognize the power potential in arbitrary laws and mores. Behn comments, "Who but the Learned and dull moral Fool / Could gravely have forseen, man ought to live by Rule?" (p. 141). After attacking honor's arbitrary, masculine authority, Behn attempts to restore the ideal pastoral world by evicting concepts of honor from "Shepheards Cottages / . . . quiet Shades and Springs" (p. 142).

Banishing honor and its power to "Princes Pallaces [and the] Trading Court" (pp. 142-43), Behn ends the poem with an exhortation to young maids and swains to seize the day. At the conclusion, the pasture is transformed, made real and possible for all people who are youthful in spirit. The retreat from the world that is too much with us is a retreat from the future, a step into the present moment:

Then let us, Sylvia, yet be wise,
And the Gay hasty minutes prize:
The Sun and Spring receive but our short Light,
Once sett, a sleep brings an Eternal Night.

To live for the moment, to fill one's life with the experience of beauty and joy is the objective of the traditional Theocritan pastoralist. Behn ultimately makes the claim for beauty, even as she recognizes that beauty and joy are sometimes hard to find. She integrates her vision of an ideal world with her realistic assessment of the world in which she lives in the wonderfully ambiguous poem, "To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman" (p. 363). Though the poem is not pastoral per se, it makes use of an image that is significant to our study. The first lines set up a situation wherein the arbitrary rules of gender-including honor-are meaningless:

Fair lovely Maid, or if that Title be
Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.

Clarinda, the youth, is androgynous, perhaps a hermaphrodite, and it is Clarinda's capacity to destroy the binary opposition of gender that most appeals to Behn.16 The female speaker recognizes that Clarinda's lack of gender definition-potentially the curiously

ironic result of an abundance of sexual organs-makes her a safe companion, though Clarinda is in some part a man:

In pity to our sex sure thou wert sent,
That we might love, and yet be innocent:
For sure no crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we should-thy form excuses it.

Focusing again on social obligations imposed on women to uphold their modesty, Behn here makes the female speaker openly sexual but aware that she must be discreet: she can love Clarinda because Clarinda is "fair" and "lovely," feminine in appearance. Her "form" makes any sexual action by the two people apparently, if not in fact, innocent, for the "crime" of sexual intercourse requires a phallus in the phallocentric society that Behn mocks. Both the speaker and Clarinda know that the phallus is not necessary for sexual pleasure, and the speaker delights in the feminine power inherent in that unspoken knowledge.

Sexual desire and activity are, Behn suggests, crimes only when a woman willingly and knowingly gives herself to a man in an unauthorized situation. She emphasizes the imposition of rules on sexual behavior as she focuses on a person who necessarily challenges and possibly breaks all the rules. Because Clarinda's sexuality is not power-based as a normal man's is, there is pleasure for the woman who befriends Clarinda, for she can enter into an intimate relationship with her without fearing her sexuality. Depictions of romantic friendship between women suggest that such relationships were often more complete than marriage in the eighteenth century, as the women involved esteemed each other's "physical, mental, and spiritual virtues," and "regard[ed] themselves as whole people, as they were seldom regarded by men. They love[d] each other for their strengths and self-sufficiency rather than for their weaknesses and dependence."" If Clarinda is an androgynous woman, the women's relationship rests in their quiet resistance to phallocentric ideology. Similarly, if we take Clarinda to be a hermaphrodite, her sexual "completeness" symbolizes the potential for a fully rewarding relationship that such a genderless person offers in Behn's eyes, and the poem becomes a challenge to tile whole concept of gender.

The joy of participating with the hermaphrodite leads to a recasting of the snake-in-the-grass image: "For who that gathers fairest flowers believes / A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves." The speaker's experience of love with Clarinda is joy without attendant fear, the best and most fulfilling love possible.

In this poem, Behn suggests that sexual relationships are most beautiful when they are free of social constraints and fear, when people simultaneously are the subject of desire and the subject who experiences desire. She also asserts that human relationships can attain that beauty and subjectivity only when society stops using gender as an instrument of power. Clearly Behn is not arguing that physical hermaphrodites solve all problems between the sexes. Instead, in this and all her pastoral poetry she proposes dismantling the concept of gender as a power base in order to create the ideal, but viable, world where people can thrive with all of nature: fairest flowers, verdant leaves, and snakes.

In pastoral poetry, Aphra Behn manipulates her own poetic persona to achieve the freedom to write poetry at all, and then to critique her s~ciety.'~

Taking on a seemingly circumscribed identity as a pastoral poet, Behn carefully maneuvers herself into a position of creative autonomy as she shifts the focus of pastoral from shepherd to shepherdess and from women as the subject of the poetry to women as the subject, the agent of action, in the poetry. Ann Rosalind Jones notes that in an earlier period, "Renaissance women poets, given their enforced location outside public discourse, worked their ways into [masculine, public discourse] more often by indirection than by c~nfrontation."'~

Behn's writing combines indirection and confrontation as she lures the reader into her poetry by appearing to abide by the established conventions of pastoral and by appearing to accept the defined gender ideology of active, male shepherd/poet and passive, female shepherdess/auditor. But the confrontation comes in the poetry's subtexts as the conventions Behn appears to accept suddenly explode with the reversal of gender roles, the redirection of the reader's sympathy, and the constant disorientation of the reader's conventional expectations.

Behn, by recognizing the differences in pastoral perspectives and seeing what protection and advantage the allegorical and the ideal offer the female poet, is able to manipulate and complicate pastoral convention and to write poetry that is daring and heavily ironic. In her hands, bucolic masquerade is simultaneously masquerade and disguise: she assumes roles and hides behind at least two layers of meaning, making the speaker's identity and meaning clear only when the reader lines up the masks to find the incontrovertible features that the masks share. Lillian Faderman notes that, historically, in a pastoral setting women could garner power that would have been deemed threatening to the social order in the material, urban world. It was assumed by the culture, Faderman argues, "that surrounded by such natural, moral influences [as the countryside offered, women] could not possibly desire what would give 'Offence towards God and Reason and Religion and Nat~re.'"~~

But Behn's poems show that at the same time that she appears to be engaged in harmless activities, the female pastoralist "provides her reader . . . with a series of feigned identities, withholding her 'true' self, or rather putting the 'truth' of selfhood into question."*l A woman questioning the truth of selfhood, of course, is questioning the truth of her own-and any-socially determined gender identity, and is therefore profoundly dangerous to the established political ideology. Behn demonstrates courage and wit in resisting the hegemonic conventions of the genre of pastoral poetry, and of gender: her poems remind us that subversive power can lie coiled in even those things that are perceived by the dominant culture to be "the mildest, the most naive, and the most inept."


'Quoted in J.E. Congleton, Theories ofPastora1 Poetry in England, 1684-1798 (Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 1952), p. 19. I am indebted to this work for the reference to E.K. as well.

2E.K., "Dedicatory Epistle," The Shepheardes Calender, by Edmund Spenser, in The Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1943), 7.1: 10.

3Louis Adrian Montrose, "'Eliza, Queene of shepheardes,' and the Pastoral of Power," ELR 10, 2 (Spring 1980): 153-82, 155-56, 179. 'Annabel Patterson, Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Vabry (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), p. 13 1.

'Aphra Behn, "On a Juniper-Tree, cut down to make Busks," in The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Montague Summers, 6 vols. (1915; rprt. New York: Phaeton, 1967), 6:148-51. All page references to this and other Behn works will be taken from this volume and will appear parenthetically hereafter.

6Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women's Verse, ed. Germaine Greer et al. (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988), p. 247. 'Harold Toliver, Pastoral Forms and Attitudes (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971), p. 5.

8Carolyn G. Heilbrun, "The Politics of Mind: Women, Tradition, and the University," in Hamlet's Mother and Other Women (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 213-26, 216-17.

gean H. Hagstrum, Sex and Se~uibility: Ideal and Erotic Lovefrom Milton to Mozart (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 4.

"'Patterson, p. 131.

"Ros Ballaster, "Seizing the Means of Seduction: Fiction and Feminine

Identity in Aphra Behn and Delarivier Manley," in Women, Writing, History 1640-1 740, ed. Isobel Grundy and Susan Wiseman (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1992), pp. 93-108, 95.

"Kissing the Rod, 241-42. See also Behn, p. 425.

'Vohn Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, "The Imperfect Enjoyment," in The Compbte Poems ofJohn Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. David M. Vieth (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 3740. Subsequent references to the poem appear parenthetically in the text.

l4Hagstrum, p. 104. l5Kate Lilley, "True State Within: Women's Elegy 1640-1740," in Women, Writing; History, pp. 72-92, 76.

161n"Sex, Gender, and Sexual Identity in Modern Culture: Male Sodomy and Female Prostitution in Enlightenment London," Journal of the Histoly of Sexuality 2, 2 (October 1991): 186-203, Randolph Trumbach notes that "seventeenth-century society presumed that although there were three kinds of bodies (men, women, and hermaphrodites) there were only two kinds of gender (male and female)" (pp. 192-93).

I7Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendrhip and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow, 1981), p. 108.

IsAnn Rosalind Jones, "Surprising Fame: Renaissance Gender Ideologies and Women's Lyric," in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 74-95. In this essay, Jones discusses the various cultural restrictions imposed on women poets to keep silent and, if they did participate in public discourse, the restrictions that circumscribed their poetry. She notes that "a woman's accessibility to the social world beyond the household through speech was seen as intimately connected to the scandalous openness of her bodyn (p. 76). Behn experienced such assessment in her personal life and explored the idea in almost all of her plays, poems, and fiction.

'?ones, p. 80.

"Faderman, p. 125.

'lBallaster, p. 100.

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