Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment"

by Peter Thoms, Lisa M. Zeitz
Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment"
Peter Thoms, Lisa M. Zeitz
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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<El.37 (1997) ISSN 0039-3637

Power, Gender, and Identity in
Aphra Behn's
"The Disappointment"


For at least the past thirty years-since Richard Quaintance first identified the "imperfect enjoyment poem" as a distinct crit- ical category-Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment" (1680) has been read (rightly) within the context of this small body of poetry written by men. The male tradition itself is, of course, concerned with the representation of masculine identity; unlike its male counterparts, however, Behn's "The Disappointment" is not about impotence so much as it is about power at a number of levels. In her "free translation" of the first third of Cantenac's poem,' "L'Occasion perdue recouverte" ("The Lost Opportunity Recovered"), Behn incisively interrogates the notion of power as a definer of male identity and, in so doing, playfully and wittily questions conventional gender roles and the structures of oppression which they support.

In the male imperfect enjoyment poem, the speaker (who is usually the male lover himself) narrates and then laments "the loss of his sexual capacity just when the woman, up to then reluctant, has become most ready and ~illing."~

The female figure in the poem is the object of desire, while the male is the sexual subject. Ultimately, the narrative account occasions

Lisa M.Zeitz has published essays on a range of topics including Restora- tion natural theology and natural history; Addison's aesthetics; eighteenth- century religious verse; and travel literature.

Peter Thoms is the author of The kt'indings of the Labyrinth: Quest and Struc- ture in the 12.lqjor Novels of JVilkie Collins (1992)and Detection and Its Designs: iinrra- tive and t'ozcrer in Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction (forthcoming).

reflection, including in some examples the apportioning of blame to the woman for causing the man's disempowerment. Virtually all of those who have written about Behn's verses have pointed to the striking differences between this set of conven- tions and Behn's pra~tice.~

When one also takes into account the poet's French source, the strategy of Behn's revisions becomes clear. The changes she makes to the original, along with her use of a language of ambiguous agency, result in a poem that might best be described as a mock imperfect enjoy- ment poem. "The Disappointment" never "recovers" the lost opportunity (nor reestablishes an analogous form of male authority) and never suggests that the enjoyment could ever be anything but imperfect given the power structures at work in both the definition of male identity and the gender roles based upon that definition.

From the first stanza of "The Disappointment," it is clear that the speaker will play with notions of control. The poem begins, "One day the Amorous Lysander, / By an impatient Passion ~way'd."~

The first thing we are told about Lysander is that he lacks control, that he is "sway'd"-ruled-by his passions, by his physical desire^.^ The next two lines describe "fair Cloris, that lov'd Maid, / Who could defend her self no longer" (lines 3-4). The possible reasons for Cloris's inability to proffer a defense are worth pondering. Is it because Lysander has overpowered her? Is it because the forces of nature and her own passions have over- powered her ("All things did with his Love conspire" [line 5])? Is it because, knowing what she wants, she does not choose to defend herself any longer? (This possibility is suggested by Behn's addition of "that lov'd Maid," with its implication of pre- vious experience.) Who, or what has power in stanza l?It seems as though both man and woman are being equally swayed, until we reach the final couplet of the first verse. The male sun

(Phoebus) is "descending" (line 8)-a suggestive directional indicator in a poem about sexual and social power-"And left no Light to guide the World, / But what from Chis Brighter Eyes was hurld" (lines 9-10). Admittedly, "world" invites a comic rhyme, but in addition to the humorous mock-heroic effect, the verb "hurld" assumes agency, an agency that is not present in the French original where

cet ennemy de Cypris

Ne laissoit de luniiere au monde

Que dans les beaux yeux de Cloris.

(lines 8-10)

The Maid, uith her even "Brighter Eyes," exercises the power abdicated by Phoebus as she is left "to guide the World." Cloris is no passive object of Lysander's sexual ambitions, but an active, vigorous, and desiring participant in the unfolding events in the "lone Thicket" (line 11).

The second stanza depicts female sexual desire in a way that leaves no doubt that Nature-the power of natural desire-oper- ates equally in men and women. Cloris directs and orchestrates the rhythm of the action, although she does so somewhat oxy- moronically. "She with a Charming Languishment" (line 13)-an action that simultaneously suggests the loss of vitality and the acquisition of a captivating and compelling influence-

Permits his Force, yet gently strove;

Her Hands his Bosoni softly meet,

But not to put him back design'd,

Rather to draw 'em on inclin'd:

Whilst he lay trembling at her Feet.

(lines 14-8)

The power relations here are complicated, it seems, by a social code and by expected gender roles. "Permits his Force" clearly suggests that Cloris has power to permit or to prohibit. "Gently strove," on the other hand, suggests a constraint on her striving. "Resistance 'tis in vain to show; / She wants the pow'r to say-Ah!

!&%at d'ye do?" (lines 19-20). It is clear that the constraints Cloris will ignore are social constructions; resistance may be what she is expected to enact, but she will disappoint those who might expect that "show," that false action. The "pow'r," as opposed to "le courage" in the French original (line 19), that Cloris is shown to lack is most obviously the ability (or willingness) to suppress her physical, natural desires. At the same time, she is also shown to lack the will to conform to established gender roles (i.e., she will not resist as she is expected to). In a sense, then, Cloris's "want[ing]" of power expresses both the intensity of her sexual needs and her failure (refusal?) to employ the conventional response ("Ah! What d' ye do?") that would hypocritically deny what she truly feels and wants.

The symbolic exchange of influence in the first stanza, as Cloris replaces Apollo, prefigures the reversal enacted in the poem, as Cloris, the supposed victim, is endowed uith the power of "design" (in the sense of "intentionv-of getting what she wants) and Lysander, the supposed pursuer, is unmanned and rendered powerless. Even in stanza 2-well before his loss of potency-Lysander seems weak and subservient, as "he lay trem- bling at her Feet" (line 18). His true weakness, however, exists not in his lack of control over his passions and penis, but in his inabil- ity to distinguish his own identity from the role he has assumed. Unable to understand that he is playing a part, Lysander defines himself as the virile, conquering, powerful male. Conversely, Cloris seems more adept in her pursuit of the desired object, although ultimately her designs are comically disappointed. The doubleness of her behavior, as she resists and yet welcomes Lysander's advances, signals her ability to employ-and to subvert according to her own wishes-the role of the honorable woman. In adopting the language of resistance, Cloris is, admit- tedly, conforming to socially defined gender roles, but not in a way that is naive and not in a way that would deny her the plea- sures of Lysander's body.

While the woman's mock resistance seems to be a convention of behavior in the world that Behn describes, it also seems to be a convention of practice in the genre of the imperfect enjoyment poem. In "The Lost Opportunity Recovered" we read of how Cloris's "pretty Arms" with "kind Repulses pull'd him to her

till."^ Likewise in Sir George Etherege's "The Imperfect Enjoyment" the male speaker remarks,

She does resist my love with pleasing force,


Her eyes the rudeness of her arms excuse,
Those do accept what these seem to refuse.'

And the anonymous author of "The Imperfect Enjoyment"

(which begins "Fruition was the Question in debate") boasts that "She thrusts me out, and yet invites me h~me."~

Behn's treatment is more complex than that offered in the above examples where female desire seems to be deployed in support of a male fantasy of sexual irresistibility. In depicting a genuine female desire for men-a desire that is focalized from Cloris's perspective-Behn reveals both (1) the intricate negotiations between personal desire and adherence to the social code that women must enact and (2) the social forces that lie behind the conventions and make such acts of negotiation essential for women.g

Cloris's ability to recognize (at least at times) a distinction between who she is (personal identity) and how she behaves (social constraints) allows her, paradoxically, a certain measure of freedom of action. Her performance in stanza 2 is calculated or, to use Behn's term, "design'd" to encourage Lysander (line 16).

One is even tempted to read her confusion in stanza 3 as a strat- egy of seduction, which "give [s]" "Fresh Vigor to Lysander" (line 23), an effect not described in Cantenac's poem. The danger here, of course, is to interpret Cloris as merely a cool and cunning actress and thereby to ignore the real passions which the encounter arouses; confusion may be a tactic of foreplay, but it also suggests Cloris's distress as "Love and Shame confus'dly strive" (line 22). Even as she transgresses, and even though she sees through the cultural code of honor, she seems to concede that code's power and feel its lash. As Angeline Goreau remarks, if Restoration women "acknowledged their own sexuality and acceded to it, they violated the essential element of what they have been brought up to believe was their femininity: virtue."1° Only at great risk could Cloris ignore the social laws regulating proper feminine behavior. In the seventeenth century, Carol Barash explains, honor "mean [s], first and foremost, 'chastity,' a woman's status as the sexual property of either her father or her husband"; and "the loss of one's honor could be a form of social death."" As the sexual encounter unfolds in the "lone Thicket," Cloris plays her part brilliantly, for it is by so doing that she will be able to fully express herself as a desiring woman.

In the last half of stanza 3 Cloris's ability to speak the words of resistance returns, but in voicing her opposition to Lysander's love- making, she is at once conforming to the respectable female role and rebelling against it: while in "L%)ccasionperdue"Cloiis is described simply as speaking to Lysander in a low voice ("ditelle tout bas" [line 25]), in Behn's version she is found "breathing faintly in his Ear" (line 24). W'I~ereas in Cantenac's poem, the imperatives are expressed clearly and without ambiguity ("Cessez d'attaquer mon honneur, / Ou commencez d'avoir ma vie, / Comme vous avez eu mon coeur!" [lines 28-30] ),in "The Disappointment" the manner of speaking generates a polysemous effect:

She cry'd-Cease, Cease-your ualn Deszre,
Or I'll tall out-What would you do ?
My Llearer Honour eu'n to You
I cannot, must not g-iue-Retire.

(lines 25-8)

The verse here is marked by pauses and dashes, in some cases two dashes in one tetrameter line; the effect, of course, is to suggest panting and somewhat less than undivided attention to the spoken word. Cultural codes have enough power to dictate speech, it seems, but not enough to constrain action. Cloris feels she must invoke her "Honour," but she clearly does not believe in what the word represents-the chastity required of sexual property.12

The erotic tension continues to build in stanzas 4-7, with considerable irony directed at Lysander's efforts, and in particular, at the conventional heroic language of power and military con- quest used to represent the male role. It is Cloris who first intro- duces the conventional battle metaphor when, at the end of the third stanza, she speaks of "the Conquest ofmy Heart" (line 30). W'I~ile for Cloris the clich6 allows an expression of both her desire and her continuing encouragement of Lysander (in the manner of "you're so strong"), for Behn it offers an opportunity for more comedy. Lysander is described at the outset of the action, for example, as "as much unus'd to Fear, / As he was capable of Love" (lines 31-2). Given the capabilities illustrated in "The Disappointment" it seems that Lysander was much,used to Fear and that his fear is directly linked to his sexual performance. Behn now introduces the conventional metaphor of the male lover as military conqueror (a metaphor not present in her source) only to subject the image to an ironic reversal: "All her [Cloris's] Unguarded Beauties lie / The Spoils and Trophies of the Enemy" (lines 39-40). Given that the "Spoils and Trophies" are "Unguarded," how powerful a conquest is this? The inflated language of heroic military action, a conventional language of love authored by men, continues to be applied (with irony) to Lysander.

Lysander's presumption of power rests in his belief in his role as the orchestrator of the action. He initiates the encounter by surprising Cloris in stanza 1, and then, according to plan, he begins the seduction: "The blessed minutes to improve, / Kisses her Mouth, her Neck, her Hair" (lines 33-4). The story, which Lysander assumes he determines, has a set duration of "minutes," and a mounting intensicy of action, suggested by the male's increasing earnestness as

By swift degrees advancing . . .

His daring Hand that Altar seiz'd,

Where Gods of Love do sacrifice.

(lines 44-6)

Having progressed this far in the plot, with "that Altar" now at

"Hand," the speaker pauses, mimicking the male consciousness in its act of worship of the female genitalia-

That Awful Throne, that Paradice
Where Rage is calm'd, and Anger pleas'd,

That Fountain where Delight still tlows, And gives the Universal World Repose. (lines 47-50)

Playfully rendering a language of ecstatic hyperbole, these lines portray the intended consequences of the rising action, the "Delight" to be experienced as the erotic tension is released and a concluding "Repose" achieved. In Behn's poem, however, the conlforting "Repose" of closure is denied and conlically replaced by a more unsettling physiological cessation. In classic mock- heroic fashion, the rising action is deflated. After over sixty lines of erotic expectation and excitement, we read:

Abandon'd by her Pride and Sharne,

She does her softest Joys dispence,

Off'ring her Virgin-Innocence

A Victim to Loves Sacred Flame:

While the o'er-Ravish'd Shepherd lies

Unable to perform the Sacrifice.

(lines 65-70)

A comparison with Cantenac's poem reveals that Behn has introduced the language of "Virgin-Innocence," "Sacrifice," and "Victim" to describe Cloris's "Off'ring" of herself.l"he introduction of these conventional topoi calls attention to those liter- ary representations of love that define the role of woman as one of sacrificial victim. Ironically, of course, the victim positions are reversed, as Behn authors an inversioil of convention through the figure of the "o'er-Ravish'd" shepherd, himself a victim of social and literary constructions of gender. Vnquestioningly, Lysander has assunled the heroic mantle of the conqueror. Indeed, the military and religious imagery of stanzas 4 and 5 seems to reflect how the sexual encounter is constructed by the male consciousness; Lysander is the creative subject who acts and Cloris is figured as the recipient, "the Object of his Vows" (line 42). But the narrative of sexual conquest, which the male figura- tively attempts to engineer, ultimately spins out of his control, and Behn is not about to return his rights of authorship.

Lysander emerges as an actor paralyzed by anguish because events have veered from the prescribed path. His supposed strength resides in his ability to direct the sexual encounter, but, as the poem reveals, he is unable to cope when his excited passions, which are natural to the moment, betray the control necessary to his role: "The too transported hapless Swain / Found the vast Pleasure turn'd to Pain" (lines 72-3). Lysander has suffered from "too" much passion, and consequently has been unable to main- tain the rigidity or control required of the lover or of the actor rely- ing on his script. In Behn's rephrasing of the problem, "Excess of Love his Love betray'd (line 88), we sense more clearly how uncontrolled "Love," which is natural or instinctive, is contrasted with the regulated "Love" with which Lysander identifies. His "Love" is constructed as an expression of power, and exists in his successful fulfillment of the male sexual role, a performance that is again subverted, this time by the uncontrolled emotions aroused by the initial mishap: "Not all her Naked Charms cou'd move / Or calm that Rage that had debauch'd his Love" (lines 99-100).

In suggesting that "his Love" is both "betray'd" and "debauch'd," Behn employs language that would nornlally be used in depicting a man's seduction of a woman. But, as we have seen, in "The Disappointment" Behn challenges gender roles, and now it is Lysander who occupies the traditionally feminine position of vulnerability. Indeed, at the end of the encounter, he is the one left "fainting on the Gloomy Bed" (line 120), while, in a contrasting show of force, "Like Lightning through the Grove she hies" (line 121). Jlilat is at stake for Lysander at the climac- tic moment in stanza '7 is his male identity as it is constituted not only by sexual virility, but also by his power as the author of the sexual encounter-he presumes to determine what will happen and how it will happen; what is at stake for hphra Behn is the authorship of literary representations of that experience. Behn, then, implies an obvious answer to the question she poses rhetorically at the end of stanza 8: "But Oh what envying God[s conspire] / To snatch his Power, yet leave him the Desire!" (lines 79-80).

Behn's clearest comments on the site of male power are made through the image of ",Vaturek Support" (line 81)-"Ce directeur de la nature" (line 81)-in stanza 9 and "that Fabulous PriapaS' (line 105)-"Second Priape de la Fable" (line 107)-in stanza 11. Physical control, literary and social control, and the control exerted by one sex over the other are only some of the permuta- tions of power that have been explored in the poem. Now the foundations of those power bases are interrogated. "Nature's Support"-a brilliant image of the phallocentric world that is about to lose its ability to withstand scrutiny-"It self now wants the Art to live; / Faintness its slack'ned Nerves invade" (lines 83-4). Lysander's power, centered on and flowing from one part of his anatomy, is fleeting; desperately and unsuccessfully he attempts to recover his role and the erection upon which it depends: "Mad to possess, himself he threw / On the Defenceless Lovely Maid" (lines 77-8). From the start his "mad" or uncon- trolled anxiety undermines his efforts to reassert male author- ity-to "possess" C>loris and, as the very placement of the words suggests, to "possess" himself. Faced with a loss of the one ability that seems to define him, the "inraged Youth" vainly tries to "call its fleeting \'igor back" by manual stimulation (lines 85, 86),but "No motion 'twill from Motion take" (line 87). In the same stan- za of "L70ccasionperdue recouverte" one of the epithets for the penis is "Ce principe du mouvement" (line 82; translated as "Father of Motion" in "The Lost Opportunity Recovered"'". Behn seems to have this notion of the Prime Mover (and the foundations of patriarchy?) in mind as she subtly but devastatingly destroys the male's pretensions to power. The project, which had begun as an attempt to move Cloris, becomes completely self-referential, and Lysander now proves incapable of moving even himself: "In vain he Toils, in vain Commands; / The Insensible fell weeping in his Hand" (lines 89-90).15 Because his sexual "Commands" are powerless, he can no longer, it seems, exert command in any sphere. He renounces his reason; he despairs; his rage and shame are the direct result of the injury suffered by his self- image, an identity defined by his ability to perform and to possess. Having lost sexual control, Lysander now loses command of his reason and his emotions.

In the meantime, Cloris, "returning from the Trance / Which Love and soft Desire had bred" (lines 101-2), recognizes that anlorous conditions have altered and acts:

Her timesous Hand she gently laid

(Or guided by Design or Chance)

Upon that Fabulous Prinpns,

'That Potent God, as Poets feign.

(lines 103-6)

In calling attention to the care she must take in ascribing any kind of sexual agency to Cloris, the narrator calls attention to the constraints upon the representation of female sexual desire. Having used the word "timerous" (rather than Cantenac's "promptement" [line 1031) to mitigate the willful nature of Cloris's reaching hand, the poet adds parentheses to the mock- heroic qualification in the original: "par dessein ou par hazard" (line 105);"(Or guided by Design or Chance)." Is a woman capa- ble of taking such action of her own volition? Or is she guided by larger cosmic forces of "Design or Chance"? The parenthetical alternative, as Barash has pointed out, "would still be honorable behavior."16 Could the design by which she is guided also be read as her own willful intention? This ambiguous treatment of agency forces the reader to attend to the question of power-who has it, who uses it, and who can be seen to use it.

Male poets depict "that Fabulous Pm'apas," "Nature's Support," as the site of power, but Cloris and the female speaker who narrates "The Disappointment" question that construction. "That Potent Godw-a "snub-nosed god" ("ce dieu camard" [line 1061) in Cantenac-is feigned, an idol, a false god. The poet's ironic treat- ment of "that Fabulous Priapas" deflates the importance of what "Poets feign" (Behn's addition) is all-powerful. The irony applied to "Fabulous" as a descriptive adjective changes the connotation of the word from "wonderful, marvellous, celebrated in Fable" to "fictitious, untrue, exaggerated."15 Cloris finds the "God of her Desires / Disarm'd" (lines 112-3); that disarming of the God (original to Behn's version) describes, of course, not only the subject of the poem but also the poet's method. By using the language of mythology and literary conventions here, Behn is not

just questioning assumptions about power, but is revealing the very practices of representation upon which those power rela- tions have been built. By humorously exposing the weak founda- tions and fragile construction of both literary conventions and socially-defined gender roles, Behn questions the very basis of male authority.

As Quaintance observes, the most dramatic alteration that Behn made to Cantenac's poem was to omit two-thirds of it-the two-thirds in which the "lost opportunity" is recovered. "Cantenac had described a thoroughly comic parabola of lush expectancy followed by pathetic frustration, relieved in turn by supersexed success, complete with the cuckolding of a husband and much elaborate pillow-talk."ls A successful literary and sexu- al climax is replaced by the anticlimax at the very structural center of the poem: the last line of stanza 7 in a fourteen-stanza structure ("Unable to perform"). Power is not reasserted. Power is not reconfirmed. Power is not returned to Lysander as an essen- tial part of his masculine identity.

In "The Disappointment" there is an obvious disjunction between Lysander's authorial ambitions as the instigator and director of the action and the ironic sensibility of the female nar- rator who undercuts his project, exposes his deficiencies, and identifies a different director of the action. But Behn's criticism of the male's presumption is uncommon; usually the speaker (and writer) of an imperfect enjoyment poem is male, establishing a sympathetic bond between the craft of the poetic storyteller and the creative project of the male lover. In "The Lost Opportunity Recovered," for example, the speaker maintains an identification with Lysander and an interest in the recovery of his reputation. While premature ejaculation occurs as a blow to Lysander's pride and to his intentions of enacting the sexual plot, the speaker attempts to mitigate the resulting suggestions of weakness. The unfortunate incident, we read, is "an Accident that did afflict / Ev'n Mars himself, when Vulcan paid his score."1g The speaker's desire to excuse is indicated by his willingness to construct a rather awkward parallel between Lysander's predicament and the embarrassing circumstances afflicting another lover, the god of War, who was literally captured (in Vulcan's net) as he lay in bed with that craftsman's wife, Aphrodite.'O Suggestions of the heroic invest even the inopportune release of Lysander's semen: 'Yet in that Active Moment out it flies, / With such a speed, as had no fel- low t~'t."~l the speaker's identification with Lysander

But is expressed most strongly by the eventual sexual triumph of that male protagonist who, unlike his counterpart in Behn's poem, becomes a figure for the author as he persists in his endeavor and manages to direct the plot to its successful conclusion. Lysander's continued scheming becomes an analog for the author's own plot- ting, so that the two figures begin to merge. Indeed, after describ ing the lovers' "Excess of Bliss" -"Five or six times these Doves together went""-the speaker concludes the poem because, he seems to argue, he can no longer maintain a critical distance from his character. As he reports in the poem's final line, "I am Ljsander, and enjoy his Fate."'3

There is no need for such a figurative merging in "The Imperfect Enjoyment" poems of Sir George Etherege; John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; and the anonymous author of "Fruition was the Question in debate." In their treatments the speaker is the male lover, a strategy in which the loss of physical vigor is more than counterbalanced by the provision of narrative authority. While the lover fails to control the unfolding of the sex- ual encounter, he recovers power in narrating, and thereby in exerting some artistic control over the events.24 In Etherege's poem the male seems far from shattered by his premature ejacu- lation, displaying instead an eloquence in describing and explaining that suggests his confident mastery of the situatiom2" The woman "blushed and frowned, perceiving we had done / The sport she thought we had not yet begun,"26 but she is given no voice to contest the speaker's own representation of the inci- dent and allocation of blame:

Alas, said I, condemn yourself, not me;
This is the effect of too much modesty.
Hence with that harmful virtue, the delight
Of both our victories was lost in the fight.27

In contrast to such equanimity, the speaker of Rochester's poem responds to his lost potency with rage-an explosion of invective in which he depicts his promiscuous past (and thus his usual vigor) and, simultaneously, distances himself from his current failure by repudiating his penis. Most significantly, however, his fury becomes a conduit for a linguistic tour de force that reestab- lishes his claims to virility, potency, and control on a poetic

Finally, the speaker of the anonymous "Fruition was the Question in debate" transcends his moment of failure by incor- porating it into a structure that expresses a lesson. He reconfirms male power by transforming loss into a gaining of wisdom:

When next on such assaults I chance to be,
Give me less vigour, more activitie:
For Love turns impotent when strain'd too high;
His very Cordials make him sooner die.29

In each of these works narration reinvigorates the male, but not in Behn's poem. The sympathetic identification between the narrator and the male lover is shattered in "The Disappointment," where the female speaker depicts the crum- bling of Lysander's sexual and authorial control, and makes no effort to halt that erosion.

Behn's interrogation of the very basis of male power, it seems, ultimately comments on the limiting gender roles which both women and men must play. In identifying the assumptions upon which gender roles are constructed, the poet reveals those assumptions to be as debilitating to men as they are to women:

The Nymph's Resentments none but I

Can well Imagine or Condole:

But none can guess Lysander's Soul,

But those who sway'd his Destiny.

(lines 131-4)

Who or what are "those who sway'd his Destiny?" Lysander offers a lengthy list: the gods, his birth, his fate, his stars, her. When we ask our students who controls Lysander's fate, one of the answers is always himself, but perhaps the best answer belongs to the student who once suggested, "the boys in the locker room." Lysander's comic humiliation, after all, is in large part the result of his own acceptance of the construction of the male as a pow- erful dominating figure whose sexual machinery sways "his Destiny." To define masculinity so clearly and directly on what some have called the hydraulic model is to imperil radically male identity when the hydraulics fail. To call attention to the very construction of gender itself (as Behn does) is to destabilize and render arbitrary the very ascription of power and reason to males.

Where is the true site of power, then? Certainly, that "potent God" by which Lysander measures his worth and defines himself is "disarm'd" in "The Disappointment" and revealed as a false definer of masculine identity. The power of the cultural code of "honor" is voiced (in a seductive whisper) by Cloris, only as part of a conscious strategy of subversion. The power of male literary conventions to define the experience of love in art is simultane- ously acknowledged and questioned in Behn's mock poem that may be read not only as a mock pastoral and mock heroic, but also as a mock imperfect enjoyment poem where the imperfect enjoyment is female centered-where the sexual disappointment is most fully experienced by the woman. Indeed, in challenging forms and in modifying the French original, Behn's "free trans- lation" exemplifies that creative resistance to models and that definition of individual space which Lysander and, to a lesser degree, Cloris lack. In "The Disappointment" the lovers fail to meet and, in exploring issues of power and gender, Behn probes the reasons why.

That failure of meeting is reexpressed by the separation of the lovers in the poem's final stanzas, as Lysander withdraws figura- tively into his private world of "Griefs" and "Fury" (lines 135, 136), and Cloris retreats literally "through the Grove" (line 121). Yet while her female character flees from Lysander, and leaves "No Print" to "instruct pursuing Eyes" (lines 123-4), Behn herself lingers; indeed the poem emerges as her extended reflection- her "Print" or impression on the scene of this frustrated encounter. For Behn, the lovers' failure to connect sexually mirrors the greater problem of their inability to connect honest- ly and openly as individuals. For her, a narrative that is ostensibly about premature ejaculation-about a man's failure of physio- logical control-provides the opportunity to examine a wider dynamics of power, authority, and social role playing that perme- ates and perverts the relations between the sexes. But the signifi- cance of "The Disappointment" rests not only in what the poem says about the battle of the sexes but also in its mode of expression. For Behn's act of creative translation is a dialogic exchange with the male tradition. She is not merely recasting stanzas from a French narrative into English; she is also infusing that narrative with her own sensibility-unsettling it with ques- tions and insinuations. "The Disappointment" is the "Print" that Behn "leaves, t'instruct pursuing Eyes." It is a text to awaken discus sion and to invite debate-and to the extent that it reveals the root causes of the disappointment, it is a text that illustrates that not all the enjoyments shared by men and women need be imperfect.


'Richard E. Quaintance, "French Sources of the Restoration 'Imperfect Enjoyment' Poem," PQ42, 2 (April 1963): 190-9,191.

'Quaintance, p. 190. In defining the genre of the Restoration "imperfect enjoyment" poem, Quaintance establishes a list (to which we are indebted) of the English poems and their French sources; he also notes the influence of "Ovid's Amores, 111, vii, and chapters 128-40 of the Satyricon of Petronius" (p. 191). Also see John H. O'Neill's "An Unpublished 'Imperfect Enjoyment' Poem," PI,L 13, 2 (Spring 1977): 197-202, which prints an addition to Quaintance's list.

3ee Judith Kegan Gardiner's "Aphra Behn: Sexuality and Self-Respect," WS 7, 1-2 (1980): 67-78, 74-77, and "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Utopian Longings in Behn's Lyric Poetry," in Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism, ed. Heidi Hutner (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1993), pp. 273-300, 277-82; Carol Barash, "The Political Possibilities of Desire: Teaching the Erotic Poems of Behn," in Teaching Eighteenth-Century Poetry, ed. Christopher Fox (New York: AMS Press, 1990), pp. 159-76, 169-72; Elizabeth V. Young, "Aphra Behn, Gender, and Pastoral," SE12 33, 3 (Summer 1993): 523-43, 534-37; Dorothy Mermin, "Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch," EI,H 57, 2 (Summer 1990): 335-55, 345. One of the chief differences in Behn's poem is a broadening of perspective. As Gardiner remarks in "Aphra Behn: Sexuality and Self-Respect," "'The Disappointment' differs from others of these poems by its stress on the woman's point of view" (p. 74); in "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," Gardiner observes that "the female narrative voice seems just a bit gleeful at the philanderer's discomfort" (p. 281). We have not, however, swung completely over to Cloris's perspective; as Barash notes, "Behn emphasizes the sexual contest at work in 'The Disappointment' by shift- ing rapidly between the swain's and the nymph's points of view" (pp. 168-9). Nevertheless, the narrator's sympathy seems attached to Cloris.

4Aphra Behn, "The Disappointment," in Poetry, vol. 1 of The Works ofAphra Behn, ed. Janet Todd (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1992), pp. 65-9, lines 1-2. Subsequent references are to this volume and are included parenthetically with- in the text. "The Disappointment" appeared in Behn's Poems upon S~vmal Occasions (1684), but in fact was first printed in Sir John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester's Poems on Sevmal Occasions (1680). On the attribution of the poem to Behn, see David M. Vieth, Attribution in Restoration Poetry: A Study of Rochestm's Poems of 1680 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 448-50.

In assessing Behn's accomplishment, we will be comparing "The Disappointment" to both L'Occasion pprdue recouverteand "The Lost Opportunity Recovered" (an anonymous, complete, and literal translation of the French original that appeared in Wit and 1)rollery [London, 16821, pp. 1-16). Quaintance lists the author of the French poem as "Benech (?) de Cantenac"

(p. 190), "of whom even the first name is uncertain" (p. 195), and notes that "it] he earliest dated publication of Cantenac's poem is in a Recueil d~ diver5 pobsies choisies non encore imprimbes: A Amsterdam: 1661" (pp. 195-6). We quote from a nineteenth-century edition of the poem (in which authorship is erro- neously attributed to Pierre Corneille); see L'Occasion pprdue recouupn'e, par Pierre Corneilla (Paris, 1862). References are included parenthetically within the text.

The French original also describes 1,ysander as "Poussk [pushed or urged] d'un amour indiscret" (line 2). Behn's literal retention of certain lines from the French original in no way negates the validity of the reading we offer here; she retains what will "work" within her rewriting of the poem. Ultimately, the dif- ferent context of "The Disappointmentv-its revised structure and new ele- ments-changes the way we read the lines preserved from the original.

""The Lost Opportunity Recovered," lines 15, 17.

7Sir George Etherege, "The Imperfect Enjoyment," The Poems of Sir George Etherege, ed. James Thorpe (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 7-8, lines 2-6.

8"The Imperfect Enjoyment," A L%o Collection of Poems and Songs (London, 1674), pp. 23-5, line 10.

"Behn suggests that Cloris is conscious of the socially prescribed need to appear modest," writes Young, but at the same time the poet "exposes the falsi- ty of that appearance by indicating (:loris's sexual desire and her active role in the seduction" (pp. 534-5). Barash makes a similar point; in contrast to "other 'imperfect enjoiment' poems" where "male sexual subjectivity and women's objectification" are "foregrounded," Behn's poem describes (:loris's "sexual desire" (p. 169).

"'.4ngeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biograph): of ,4phrn Behn (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 179-80.

l1Barash, pp. 169. 170. Goreau writes: "Sexual experience reduced the value of a lady even as it served to make a gallant more charming. Too many love affairs inevitably branded her a whore" (p. 175).

l2Gardiner, in "Liberty, Equality. Fraternity." comments: "(:loris's protests against an apparent rape underline that what a woman says is not necessarily what she means, a view that may alienate Behn from today's women: The nar- rator insists, like the ~nale lover in the poem. that (;loris means yes when she says no" (p. 278).

l:'In "L'Oc.rnsion perdue" (;loris is described as having lost her sha~ne and dis- cretion ("elle avoit perdu / Sa pudeur et sa retenue" [lines 65-41). leaving Lysander free to do what he wishes ("elle se fust IaissP tout faire" [line 671). The language of the religion of love is completely absent from the French stanza.

'-"'The Lost Opportunity Recovered," line 82.

I5Behn is certainly not explicit, but premature ejaculation seems to be implied, particularly by the descriptions of Lysander's penis as "weeping" and as "(;old as Flow'rs bath'd in the Morning-Dew" (lines 90. 114). Behn also refers to "its fleeting Vigor" (line 86), and, in a repeated emphasis on his excessive pas- sions, suggests that very lack of control which leaves hi~n "Unable to perfor~n the Sacrifice" (line 70)'. Barash also detects evidence of Lysander's prkmature ejaculation (pp. 170-1); for a different view, see O'Neill, who claims that Lysander "achieves no erection or ejaculation anyvhere in the poem" (p. 200).

'Qarash, p. 383 n.

''For other discussions of this set of i~nages, see Gardiner, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," p. 280; and Young, p. 536. Also see Barash, who writes that "Cloris's feigning and Lysander's sexual posturing . . . have been learned from the con- ventions of love poetry" (p. 171).

l8Q~1aintance,p. 198.

'"'The Lost Opportunity Recovered," lines 68-9.

'Osee Ho~ner'sOdyssq, 8.266-366.

21"The Lost Opportunity Recovered," lines 76-7.

22"The Lost Opportunity Recovered," lines 382, 383.

'""The Lost Opportunity Recovered," line 400.

24Bruce Thomas Boehrer in "Behn's 'Disappointment' and Nashe's 'Choise of Valentines': Pornographic Poetry and the Influence of Anxiety," EIIWZCr16, 2 (Fall 1989): 172-87, reaches a similar conclusion via a very different critical approach.

Z5See the comInents on "poetic performance" in Etherege's poem in Leo Braudy's recent "Remembering Masculinity: Premature Ejaculation Poetry of the Seventeenth Century," MQR 33, 1 (Winter 1994): 177-201, which came to our attention after our own essay was written.

'"therege, lines 39-40.

2'Etherege, lines 41-4.

ZXRochester, "The Imperfect Enjoyment," in The Compkte Poems of John

Wzlmot, Earl of Rochest~r, ed. Vieth (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 37-40. 2"'The Imperfect Enjoyment," lines 43-6.

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