Poetry Wednesday: the Desires of Alpha Behn

National Poetry Month continues, ladies and gentlemen!

So give yourself a gift and think, really think, about something you’ve wanted with everything you have.

A place, a thing, a person. A self.

Something you should have, will have, do have, should never, will never.

Animal, vegetable, mineral. Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief. That person at the bus stop with the biceps. Family.  Lunch. The place you know you’ll belong when you finally find it—the work, the garden, the house, the heart, the body.

Take up a piece of thick, rich paper and a felt-tipped pen.  Offer yourself a glass of wine, a cup of tea, lemonade, a cat, an afghan, a soundtrack.  Describe your desire in every way you can, black ink velveting the pale page.

The scents of spring, the sounds of summer thunderstorm, the touch of a comforting hand, the colors of your favorite pair of eyes, the taste of damp skin—his, hers, theirs—the ache of anticipation, the joy of fulfillment.

Whisper your words to yourself without embarrassment or fear.  Sing the song of longing, feel the delicious slide from attraction to necessity, suspend forever that single, unmasked moment of sharing heat, sharing breath, sharing everything you are—but not . . . quite . . . touching . . . yet.

You still have a couple of weeks to get it just right—or perfectly wrong, if that’s what you need.


Aphra Behn, circa 1670Aphra Behn— rich woman, poor woman, writer, spy*, and all around fascinating lady of mystery—knew how to do this.

Widowed** and abandoned,*** she literally wrote herself out of debtors’ prison with plays and novels that scandalized and titillated and enthralled, and made her one of the best-known writers of her generation, though she maintained that if she’d been a man, no one would have made such a fuss.

She also wrote poetry, as so many did, to fill in the corners, as it were.

After what she’d been through—and she’d certainly been through it, by most accounts—she refused to count on anyone to support her, and I think that might be why several of her poems are so scornful of the romantic ideals of love.

But that didn’t mean she didn’t know what desire was; she just understood that love sometimes has little to do with it :^

The Willing Mistress
(Aphra Behn)

Amyntas led me to a Grove,
Where all the Trees did shade us;
The Sun itself, 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 yielding Boughs.
Down there we sat upon the Moss,
And did begin to playmoss bed
A Thousand Amorous Tricks, to pass
The heat of all the day.
A many Kisses he did give:
And I return’d the same
Which made me willing to receive
That which I dare not name.
His Charming Eyes no Aid requir’d
To tell their softning Tale;
On her that was already fir’d
’Twas easy to prevaile.
He did but Kiss and Clasp me round,
Whilst those his thoughts Exprest:
And lay’d me gently on the Ground;
Ah who can guess the rest?

But she also understood that sometimes it does . . . but that guarantees nothing.

The Dream

(Aphra Behn)

All trembling in my arms Aminta lay,
Defending of the bliss I strove to take;
Raising my rapture by her kind delay,
Her force so charming was and weak.Perchance to dream
The soft resistance did betray the grant,
While I pressed on the heaven of my desires;
Her rising breasts with nimbler motions pant;
Her dying eyes assume new fires.
Now to the height of languishment she grows,
And still her looks new charms put on;
Now the last mystery of Love she knows,
We sigh, and kiss: I waked, and all was done.
‘Twas but a dream, yet by my heart I knew,
Which still was panting, part of it was true:
Oh how I strove the rest to have believed;
Ashamed and angry to be undeceived!


*For Charles I, who refused to pay her or supply passage back to England from Antwerp, thus leading to her financial woes.  As my husband said, “Yep.  That sounds like Charles.”

** See previous footnote.

***Probably.  All we really know is that they were seen together, she took his name, and he died, leaving her with nothing.  Which is presumably why she took the gig with Charles.

^ She also had definite views about consent and coercion. “The Disappointment” is either a poem about a woman being seduced beyond the point of her principles or a man who does not understand that no means no, even when his own body decides it does.  Either way, the poet saves her sympathy for the woman. Read with caution—it’s sensual as all hell, but triggering.

(And if you ever have to do a paper for 17th Century Lit, try comparing Aphra Behn to John Donne—I love the guy, but there’s no escaping his misogynistic tendencies)


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