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Chapter One:  
Aphra Behn  

Aphra Behn is very important in the history of women`s writing, both as the first professional woman writer and for the potentially scandalous content of the writing itself. She had the courage to use erotic content and was both praised and condemned for her libertine ideas. Opinions spoken about her during her lifetime ranged from the suggestion that enjoyment of her words was much like being seduced by her (Spenser 42), to the suggestion that she was, as a woman, capable of selling her bawdy writing, she was also capable of selling herself, as a prostitute (Spenser 28). Scholarship over the years have developed a general opinion that her poetry is groundbreaking for its examination of the male-centred society during the Restoration, especially as it pertains to personal relationships. Certainly, she is groundbreaking as part of an overall movement, the era of the so-called libertine writer of the Restoration. Many of these male libertines wrote graphically, sometime cruelly, on sexuality, yet Aphra Behn was singled out for being a woman who dared to write about the problems women face in sexual relationships and who formulated a solution of sorts in the poem "The Golden Age," a vision of a sexual utopia. This sexual utopia is what a number of scholars focus upon when discussing the radical nature of Behn`s poetry. Achsah Guibbory, in her article "Sexual Political/Political Sex," says that Behn`s vision is of a natural world in which its "peaceful, soft sensuality [is] devoid of the inequalities and hierarchies engendered by disparities in power." (Guibbory 218) Elizabeth V. Young, in her article "Aphra Behn, Gender, and Pastoral," says that the pastoral convention of nostalgia which is presented in this poem enables Behn to present a world vision without gender social structure (Young 14). Finally, Jessica Munns`s article "But to the Touch were soft" states that, while the author believes Behn assumes a male voice in the poem, the actual content describes "a very  


explicitly female paradise." (Munns 185). In other words, the poem expresses a new world where women are allowed to express sexual desires without reprimand, and, with that, an independence which did not exist in the real world of Behn`s time. The depiction of women in particular is seen as unique to the times, since Behn`s utopian poem is all about a world where women and men are free from the real, cruel world. As with all utopian poems, this one attempts to convince that the utopian world is the natural world, and therefore, all activities in it are both natural and good, while the real world is corrupt and man-made. This world of sensuality existed before "rough sound of Wars Alarms" ("Age" 49), when "Monarchs were uncreated then" ("Age" 50), and before "Kings that made Laws, first broke 'em, and the Gods / By teaching us Religion first, first set the World at Odds" ("Age" 53-54). The institutions during Behn`s time, the poem suggests, make women ashamed of their true character, instead of celebrating it, and what Behn`s poem does, according to Guibbory, is dismantle and deconstruct the structures of dominance and submission (Guibbory 222); where women do not submit to men, but to their own desires (Guibbory 218). Behn herself seems to concur when she compares the utopian relations between the sexes to that between man and the natural world: "The stubborn Plough had then, / Made no rude Rapes upon the Virgin Earth; / Who yielded of her own accord her plentious Birth ("Age" 31-33);" Just as the natural world is depicted as non-aggressive and egalitarian, before civilization entered with its "aggressively phallic, masculine thirst for power and dominance" (Guibbory 220), relations between men and women are naturally in a state of natural beauty, far removed from the "civilized" world in which men overpower women for the sake of it, while women are abused and neglected.  

Neglect, specifically, plays a role in other poems, in which the cruelty of unfaithful and  


fickle men are exposed. In "To Alexis in Answer to his Poem against Fruition", she repeats the libertine philosophy espoused by such people as the Earl of Rochester ( "Since Man with that inconstancy was born, / To love the absent, and the present scorn ("Fruition" 15-16)."), only to show us the pain and emotion which affects the woman. A strong example is in "The Reflection: a song": "For as my Kindling Flames increase, / Yours glimmeringly decay" ("The Reflection: A song" 45-46). The libertine is more interested in spreading their passion to as many bodies as possible, not in allowing the woman to feel as if she has been cared for, that her presence is welcome: "Thy Eyes in Silence told their tale / Of love in such a way, / That 'twas as easie to Prevail, / As after to Betray" ("Reflection" 25-29). The libertines are so self-interested, so engrossed in their own belief that they should sleep with as many women as possible, that they can occasionally find themselves unable to perform what they are so wanting to do. The poem "The Disappointment" depicts such an event, when Lysander becomes impotent before he is able to complete the sexual encounter with Cloris. Lysander`s problem is that he is completely self-absorbed, completely "mad to possess ("Disappointment" 77)" the woman, the sexual object before him, that he becomes too excited, and becomes impotent, ruining any sexual mood.  

What we see here is a consequence of men using women like sex objects. Women are unhappy, while men are selfish. The women are depicted as being in a state of sorrow and confusion, not happiness, because of the behaviour of the libertines. The poems concerning inconstancy seem to properly critique libertine behaviour, such as that expressed by the Earl of Rochester. Behn's intention seems to be to portray women as individuals who do not deserve to be treated so poorly. The women in these tales of sexual relations gone awry, she argues, should not be treated as sexual slaves, because only emotional injury would result. In the utopian poem  


itself, Behn argues against such restrictive elements of the real world such as shame and honour. "O cursed Honour! Thou who first didst damn, / A woman to the sin of shame; / Honour! That robb`st us of our gust, / Honour! That hindered mankind first, / At loves eternal spring to quench his amourous thirst ("Age" 117-121)." Poems written by male libertines, as mentioned earlier in this paper, depict sexually active women in harsh, base terms, and employed a double standard where the men were permitted, even obliged, to sleep with numerous women, yet women themselves were told to be passive, and that to enjoy sex is a heinous sin. Behn`s comment on honour suggests that such societal beliefs hinder the natural feelings, the "gust", as Behn says in "The Golden Age", of women, and, overall, blocks the natural flow of love and sex. A reader`s assumption, then, is that women, in this new world, will be depicted as free and whole, sexually and physically free, instead of trapped in sexual slavery or portrayed as only lewd sexual body parts. Behn`s conclusion to her argument is rather interesting, though. She says "Thou empty vision hence, be gone / And let the peaceful Swain love on ("Age" 175)". This is a very important line, because it is not saying that the woman should love on alongside the men, but that the empty vision which honour and chastity represent is a hindrance to men's loving on. This line is not followed with anything like "the peaceful maiden love on, as well." Yet this is meant to be Behn`s utopia; a world where sex and love reign supreme; where women`s sexuality is not shameful. To merely say let the man love on would seem rather redundant, as men always had the right to take whomever they wanted, while women were not. My introduction stated that an alternative depiction of women would give voice to female experience, and to the wrongs which a male-centered society inflict upon women's autonomy. But female emancipation is not what Behn emphasises, but male freedom. There is obviously a huge issue which Behn wants to  


express, which has nothing to do with female freedom, even as women are part of this new sexual dynamic. And since this utopia can be seen as a perfect realization of a particular concern of the artist, then the depictions which exist in "The Golden Age" also exist in her other poems to some degree. So the question we have to answer is what sort of depiction of women exists in Behn's poetry, and is it actually different from her contemporaries?  

Behn's interest in the pastoral genre, which is an integral part of her utopian vision, is used to similar effect in a number of other poems, and the characters within these poems are very similar as well. "On a Juniper Tree, cut down to Make Busks" is a poem that for all intents and purposes, is very similar to that of "The Golden Age." "Juniper" is set in a pastoral countryside: the two lovers are young, idealized and perfect, and the romantic situation is painted with passion, not ambiguity or negativity. Yet the language of this passion is very peculiar. In depicting the growing closeness of the lovers, Behn presents intimacy in terms of a battle: "He growing more fierce, and she less Coy" ("Juniper" 44), "Impatient he waits no consent / But what she gave by Languishment, / The blessed Minute he pursu'd / [Whilst Love, her fear, and shame subdu'd]" ("Juniper" 50-53). , and finally, "Now transported in his arms / Yields to the Conqueror all her charms" ("Juniper" 54-55). The lovers behave like two enemies, with the loser resigned to giving herself up for the use of the victor. The male character is the one expressing all the power and the sexual aggression, while the woman is tamed, persuaded to give in to his desire. Another poem with a pastoral setting, "The Disappointment," depicts women as spoils after a battle. "All her Unguarded Beauties lie / The Spoils and Trophies of the Enemy" ("Disappointment 39-40). Lysander`s own actions are like that of a conquest: "Mad to possess, himself he threw / On the defenceless lovely maid" ("Disappointment" 77-78).  


Most important, as the spoils and trophies of the enemy, the females depicted in these poems do not hold the same amount of power or strength of will as the men, but are weak, mild, and passive. These traits are not held up for criticism, but are presented as entirely natural within the woman, and in the context of the sex acts. The woman in "On a Juniper Tree" is not depicted as a real victim of a sexual attack, just a woman who needs a little encouragement to go all the way. And Cloris, in "The Disappointment," is also depicted as a woman who is taken by surprise, and attacked with sexual overtures, and whose situation is placed in the context of strong desire, instead of violence. "By an impatient passion swayed, / (Lysander) surprised fair Cloris, that loved maid, / Who could defend herself no longer ("The Disappointment" 2-4)." "She cried -- Cease, cease -- your vain desire, / Or I`ll call out -- what would you do? ("Disappointment" 25-26)." In both cases, the woman is timid and reluctant about going through with this experience. The woman is seen as someone who cannot get away from the attack of the man, yet the implication is that the woman is meant to experience the joys of sex, while the man gets to experience, finally, the beauty which he yearned for. This dynamic is a muted version of what came later, the Victorian pornography. Both depict a situation in which a woman, at the very least, appears not to want sex, yet what ends up happening is that the woman is attacked anyway, and then realizes that there was no need to object to rape (Webb 94). While the actions in Behn are far less brutal, the attitude is that women are supposed to be taken by men. This is interesting because the conclusion of "The Disappointment" ends badly for both partners; the man is impotent and the woman runs away. Most critics see this poem as a critique of patriarchal relations, but it appears in my view, and in light of the evidence, that the poem is only negative because the man was impotent, not because the woman was upset. It is telling that, as she runs  


off, the poet does not talk about Cloris`s feelings ("The nymph`s resentments none but I / Can well imagine or condole" ("The Disappointment" 131-32).), but only on the man and his wounded pride. The poem is not a savage critique but a sexual screwball comedy, poking fun at virility. The joke is that the man is so excited, he becomes impotent. The punch line is that the woman is embarrassed and runs off, afraid of this failed lover who cannot prove himself. The poem does not make any references to any sort of sexual imbalance, and does not make much out of the woman's own feelings. She merely goes through the motions of coyness, and then runs off frightened when things go wrong. The woman`s repression, owing to the inability to adequately express herself in the sexual situation, is not noted.  

What "The Golden Age" does is bring to the foreground the true nature of Behn`s depictions. Instead of merely showing us a pastoral environment suited for love, Behn's narrator tells us exactly what the proper elements for such love are:  

"The yielding Maid but kind Resistance makes; / Trembling and blushing are not marks of shame, / But the Effect of kindling Flame / Which from the sighing burning swain she takes, / While she with tears all soft, and downcast eyes / Permits the Charming Conqueror to win the prize. ("Age" 99-104)"  

We are presented, in these lines, a detailed rundown of what is supposed to happen in this world which disposed of honour and sexual shame. But the woman depicted here is scared and submissive, just like that of Cloris from "The Disappointment," and the woman in "On a Juniper Tree." The yielding maid is not lusty and aggressive. The only difference between Behn`s description and rape is that the words "kind" and "soft" are used to describe the acts (Markley 310), which defuse the dark realities of the poem. Like my other examples, the situation in this  


utopia does not give the appearance of consensual sex. The man wants this woman, and despite her protests, she suffers his lustful desires, and lays down for him. This peaceful swain is allowed to love on, while his objects of desire submit to him, even as they blush and tremble and cry.  

During the Renaissance period, a number of works similar to Behn's creation were written by male poets such as Donne, Herrick and others. These works presented a vision of the world where the representation of the female is controlled by male desire (Cunnar 180), and gave a number of reasons why female honour ought to be banished from the perfect society. Chastity, possessiveness, prudery, and so on, are destructive to love (Cunnar 182), or more accurately, men`s pursuit of women. The male poets attempt to reestablish male sovereignty, by attacking the female dominance that they feel exists in love (Guibbory 206). The female dominance is what is represented by honour, chastity and shame -- these things do not allow men to be free to hunt the female, any female, they so desire. A number of these poems, like, for example, Carew`s "A Rapture," contain the metaphor of woman as land and property (Guibbory 208), which will, in the new utopia, be accessible to all men, at any time. An essay by one named Montaigue, quoted in the Cunnar essay, states that the women in these utopias should always be obedient and available, Essentially, the sexual utopia is a place where men`s sexuality is not threatened by the woman, either by not reciprocating his demands or by overpowering him (Cunnar 182). A man would basically not have to respect any sense of honour, or restraint, because such conventions are merely overbearing institutions meant to impede natural law. He can do as he chooses, and at the same time, the women whom he desires will accept those urges and not avoid him, because they no longer have any excuse to do so. The man`s desires for women, and the women`s acceptance of such, is, in this environment, not so much an egalitarian situation as it is a kind of peaceful  


slavery. The ideal is of a world where women would be common property for all men to possess, and yet, those women will approve of it. Women should be "free" to submit, while men should be "free" to possess (Guibbory 209). And what makes "The Golden Age" an extraordinary poem is that it is the female writer who claims these very same ideas. She makes the women bear the brunt of changes needed to make this new utopia come to life. Just as with the male poets, Behn also attempts to persuade female readers to throw away their uptightness about sex. The reason for this is not so women can be free, however, because the women have value only within an exchange economy (Markley 314). Just like in the other utopian poems, women are depicted only as objects of exchange. In the real society, a woman who withholds her chastity is doing so only for market value (Markley 314), like finding a better husband. In this utopia, however, no such system exists; men get to have women for free, and women cannot tell men that they cannot have them. The women cannot control the game anymore, and say that they will only sleep with those who will marry them and, with it, give them a better living. Women must now submit to men who are interested in them, not those with money. The belief that women only hold back because of hope for a better offer is not a primary concern, however, as much as it is an excuse for strengthening the main argument, which is that, in a utopian world, men will have their take of the beautiful maidens in the wonderful countryside, while the women will happily submit, or, at least, obediently submit.  

Behn does another interesting thing by devoting her final stanza to a reworking of the standard motif in seduction poems, the carpe diem or "seize the day" motif. The idea is that the woman ought to give in to the man`s desires, instead of waiting for a specific man of her dreams, because when she grows older, nobody will ever desire her in her old age. By frightening her  


with the truth of her mortality and decay, she will submit to his demands. Behn uses exactly the same language and fear in this poem as well: "the fresh Roses on your cheeks shall die, / Like flowers that wither in the Shade, / Eternally they will forgotten lye, / And no kind Spring their sweetness will supply ("Age" 185-89)." Because this is written by a woman to other women, seduction is not the issue, but advice. The advice seems to be that women should let go of their constraints and be free, and sexually willing. The male utopias create a double standard for freedom, and "The Golden Age" does as well. Men are free to pick and chose the beautiful maidens, while those maidens are free to lay back and let the men enjoy them. "The Nymphs were free, no nice, no coy disdain, / Deny`d their joyes, or gave the Lover Pain " Aphra Behn does not state anywhere the need for women to be pleasured in the act of sex. The implication in this line is that the women are happy (free) because the man has had sexual pleasure, and was not rebuffed by the modest maiden. The woman is not meant to be orgasmic, just permissive of the man being orgasmic because of her. The woman is also meant to realize that her previous state of chastity (which was already revealed by the other poets as a front for a wish for more money and a better state of living) is life-draining; by acting modest and chaste all the time, she is letting her life pass her by, which is, in actuality, a life of sexual servitude.  

"The Golden Age" emphasizes women's "freedom"more than their supposed control, yet another poem by Behn states quite clearly the extreme of what such a utopia fights against. The poem "A letter to the Earl of Kildare" pleas with the title character not to marry Moll Howard, as "whoring has all her life-time been her trade / And Dorset says, she is an exc'llent bawd." She will only accept money from clients, and has them under her thumb because she can take them to court if they don`t pay up. Moll Howard is seen by Behn, not as a victim of a society in which  


women only had a few choices -- marriage, or prostitution -- but as an aggressive woman who rips people off and who only goes out with the men who will pay. As well, she will blackmail men who do not pay her for her services. A man, who has more choice in a capitalistic society, would expect the other person to fulfill a contract or other methods of exchange, but the prostitute, by doing so, is branded a piece of trash. By having moved up in the world, she is preventing a man from retaining a high position in the world. The Earl will "wound (his) honour, purse, and body too (Earl 34)" for giving her an even better living than she had before, and for harbouring a person who, in order "to quench her lustful, hot desire, / Has kissed with dukes, lords, knights, and country squire ("Howard" 14-15). In short, she will accept sex and money from any person of any class. The woman is not an acceptable person because she asks for money; she expects payment (which can be seen as a form of obedience for the men who must pay her) for sex; she will only sleep with men who she thinks will fulfill the bargain; and she will find a way to punish those who cheat her. Moll is the one exercising her choice on these matters. Yet the men who select women of their own to sleep with, and who expect obedience (in this case, purely sexual), are not seen as corrupt. This attitude, that sexually assertive women are deviant, exists in that of a male writer who is also Behn`s idol, the Earl of Rochester. While his poem "A Ramble in St. James Park" does not make reference to an actual prostitute, it does depict a particular woman, with whom the narrator has had a relationship, with equally disapproving words. Her attractiveness is presented as "The savoury scent of salt-swol'n cunt ("Ramble" 86)" . This scent is as a result of promiscuity, a trait which Rochester himself proclaimed as necessary to nature in "Against Constancy," but in a woman is obviously something horrible, hence the savoury scent of a woman`s sexual organs. Alongside female promiscuity is the fact  


that the woman has slept with other men besides the narrator.  

"Why this treachery / To humble, fond, believing me, / Who gave you privileges  

above / The nice allowances of love? / Did ever I refuse to bear / The meanest part  

your lust could spare? / When your lewd cunt came spewing home / Drenched with  

the seed of half the town / My dram of sperm was supped up after / For the digestive surfeit water ("Ramble" 107-116)"  

and so on. The woman is trash because she actually picks and chooses her men. The man is the sort who can not peacefully love on in the real world, because he cannot depend on the woman he is having relations with. He sees her as withholding his right to sex. Promiscuity is the same as chastity in this world, except that the prostitute will take any amount of money, again and again, not one lump sum as part of a marriage. In either case, women are depicted as monsters if they decide to take control of their sexual adventures. A woman who prides herself in honour and in retaining her chastity is a monster because she does not submit to men who want to seduce her. Those men then experience pain and frustration for not being able to have her. A woman who is promiscuous or a prostitute is a monster because she takes from men their money and livelihood, and only submits to the man of her choice, frustrating the man who cannot trust that this woman only submits to him. All these frustrations result in words of scorn from men, and the problem which needs to be solved is how to rein in this anger, which is done by making sure that men and women know their place in the scheme of things.  

In the utopia, the flippant actions of women and the harsh words of men do not exist, because everybody is happy, and knows their place. "Beneath whose 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 ("Age" 44- 48)." If women act exactly as they are supposed to, and the men enjoy it, then of course there is no spightful venom, because the women do not do the unpredictable and behave with an independent spirit. While a number of critics believe that what we are seeing is equality in action, in truth, there really is an unequal balance of power. There would be venom if a woman decided to only sleep with men who had money, or if she decided to take a stroll and flirt with other guys. The happiness lies in the fact that everyone knows his or her "place," and have seen the light, that to rebel against it is to degrade oneself. Women`s place in the new world is to submit to man`s desires, and to enjoy it. And, even in this new world, women are still expected to act modest, to put up a bit of a fight before they succumb to sex. The fact that the women are portrayed as happy tells us is that these women enjoy sex in this fashion; as partners who submit, who are taken. The major implication of this so-called freedom in submission is that a woman does not necessarily say what she means (Gardiner 278). The women in "The Golden Age," and in the other poems, may need to be convinced, but are not really being attacked, because the men know that the women will soon find themselves in ecstasy. Behn is saying that women who resist sex are, deep down, yearning for it, yet at the same time, do not, and should not, act assertive about it. Women enjoy being taken, being forced. The problem is not that women are forced into having sex, but that Honour and shame stigmatize women`s sexual feelings. If one were to twist this, Behn could be saying that a woman should not feel guilt or shame if she were raped, but Behn seems to suggest that rape does not exist in this new world, because women naturally accept the desires of virile men. The guilt and shame exist because women were taught to think that sex was wrong, so what Behn tells women to do is to throw away all that guilt and gladly  


submit to anyone who finds them desirable, because, deep down, women want sexual attention. The removal of honour, therefore, does not make women as free as the men, since the women`s purpose is to be sexual objects for men, and the "only choices (for women) are to wither and die or to have a few orgasms and then wither and die." (Markley 318) This does not exactly give hope to repressed females reading this poem during the Restoration, since the poem, in truth, does not reverse any situation, or open up a huge door of diverse opportunities for women, but only continues the repression women have always had. She cannot have a life of her own in such a society. Now, instead of being forced to marry for money and a decent livelihood instead of love, a woman will just be forced into having sex, and she cannot escape either of these things. If we were to take the extreme example and present a golden age female, who literally can`t turn around without another man showing his affections and demanding sexual favours as part of the idea that the swain must love on, how would the poor woman be able to live her own life? She would have the life of a prostitute, or a porn star, never escaping the sexual demands of the men. If she actually wanted to have a different kind of life, she would be accused of straying from her nature, disappointing the men and their natural impulses. Wouldn`t that be the same problem which already existed for women at the time? The real world also told women where they belonged in the scheme of things, and this did not include a life of independence. In both cases, sex is the deciding factor. In the real world, women were discouraged from dealing with sex in any fashion, while in the golden age, women are encouraged to be sexual machines above all else, and to make men happy. Aphra Behn claims that in this new world, women are not repressed, even though they clearly are, since they are still given limited choices. She also makes her claim to women`s passive nature by a confusion of cause and effect. She seems to think that the cause of the  


oppression of women is due to misinterpretation and/or condemnation of women`s passive nature, when it would more likely be the public condemnation of women`s sexuality and behaviour which causes women to be careful and passive. She thinks that Honour shames women for their passivity, instead of shaming them to passivity.  

The irony of her stance is the fact that she is claiming, probably quite sincerely, to present an alternative world view, one in which women would be treated more fairly. Her intentions are far from sinister. The fact that she brings up men`s inconstancy means that she has thought about the problems women face. It is clear that Behn sees the outward coldness of certain men to be a genuine problem. Another aspect of her phrase "No Spiteful Venom" involves the newly gentler man, one who does not talk about women in vile, reprehensible ways. Women's sexuality was highly regulated, and, to be fair to "The Golden Age," its promise of free sexuality, and the beauty of the natural world, is very seductive, especially for the many critics who see this poem in terms of its positive sections. Yet the reason this vision of a new sexual world was brought forward is because Behn, and others of her time, saw women as part of a hurtful campaign to frustrate men, who in turn, behaved the way they did towards women. Women themselves are not depicted in this poem as women who have sexual assertiveness, because that is monstrous, like the Moll Howard character. Also, her sympathies toward the libertine cause and its philosophy of tweaking the very notions of romantic love, as well as her conservative Toryism (Markley 319), mean that the world she envisions is one which supports those sympathies. She must present a world which, at least subtly, represents the ideal of the elite. A libertine would love to be in a world where he did not have to worry about whether women were of a particular class, and where all the women were easy to seduce. She is able to reproduce that work quite well, so much so  


that some modern scholars take Behn to task for being too masculine in her writing; imitating the works of male libertines (Spenser 44). So while Behn`s poems are sensual, erotic, and daring, they are not an alternative to other works of her day. They still depict women as passive, masochistic, and submissive.  

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