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Behn, Aphra (ca 1640-1689)  
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Behn's poetry, therefore, was, in a sense, less public than her plays or her prose fiction since it depended, in many cases, on the enlightened audience's recognition of her topics for full comprehension of both the expression and implications of her verse. Such poetic technique involved a skill and craft that earned her the compliments of her cohorts as one who, despite her female form, had a male intelligence and masculine powers of reason.

Since the term implied not only a female with male characteristics of reason, but one with a presumptively male attraction to other women, this high praise was a tacit recognition of Behn's sexual identity as well as a compliment to her verse.

In Poems upon Several Occasions (1684), the portrayal of many relationships is in the traditional pastoral mode, and several poems present the classical concept of the androgyne or as the basis for same-sex eroticism.

In the poem "A Farewel to Celladon, On his Going into Ireland," an intimate male friendship is elevated over politics and commerce. These verses ask Celladon why he bothers with boring government business ("To Toyl, be Dull, and to be Great"), when he knows that success will not bring happiness. It is more important, the speaker advises him, to enjoy the company of his close friend, Damon, to whom Celladon is "by Sacred Friendship ty'd," and from whom "Love nor Fate can nere divide" him.

In other poems as well, there is a precedence of close personal relationships over public enterprise. Among these is one section, "Mr. Ed. Bed.," in "our Cabal," a long poem describing Behn's social circle in which "Friendship" that is "Too amorous for a Swain to a Swain" describes the relationship between Philander and Lycidas in conventionally androgynous terms, with clear overtones of sexuality. Philander, she writes, "nere paid / A Sigh or Tear to any Maid . . . / But all the Love he ever knew, / On Lycidas he does bestow."

Homoeroticism is standard in Behn's verse, either in descriptions such as these of male-to-male relationships or in depictions of her own attractions to women. Behn was married and widowed early, and as a mature woman, her primary publicly acknowledged relationship was with a gay male, John Hoyle, himself the subject of much scandal. Behn was known to have had male lovers throughout her lifetime, most notably the man allegorized as "Amyntas" in her verses, but she also writes explicitly of the love of women for each other.

Just as the emotional and physical closeness of males is justified by their androgynous qualities, so, for women, hermaphroditic characteristics transcend conventional boundaries by allowing the enjoyment of female and male qualities in the lovers.

The breaking of boundaries in poetry, as in her life, caused Behn to be criticized as well as admired publicly. Her best known poem, "The Disappointment," finely illustrates Behn's ability to portray scandalous material in a somewhat acceptable form. The poem is usually read as a depiction of the frustrations of impotence: Cloris, having been aroused by Lysander, flees from him in shame, and the lovers are both disappointed by Lysander's inability to consummate their relationship.

But the text has another interpretation that illustrates Behn's ability to layer diverse meanings in her poems. In this reading, the poem presents a woman's point of view on how rape may be disguised as courtship. For Cloris, defloration is a fate worse than death, and she will not endure dishonor even for one she loves. When Lysander continues to force her "without Respect," she lies "half dead" and shows "no signs of life" but breathing.

Traditionally, her passion and breathlessness have been read as sexual arousal, but they might just as easily be read as signs of her struggle to escape Lysander, which exhausts her. As soon as her struggle ends, he is "unable to perform." When Cloris is unconscious, Lysander tries self-stimulation, ostensibly to continue the attack.

Upon awakening, Cloris is unsympathetic, and takes the first opportunity she has to run away. Lysander's rage, which is more that of a thwarted assailant than an embarrassed lover, is greater than mere disappointment--he rants at the gods and the universe for his impotence and accuses Cloris of witchcraft.

In contrast, the joys of love are presented in such other poems as "SONG: The Willing Mistriss," which describes how the female speaker becomes so aroused by the excellent courtship of her lover that she is "willing to receive / That which I dare not name." After three verses describing their lovemaking, she concludes with the coy suggestion, "Ah who can guess the rest?"

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