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Study Questions: Aphra Behn and "The Disappointment":

Introduction to Aphra Behn: After her years as a playwright, what experimental (and scandalous) epistolary novel first brought Aphra Behn fame as a novel-writer?
Why did Aphra Behn probably travel to the Low Countries for King Charles II?
Who was John Hoyle and why was he significant in Aphra Behn's life?
What did Virginia Woolf claim all women should do in connection with Aphra Behn? Why did Woolf think this was appropriate?
How is the term "history" used differently in Aphra Behn's day than in modern times?

"The Disappointment":
Vocabulary: Imperfect Enjoyment, situational irony

Character Identification: Cloris, Lysander

  • Why is this poem entitled, "The Disappointment"? How is that an appropriate or inappropriate title? Who is the disappointed person? (Possibly more than one answer here!)
  • Note the twist Aphra Behn makes on the traditional French motif of "imperfect enjoyment," as discussed in the footnote. After reading this poem, do you see the poem as a sexual attack on men? Or as a sexual empowerment of women?
  • What time of day is the setting for the opening stanza of "The Disappointment"? How is this time of the sun going down symbolically or ironically appropriate for later events in the narrative?
  • What is the "lone thicket" made for?
  • What does the verb choice of "permits" suggests about the situation in stanza 14 regarding the relative power of each lover?
  • Why does the girl reach out to meet the man's chest?
  • What two emotions strive with each other in the girl's bright eyes?
  • What does the girl threaten to do if the suitor persists?
    [We shall skip over the R-rated graphic details on lines 31-50--but do note the sexual symbolism of fountains, thrones, altars, and whatnot.]
  • What does the girl offer as a "sacrifice" to love's sacred flame in lines 65-68.
  • What does it mean that the shepherd is himself "o'er ravished" in line 69?
  • What does it mean that the shepherd "cannot perform the sacrifice"?
  • The shepherd is lying down now rather than being positioned over the girl. What does that suggest symbolically?
  • After the man strips off his female lovers clothes and discovers his own (err, ahem) incapacity, what does he do to call "its fleeting vigor back"?
  • When Cloris returns "from the trance" of her desire, Behn states that Cloris gently laid her "timorous hand . . . by design or chance / Upon that fabulous Priapus." What does that bit about "by design or chance" suggest? How could we read this as the female equivalent of sprezzatura? What is the bitter irony about the allusion to Priapus?
  • Once Cloris realizes what has happened to her lover, what happens to her blood?
  • As Cloris runs away from her lover, the stanza describing her abrupt departure alludes to two divine romances--Daphne /Apollo and Venus/Adonis. Why are these mythological allusions appropriate or how do they connect to the poem?
  • The same stanza personifies the wind using anthimeria simultaneously, making it "wanton" in her hair and ruffle her garments. Why is this word-choice appropriate (or bitterly inappropriate?) for the circumstances?
  • What do you make of the first person pronoun appearing in line 131-32?
  • What five things does Lysander curse when he is left alone in the thicket?
  • How do the concluding lines follow the generic conventions of the French "imperfect enjoyment theme" and simultaneously turn those conventions on their head?

Passages for Identification or Discussion:

A. He saw how at her length she lay;
He saw her rising bosom bare;
Her loose thin robes, through which appear
A shape designed for love and play;
Abandoned by her pride and shame
She does her softest joys dispense,
Offering her virgin innocence
A victim to love's sacred flame;
While the o'er-ravished shepherd lies
Unable to perform the sacrifice.

B. The willing garments by he laid,
And heaven all opened to his view.
Mad to possess, himself he threw
On the defenseless lovely maid.
But oh, what envying god conspires
To snatch his power, yet leave him the desire!

C: In vain th'enraged youth essayed
To call its fleeting vigor back;
No motion 'twill from motion take;
Excess of love his love betrayed:
In vain he toils, in vain commands:
The insensible fell weeping in his hand.

D. Finding that god of her desires
Disarmed of all his awful fires,
And cold as flowers bathed in the morning dew. . . .
Who can the nymph's confusion guess?
The blood forsook the hinder place,
And strewed with blushes all her face.

E: He cursed his birth, his fate, his stars;
But more the shepherdess's charms,
Whose soft bewitching influence
Had damned him to the hell of impotence.

Food for Thought: Daring readers might wish to contrast Aphra Behn's feminist twist on the French motif of imperfect enjoyment" with the Earl of Rochester's "The Imperfect Enjoyment," which is more typical of the genre. It can be found in our Norton anthology on pages 2163-2165. WARNING: THE EARL OF ROCHESTER'S POEM IS ESPECIALLY GRAPHIC IN ITS DEPICTION OF SEXUALITY. MODEST AND REFINED READERS UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THIS SUBJECT MIGHT WISH NOT TO EXAMINE IT. If you fall into the latter category, "turn the leef and chese another tale," as Chaucer would put it.


 

 

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