Poetic Feminism in Aphra Behn's 17th Century Poem “The Disappointment”

Updated on July 4, 2016
"Lady in a Garden" Edmund Leighton
"Lady in a Garden" Edmund Leighton | Source

Authors have shared their views, hopes, and aspirations through literature for centuries. The literature of 17th century England offered many examples of authors presenting their opinions and ideals. One particular poem would be Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment.” This poem represents the female role in a patriarchal society. Behn’s ideal of improved status of women is clearly reflected in this poem of love, sex, and power. Behn uses traditional poetic language and form to capture the modern hope of equality for women.

“The Disappointment”

Aphra Behn’s poem “The Disappointment” offers a scandalous tale presented in a charming and traditionally poetic way. Behn offers her interpretation of gender roles in a readily accepted form. The poem tells of a woman, Cloris, and a man, Lysander. Although it is implied that the couple are in love, Cloris refuses sexual advances from Lysander “cease…or I’ll call out…my dearer honor even to you I cannot, must not give – retire, or take this life” (Behn, 2006, p. 925, 25-29). Ignoring her refusal Lysander forces himself on her, removes her clothes, and attempts to rape Cloris. Despite his passion for Cloris Lysander remains impotent. He curses the Gods and blames Cloris for his difficulty “he cursed his birth, his fate…but more the shepherdess’s charms, whose soft bewitching influence had damned him to the hell of impotence” (Behn, 2006, p. 927, 137-140). The poem represents the gender roles of male dominance and female submission.

"Aphra Behn" painted by Sir Peter Lely 1670
"Aphra Behn" painted by Sir Peter Lely 1670 | Source

Behn’s Ideal

Gender Roles and Power

To fully understand Aphra Behn’s argument of feminism one must consider gender roles of the 17th century. It was generally accepted in this period that women and men held distinctive characteristics. These views evolved from classical thought, Christian ideology, and contemporary science and medicine (The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 2012). Physical and mental make up attributed to differences in qualities and virtues. Men were perceived as physically stronger, and therefore more intelligent, courageous, determined, although also more violent, stubborn, and selfish (The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 2012). Women were considered to be weaker and therefore more passive. They were also viewed to be more emotional, shrewish, lazy, and ruled by their bodies specifically through excessive passion and lust (The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 2012). Men were considered the bread-winners and ruled over their wives. Women were responsible for domestic duties, and although they may work outside the home this was often in domestic work and paid much less than men received. Women were also expected to be modest, chaste, compassionate, and pious.

"The Rape of Proserpine" by Simone Pignoni 1650
"The Rape of Proserpine" by Simone Pignoni 1650 | Source

Poetic Representation

Aphra Behn was one of the first recognized female poets and playwrights of the time. Her work allowed readers and peers to understand that women were capable of intelligence and greatness too. Her poem “The Disappointment” offers a classic representation of lovers in poetic form, but ties in the disturbing issue of male dominance and fight for power of the period. Cloris recognizes the period expectations of chastity and honor. She fights off Lysander’s advances despite the widely accepted practice of women’s submission. Behn presents the accepted gender classification of male dominance as Lysander takes what he wants from the unwilling Cloris. Further tying in to gender roles is Cloris’ passionate responses to Lysander. This can be misleading to the poem, and has been open for debate by many critics. Some call the encounter rape, others consider Cloris giving in and although ashamed happily participates (Sexton, 2008). Further argument highlights Cloris going into a “trance” from which she emerges near the end of the poem “Cloris returning from the trance which love and soft desire had bred” (Behn, 2006, p. 926, 101-102). Behn presents the attempted rape of Cloris as evidence of male dominance and gender issues of the period.

Suggested Reshaping of Humanity, Society, or Social Practice

The emergence of literary greats, such as Aphra Behn herself, offers the perfect platform for expression during this period of questioning, science, and knowledge. The 17th and 18th centuries called into question social issues, such as negative gender stereotypes and oppression. Works such as “The Disappointment” call to attention the mistreatment of women by men in this patriarchal society. Although women’s suffrage will not take place until the 19th century, the early workings of feminists like Aphra Behn caused people to take notice. Behn cleverly uses a classical format in her romantic poetry to present her feminist views.

"Pia de Tomelomei" by Dante Gabriel Rossitti
"Pia de Tomelomei" by Dante Gabriel Rossitti | Source


Poetic Techniques Used to Convey Ideal

Since the content of “The Disappointment” could have been considered scandalous, and had implications of anti-patriarchal aims for society Behn formatted this modern tale into a traditional form. The rhyme and meter are presented in iambic tetrameter quatrains with rhyming patterns mimicking Shakespearian sonnets (WPMU, 2013). Behn’s use of this classic format presents the antiquated preconceptions of gender role. She ties in classical thought with a more modern viewpoint, although she does not offer her specific views on feminism. Linguistically Behn offers rich imagery of the encounter with mental depictions of passion tied to nature “where gods of love do sacrifice…that fountain where delight still flows and gives the universal world repose” (Behn, 2006, p. 925, 46-50). She presents the horrors of rape through the passionate perspective of beauty creating a classical poem that stirs the reader’s emotions with mental imagery. Behn also employs irony as Lysander finally overpowers Cloris and finds himself incapable of fulfilling his goal of domination “the poor Lysander in despair…should the nobler part inflame served to increase his rage and shame and left no spark for new desire” (Behn, 2006, p. 926, 93-98).

Success of Linguistic Representations

Aphra Behn was certainly successful at representing the situation of oppression of women in patriarchal society. Behn was recognized as one of the first English feminists and offered the first English feminist literature (Cengage Learning, 2013). “The Disappointment” presents a female interpretation of John Wilmot’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment.” Wilmot’s representation focuses on a more erotic depiction, the woman as fully submissive and enjoying the encounter, and the man’s impotence and failure through his inability to complete the conquest. Behn presents a similar situation in a more demure manner, expected of females of the time, a woman who attempts to retain her honor, and the man as brute force. Behn’s representations offer more interpretation on societal roles, and Wilmot’s focus remains on the sex act. Behn’s poem is a linguistically pleasing poem of beauty and love in the spirit of traditional poetry. She succeeds in conveying her message by safely representing gender roles in an acceptable format allowing the work to have more wide appeal bringing her ideal to a larger audience.

Women's Suffrage Parade New York 1912
Women's Suffrage Parade New York 1912 | Source

Literary works often convey the perspectives, opinions, and ideals of the author. Behn’s poem “The Disappointment” offers her ideal of a more equal society. The patriarchal society of the 17th century was borne of the classical study and Christian beliefs of the past. In the age of questioning Aphra Behn does not accept this classification of women as feeble-minded, weak, and inferior. Unfortunately, history reveals that equal rights for women does not take place quickly. Behn’s work and the quest for knowledge in the 17th century evolve into a society in the 18th and 19th centuries when social issues are brought to the forefront. The women’s suffrage movement fighting for equal rights for women and the right to vote evolved from the works of early feminists like Aphra Behn. Behn was one of the first English feminists, and her ideal of a society where women are accepted as equals is clearly expressed in her beautiful poetry.


Abrams, M., & Greenblatt, S. (Eds.) (2006). The Norton anthology of English literature: The major authors (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Behn, A. (2006). The disappointment. The Norton anthology of English literature: The major authors (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Cengage Learning. (2013). Aphra Behn’s English feminism: Wit and satire. Retrieved from http://www.questia.com/library/119093735/aphra-behn-s-english-feminism-wit-and-satire

Poetry Foundation. (2013). Aphra Behn. Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/aphra-behn

Poetry Foundation. (2013). The disappointment. Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/17289

Sexton, T. (2008 January 3). The disappointment: Aphra Behn’s obsession with desire, shame, and honor. Retrieved from http://voices.yahoo.com/the-disappointment-aphra-behns-obsession-desire-760939.html?cat=38

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. (2012). Historical background: Gender in the proceedings. Retrieved from http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gender

WPMU. (2013). Aphra Behn. Retrieved from http://spdgalusha.edublogs.org/tag/the-disappointment/

Hardcover Edition of Aphra Behn's Works

Questions & Answers


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      • Astra Nomik profile image

        Cathy Nerujen 

        6 years ago from Edge of Reality and Known Space

        I love this topic. I wish more hubbers explored the role of women in writing and literature in general. Poetic feminism is a much different topic now to what it was a hundred years ago. Some things have changed for the better. :)


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