Isle of Lesbos : Poetry : Historical : Aphra Behn


Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (33k JPG image), alleged by Vita Sackville-West to be the first women in England to earn a living as a writer, is a bit of a mystery. Little is known about her background--who her parents were and where she was born--but the details of her life that are known paint the portrait of an intriguing woman.

Aphra lived for a time in Surinam, an experienced that inspired her first novel, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688). She was married for a short time and widowed at age 25. She secured employment as a spy for King Charles II and was sent to Belgium in this capacity. The King refused to pay her return trip, however, and after borrowing the funds to return, she was thrown into debtor's prison.

After leaving prison, Aphra worked hard to make sure she was always capable of supporting herself. She became a successful London playwright and then a novelist. She wrote poetry, feeling that this form allowed her to express her "masculine" side.

Aphra's opinions were unconventional, and because she openly expressed her viewpoints in her lifestyle and through her writing, she was seen as scandalous. Her poetry remarks on romantic relationships with both men and women, discusses rape and impotence, puts forth a woman's right to sexual pleasure, and includes scenes of eroticism between men.

As scandalous as her reputation was to some, her work was well-admired by others and she earned the nickname "The Incomparable Astrea" (referring to her spy codename of Astrea) from these admirers.

Biography by Alix North

Top of page

Selected Works

The Dream

From: A Voyage to the Isle of Love

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. 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!

Top of page

To the Fair Clarinda

Who made love to me, Imagin'd more than woman.

Fair lovely Maid, or if that Title be
Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
This last will justifie my soft complaint,
While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
With thy deluding Form thou giv'st us pain,
While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
In pity to our Sex sure thou wer't sent,
That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we shou'd - thy Form excuses it.
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.

Though beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join'd;
When e'er the Manly part of thee, wou'd plead
Though tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
While we the noblest Passions do extend
The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.

Top of page

Where to Read More

  • Aphra Behn, The Unfortunate Happy Lady: A True History (available online)
  • Aphra Behn, The Rover: Or, The Banish'd Cavaliers (available online)
  • Aphra Behn, The City Heiress (available online)
  • Aphra Behn, Oronooko, or The Royal Slave (available online)
  • Aphra Behn, The Amorous Prince (1671)
  • Aphra Behn, The Lover's Watch (1686)
  • Aphra Behn, Lycidus; or The Lover in Fashion (1688)
  • Aphra Behn, Miscellany, Being a Collection of Poems (1685)
  • Aphra Behn, Poems Upon Several Occasions (1684)
  • Aphra Behn, Translator's Preface to A Discovery of New Worlds (1688)
  • Aphra Behn, A Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684)
  • Aphra Behn, bio and links to links to books (on and by Aphra) for purchase. From Moonstruck Drama Bookstore.
  • The Aphra Behn Page, an exploration of Behn with chronology and articles. (A few articles are in German).
  • Aphra Behn Society, "dedicated to encouraging and advancing research that focuses on issues of gender and/or women's role in the arts of early modern culture, circa 1660-1800."
  • Love Arm'd: Aphra Behn and Her Pen, a play by Karen Eterovic, using the words of Aphra Behn.
  • Montague Summers (Editor), The Works of Aphra Behn, 6 volumes (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1915, 1967)
  • Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial, 1980)
  • W.J. Cameron, New Light on Aphra Behn (Auckland, New Zealand: University of Auckland, 1961)
  • Maureen Duffy, The Passionate Shepherdess (London: Cape, 1977)
  • Germaine Greer, The Uncollected Verse of Aphra Behn (Essex, England: Stump Cross, 1989)
  • Frederick M. Link, Aphra Behn (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968)
  • Mary Ann O'Donnel, Aphra Behn: Annotated Bilbiography of Primary and Secondary Sources (New York: Garland, 1986)
  • Vita Sackville-West, Aphra Behn, The Incomparable Astrea (London: Howe, 1927; New York: Viking, 1928)
  • George Woodcock, The Incomparable Aphra (London: Boardman, 1948)

Top of page