Aphra Behn: Poems Background

Aphra Behn: Poems Background

It is not entirely clear on which day Aphra Behn was born, but we know that she was baptized on December 14th, 1640, in the little church that sat quietly in the shade of Canterbury Cathedral in the south of England where she was born. One of the leading lights of the Restoration period of literature, it is staggering to think that her life has not been dramatized for the big screen, because it was a life filled with firsts, with ground-breaking, and with an adventure that women of her time were generally not able to pursue.

Her early history is sketchy at best; Behn was born during the English Civil War, a series of armed battles between the King's Cavaliers and the Roundheads led by working-class upstart Oliver Cromwell. Behn was a thrill-seeker by nature, Feminist critic Germaine Greer called her a "palimpsest", insinuating that whenever she wanted to change something about her life or her history she simply rubbed herself out, and, like a newly-erased page, gave herself a blank sheet to fill all over again, with no trace of what had gone before.

Behn was the first English woman to earn a living by writing, and much of the time she wrote out of financial necessity, it being the only way she had of staying out of debtors' prison. She did not shy away from topics that were not considered "proper" and her poems, as well as her later plays and novellas, often dealt with the subject of romantic love, and physical attraction. Her work was particularly important to a group of women poets known as The Female Wits. Later, feminists such as Virginia Woolf drew significantly from her work. Behn's poems are not as polished and as literarily skilled as her later work, but they exhibit a versatility and a grace that was to become her trademark in her writing style.

A Voyage To The Island Of Love (1684) and Lycidus: Or The Lover In Fashion (1688) are the best examples of Behn's use of traditionally English classical and pastoral modes. She also wrote about current events in her poems, which made her extremely controversial, and although she allegorized much of what she wrote about, characters and events were still instantly recognizable to those who knew the situations and people involved. Critics complimented her on her masculine style of writing, which was crushingly patronizing since it meant that they believed her poetry to be too clever and subtle to have been written by a woman.

In 1685, Behn publicly declared her conversion to the Roman Catholic faith which caused a stir in the Protestant-dominated England of that time. This was a particularly brave move for a woman of her social standing and many of her contemporaries saw it as a sign of her strength of character. Her conversion also affected her writing, and in her later works, her theme of love often included a religious aspect, as well as a moral one. Her works also contained a strong political element, as she often wrote about the current state of affairs in the country. Her plays, particularly, contained a lot of political commentaries, which was rare for a woman at the time, and her forthrightness was a direct challenge to the patriarchal society of the Restoration period.

In 1689, she wrote her most famous play, The Rover, which had a long and successful run at the theatre and is still performed to this day. The play is a romantic comedy and is considered to be one of the most important works of the period. Behn also wrote novels, short stories, and many poems, some of which were published posthumously. Her later works contained a more mature and reflective tone, as she wrote about the frustrations of aging and the passing of time, which is an insight into her struggles. She was a writer who was strongly ahead of her time and her works are still studied and analyzed to this day.

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