The Disappointment

The Disappointment Study Guide

First published in 1680, “The Disappointment” is a poem about an unfortunate sexual encounter between Lisander and Cloris, a shepherd and shepherdess in the countryside. When Lisander is unable to maintain an erection, Cloris runs away in disappointment and disgust. The poem was written by 17th-century English poet Aphra Behn and is often considered one of the earliest and most influential feminist poems written by a woman.

"The Disappointment" is one example of the genre of "imperfect enjoyment" poems written in the 17th century. These poems describe sex that is unsatisfying due to male impotence. Behn adapted the "imperfect enjoyment" theme to focus on the effect of unrealized desire on the female partner.

Behn's poem is based on the French poem "Sur une impuissance" by de Cantenac (1661). However, it is more of a reinterpretation than a direct translation. The setting of the original poem is urban rather than pastoral and has an unsuccessful lover come back the next day to have sex with the married woman he is seeing. In "The Disappointment" the setting is rural and the desire is never consummated.

“The Disappointment” was first published in 1680. Its inclusion in the collection Poems on Several Occasions by the Earl of Rochester caused many to assume that Rochester was the author, a misapprehension that persisted for the next several years. Behn was finally rewarded with the recognition she deserved with the republication of the poem in Aphra Behn’s Poems on Several Occasions (1684). Despite this belated recognition and Behn’s status as one of the most commercially successful writers of the era, she quickly fell out of favor, dying in poverty and seemingly destined to remain hidden in obscurity. The fact that Behn was an unconventionally outspoken critic of patriarchal principles and expectations may have contributed to her eventual decline.

After her death, Behn's reputation languished in obscurity until the late 19th century. When Virginia Woolf declared that all women writers owed a great debt to the new foundation laid by Behn, Behn's reputation was solidified for modern readers.