“The Disappointment” narrates a sexual encounter between a shepherd, Lisander, and a shepherdess, Cloris. When Lisander is unable to keep an erection, the encounter ends with Cloris running away and Lisander cursing the entire world.
In the first stanza, Lisander is overcome with an “impatient Passion” for Cloris. He surprises her in a thicket and she is unable to “defend her self.” The sun is described as conspiring with “his Love” because it is setting, allowing darkness to fall. In the following stanza, it becomes clear that Cloris also desires Lisander. She “Permits his force,” allowing him to touch her and even “draw[ing] him on.” Yet she does not have the power or ability to speak and Lisander is so overcome with desire that he lies shaking on the ground.
The third stanza begins with a description of the conflicting emotions in Cloris's eyes. They show both “Love and Shame”: she wants Lisander but also is embarrassed because this is not socially acceptable for her as a woman. She whispers in Lisander’s ear and asks him to stop or else she will cry out. She also says that rather than take her virginity, which she describes as her “Honour” and her “chiefest part,” Lisander should kill her.
Stanza 4 tells us that Lisander is both unaccustomed to fear and also a capable lover. He begins kissing her lips, neck, and hair, becoming more aroused all the while. He trembles with desire while Cloris pants. Metaphors related to war are used to describe her body as “unguarded” and as “Trophies” for the enemy—that is, Lisander.
In Stanza 5, Lisander leaves behind “Respect or Fear” as he moves further down Cloris's body. He touches her vagina, which is described as an “Altar,” “Throne,” “Paradise,” “Fountain,” and the place where “Rage is tam’d, and Anger pleas’d.” In the following stanza they kiss as they lie on the moss and both the bodies and souls of the two lovers are joined. Cloris sighs and is “half dead and breathless” with pleasure. As her eyes darken, they are compared to a “humid Light” and “falling Stars.”
Stanza 7 begins with a description of Cloris's body from Lisander’s perspective. Her robes are open and he sees the length of her naked body, “A Shape design’d for Love and Play.” Cloris offers her body up to Lisander, no longer bothered by shame. She is described metaphorically as a “Victim to Loves Sacred Flame.” Yet Lisander is overcome with emotion that he is “Unable to perform the Sacrifice”—that is, he cannot have intercourse with Cloris.
Stanza 8 describes why Lisander is unable to perform right at the moment when he was ready to “taste a Thousand Joys.” He is too excited in anticipation of pleasure, and the problem is that “too much Love destroys” it. He saw Cloris's body and was ready to throw herself on her, but his “Pow’r” (that is, his erection) is taken from him. Now the “envious Gods” are blamed for “conspir[ing] to take away his ability to perform while leaving him with the “Desire” still to have sex.
Stanza 9 continues to describe Lisander’s predicament. Nature denies him her support. He tries to get his “fleeting Vigour”—his passing erection—back. He even tries to masturbate to get hard once again. However, this attempt is unsuccessful. The real problem, according to the poem, is that he was betrayed by an excess of love. Though he tries and tries to get an erection, his “Insensible” penis “weep[s] in his Hands.” The following stanza gives further explanations for why Lisander cannot perform. “Love and Fate” have treated him cruelly. Normally, his “Nobler Part,” his penis, should be aflame with a strong and “Active Fire.” Instead, it is cold and unfeeling. Even Cloris's nakedness does nothing to “Spark” his desire again or calm him down.
Cloris awakens from her earlier trance in stanza 11. Whether by plan or accident, her shy hand touches Lisander’s penis. However, the Shepherdess pulls her fingers back quickly—as quickly as they would when discovering a snake while gathering ferns on the plain. She realizes that the “God of Her Desires” is no longer in any position to have intercourse with her. In stanza 12, Lisander’s penis is as “cold as Flow’rs bath’d in the Morning-dew.” She is confused. To the same degree that Lisander’s penis is drained of blood, she blushes as blood runs to her face. She is both angry and embarrassed. She runs away, leaving Lisander lying on the ground.
In stanza 13, she runs from the grove as fast as Daphne, a figure from Greek mythology who was chased by the god Apollo. She tries not to leave prints on the ground so no one will know she was there. Her hair is messed up by the wind and her clothes are “ruffled,” but this gives her a pleasing appearance. As Cloris runs, she is compared to Venus, who mourned her dying lover Adonis.
The final stanza ends with the speaker saying that she can imagine the resentment that Cloris feels. However, no one can guess what Lisander is going through except those who have had similar experiences. He is so angry that he curses the gods, his own birth, his luck, and Cloris most of all. Her “soft bewitching influence,” he thinks, damned him to impotence, which is described as hell.
With its shepherds and shepherdesses meeting in the countryside, this is a poem in the pastoral genre. Lysander and Cloris are both conventional pastoral names (as used in Shakespeare and Behn’s other poems). Because pastoral literature takes place in fields and groves, they show a space of innocence that is beyond the conventional hierarchies and rules of the city. This makes the pastoral a useful setting for poems about love. In this poem, the pastoral world is shown not to be innocent but to be full of deception and regret. Many other pastoral poems deal with themes of romance and sex, but Behn’s “The Disappointment” is unique in describing a (failed) erotic encounter from the perspective of a woman.
The “disappointment” of the poem’s title describes the encounter with Lisander from Cloris's perspective. The speaker aligns herself with Cloris. “[N]one but I / Can well imagine” the resentment that Cloris feels, the speaker tells us in the final stanza. As for what is in Lisander’s soul, only those who have experienced what he has can guess. In this way, the speaker puts herself in Cloris's shoes, which suggests that she too is speaking from the position of a woman. This choice of perspective is worth noting since, in her other poems, Behn sometimes speaks as a woman, sometimes as a man, and sometimes from an ambiguous perspective.
This poem also raises questions about the encounter between Cloris and Lisander. It seems at first that he is attempting to rape her, as he surprises her at a moment when she can “defend her self no longer.” She also tells him to stop. In the lines “She Cry'd — Cease — cease — your vain desire, / Or I'll call out — What wou'd you do?” the reader gains insight into her mental and physical state. The dashes here show that she is panting and having trouble speaking. She also threatens to yell for help.
Cloris's fear stems from what will happen if they are discovered or if others learn that she is no longer a virgin. There is the expectation that she should be honorable and chaste. As scholar Angeline Goreau writes, if women in this period “acknowledged their own sexuality and acceded to it, they violated the essential element of what they have been brought up to believe was their femininity: virtue."
Yet the poem also shows Cloris admitting her own sexual desires. She is not just a passive victim. Lisander may be forcing himself on her, but she “[P]ermits his force.” She touches his chest not to push him away but to draw him nearer. Additionally, once Cloris realizes she desires Lisander, she is “Abandon'd by her Pride and Shame.” Personified, pride and shame leave her and she gives in to her desire.
While Cloris finds a way to square her fear of social expectations with her desire, Lisander finds himself in a serious dilemma. From the beginning of the poem, we see Lisander as both active and passive. He is described as a good lover, but we also see that he is lying on the ground trembling in over-excitement. Lisander is “swayed,” meaning he is being acted on by a force outside of his control. This “over ravished” shepherd is overcome by his own desire. In his inability to maintain an erection he is shown as emasculated. He is unable to complete the sexual act that he initiated. Instead of blaming himself, he curses the “envious Gods,” fate, and Cloris. His long tirade when Cloris runs away in disgust at the end of the poem makes him seem ridiculous. Though he tries to blame Cloris for his impotence, arguing that he was so overcome with her beauty that he could not maintain an erection, the speaker’s clear sympathy for Cloris's position shows that his excuses are empty.