October 11, 2011

Behn. Aphra Behn.

Who is Aphra Behn?

Variously she was known known as a libertine, a wit, and a female playwright, poet and novelist shocking and delighting audiences of Restoration England.

Once she might have been known as Aphra Johnson, or Amis, or Cooper. Little is known for certain about her life before she started publishing as a writer, and after that, she is largely remembered for titillating and scandalizing her peers with her frank treatments of sexuality and gender.

In between those times, she was also known as Astrea or Agent 160 in Surinam--the New World--and subsequently in Antwerp, Belgium where she was working as a spy for Charles II. In Antwerp she ran out of funds (as she possibly had in Surinam, prompting the theory that she married a Dutch merchant named Behn to bring her back to Europe), and she had a brief stint in debtors prison upon her return to England. She might have been known as Aphra Ben or Beane, but her widowed name and nom de plume was Mrs. Behn.

Although her espionage skills are suspect, her verbal acuity catapulted her to literary success, despite the reservations of those who didn't believe that a woman possessed the reason and rationality to write verse or write for the stage. She became apostrophized as "The Incomparable Astrea" and indeed she was: Virginia Woolf recognized her as the first middle class woman writer, who succeeded solely by her wit without the comfort of a country estate to retreat to in case her literary endeavors landed her in hot water--and Behn courted controversial topics like political events and homosexual love between women. Not for naught then was she known as Sappho.

Behn's distinctive poetic voice is characterized by her audacity in writing about contemporary events, frequently with topical references that, despite their allegorical maskings, were immediately recognizable to her sophisticated audience...Behn's poetry, therefore, was less public than her plays or her prose fiction, as it depended, in some cases, on the enlightened audience's recognition of her topics for full comprehension of both the expression and implications of her verse. Such poetic technique involved a skill and craft that earned her the compliments of her cohorts as one who, despite her female form, had a male intelligence and masculine powers of reason.
Behn, Aphra Behn: poetess, spy, lover, possible homosexual (or bisexual), and maker of martyrs:

A thousand martyrs I have made,

All sacrificed to my desire;

A thousand beauties have betrayed,

That languish in resistless fire.

The untamed heart to hand I brought,

And fixed the wild and wandering thought.

I never vowed nor sighed in vain

But both, though false, were well received.

The fair are pleased to give us pain,

And what they wish is soon believed.

And though I talked of wounds and smart,

Love’s pleasures only touched my heart.

Alone the glory and the spoil

I always laughing bore away;

The triumphs, without pain or toil,

Without the hell, the heav’n of joy.

And while I thus at random rove

Despise the fools that whine for love.

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