The Disappointment

Original Text: 

John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, Poems on Several Occasions (1680). Facs. edn. Menston: Scolar Press, 1971. PR 3669 R2 1680AB Robarts Library.

2   By an impatient Passion sway'd,
4   Who cou'd defend her self no longer ;
5   All things did with his Love conspire,
7   In his gay Chariot, drawn by Fire,
8   Was now descending to the Sea,
9   And left no Light to guide the World,
10But what from Cloris brighter Eyes was hurl'd.
##
11   In alone Thicket, made for Love,
12   Silent as yielding Maids Consent,
##
14   Permits his force, yet gently strove ?
15   Her Hands his Bosom softly meet,
16   But not to put him back design'd,
17   Rather to draw him on inclin'd,
18   Whilst he lay trembling at her feet;
19   Resistance 'tis to late to shew,
20She wants the pow'r to say -- Ah!what do you do?
##
21   Her bright Eyes sweat, and yet Severe,
22   Where Love and Shame confus'dly strive,
23   Fresh Vigor to Lisander give :
24   And whispring softly in his Ear,
25   She Cry'd -- Cease -- cease -- your vain desire,
26   Or I'll call out -- What wou'd you do ?
27   My dearer Honour, ev'n to you,
28   I cannot -- must not give -- retire,
29   Or take that Life whose chiefest part
30I gave you with the Conquest of my Heart.
##
31   But he as much unus'd to fear,
32   As he was capable of Love,
33   The blessed Minutes to improve,
34   Kisses her Lips, her Neck, her Hair !
35   Each touch her new Desires alarms !
36   His burning trembling Hand he prest
37   Upon her melting Snowy Breast,
38   While she lay panting in his Arms !
39   All her unguarded Beauties lie
40The Spoils and Trophies of the Enemy.
##
41   And now, without Respect or Fear,
42   He seeks the Objects of his Vows ;
43   His Love no Modesty allows :
44   By swift degrees advancing where
45   His daring Hand that Alter seiz'd,
46   Where Gods of Love do Sacrifice ;
47   That awful Throne, that Paradise,
48   Where Rage is tam'd, and Anger pleas'd ;
49   That Living Fountain, from whose Trills
50The melted Soul in liquid Drops distils.
##
51   Her balmy Lips encountring his,
52   Their Bodies as their Souls are joyn'd,
53   Where both in Transports were confin'd,
54   Extend themselves upon the Moss.
55   Cloris half dead and breathless lay,
56   Her Eyes appear'd like humid Light,
57   Such as divides the Day and Night;
58   Or falling Stars, whose Fires decay ;
59   And now no signs of Life she shows,
60But what in short-breath-sighs returns and goes.
##
61   He saw how at her length she lay,
62   He saw her rising Bosom bare,
63   Her loose thin Robes, through which appear
64   A Shape design'd for Love and Play;
65   Abandon'd by her Pride and Shame,
66   She do's her softest Sweets dispence,
67   Offring her Virgin-Innocence
68   A Victim to Loves Sacred Flame ;
69   Whilst th' or'e ravish'd Shepherd lies,
70Unable to perform the Sacrifice.
##
71   Ready to taste a Thousand Joys,
72   Thee too transported hapless Swain,
73   Found the vast Pleasure turn'd to Pain :
74   Pleasure, which too much Love destroys !
75   The willing Garments by he laid,
76   And Heav'n all open to his view ;
78   On the defenceless lovely Maid.
79   But oh ! what envious Gods conspire
80To snatch his Pow'r, yet leave him the Desire !
##
81   Natures support, without whose Aid
82   She can no humane Being give,
83   It self now wants the Art to live,
84   Faintness it slacken'd Nerves invade :
85   In vain th' enraged Youth assaid
86   To call his fleeting Vigour back,
88   Excess of Love his Love betray'd ;
89   In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,
##
91   In this so Am'rous cruel strife,
92   Where Love and Fate were too severe,
93   The poor Lisander in Despair,
94   Renounc'd his Reason with his Life.
95   Now all the Brisk and Active Fire
96   That should the Nobler Part inflame,
97   Unactive Frigid, Dull became,
98   And left no Spark for new Desire ;
99   Not all her Naked Charms cou'd move,
100Or calm that Rage that had debauch'd his Love.
##
101   Cloris returning from the Trance
102   Which Love and soft Desire had bred,
103   Her tim'rous Hand she gently laid,
106   That Potent God (as Poets feign.)
107   But never did young Shepherdess
##
109   More nimbly draw her Fingers back,
110Finding beneath the Verdant Leaves a Snake.
##
111   Then Cloris her fair Hand withdrew,
112   Finding that God of her Desires
113   Disarm'd of all his pow'rful Fires,
115   Who can the Nymphs Confusion guess ?
117   And strew'd with Blushes all her Face,
118   Which both Disdain and Shame express ;
119   And from Lisanders Arms she fled,
120Leaving him fainting on the gloomy Bed.
##
121   Like Lightning through the Grove she hies,
122   Or Daphne from the Delphick God ;
123   No Print upon the Grassie Road
124   She leaves, t' instruct pursuing Eyes.
125   The Wind that wanton'd in her Hair,
126   And with her ruffled Garments plaid,
127   Discover'd in the flying Maid
128   All that the Gods e're made of Fair.
129   So Venus, when her Love was Slain,
130With fear and haste flew o're the fatal Plain.
132   Can well imagin, and Condole ;
133   But none can guess Lisander's Soul,
134   But those who sway'd his Destiny :
135   His silent Griefs, swell up to Storms,
136   And not one God, his Fury spares,
137   He Curst his Birth, his Fate, his Stars,
138   But more the Shepherdesses Charms ;
139   Whose soft bewitching influence,

Notes

1] Lysander: a conventional name for a shepherd in Behn's pastoral world. Cf. Behn's "On Desire a Pindarick," "To Lysander, who made some Verses on a Discourse of Loves Fire," "To Lysander, on some Verses he writ, and asking more for his Heart then 'twas worth," and "To Lysander at the Musick-Meeting." Lysander appears in Shakespeare's pastoral A Midsummer's Night's Dream as one of the lovers. Back to Line
3] Cloris: a conventional name for a shepherdess in Behn's pastoral world. Cf. her "A Constancy in Love I'll Prise" ("On Cloris Charms to day I'll feed") and especially "On a Juniper-Tree, cut down to make Busks," where Philocles seduces Cloris. Back to Line
6] gilded Planet of the Day: Phoebus, the sun. Back to Line
13] Languishment: cf. Behn's "On a Juniper-Tree, cut down to make Busks," of Philocles and Cloris:
Impatient he waits no consent
But what she gave by Languishment,
The blessed Minute he pursu'd;
While Love and Shame her Soul Subdu'd.
And now transported in his Arms,
Yields to the Conqueror all her Charms ..
Back to Line
77] Mad to possess: Shakespeare's sonnet 129. Back to Line
87] Lysander tries to stimulate himself. Back to Line
90] premature ejaculation. Back to Line
104] Or: whether. Back to Line
105] Priapus: the erect phallus. Back to Line
108] Fern: i.e., the pubic hair. Cf. Behn's "To the fair Clarinda":
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.
Back to Line
114] the slack penis, the cooled ejaculate. Back to Line
116] the kinder place: Cloris' "Living Fountain" (49). Back to Line
131] none but I: Cloris is the poet. Back to Line
140]

Commentary by Ian Lancashire

(2002/9/9)

Aphra Behn freely translates this poem from the first part of the contemporary French "L'occasion perdue recouverte" by Jean Benech de Cantenac (ca. 1630-1714). One of a group of French and English "imperfect enjoyment" poems, Behn's source begins (Quaintance 197):

Un jour, le malheureux Lisandre,
Poussé d'un amour indiscret,
Attaquoit Cloris en secret,
Qui ne pouvoit plus se défendre.
Tout favorisoit son amour:
L'astre qui nous donne le jour
Alloit porter ses feux dans l'onde,
Et cet ennemy de Cypris
Ne lassoit de lumière au monde
Que dans les beaux yeux de Cloris.

Her lightening of Cantenac's tone -- she renders "malheureux Lisandre" as "Amorous Lysandre," replaces "Attaquoit" (`attacked') with "Surpris'd," and deletes his characterization of the sun as the enemy of Venus -- foreshadows a sympathy with both lovers. In the last stanza, Behn identifies herself with Cloris. Behn also ignores the second half of Cantenac's poem, where Lysander recovers his virility and cuckolds a husband, so that she can close with the calamitous effect of failure on him. She turns a tale of sexual bragging into "something more taut and severe: an object lesson on the risks of self-absorption during love-making" (Quaintance 199).

Shakespeare's sonnet 129, "The expence of spirit in a waste of shame," clearly influences Behn to transform Cantenac's poem. For example, she quotes Shakespeare' ninth line, "Mad in pursuit and in possession so," at her line 77, and closes with the same sentiment and word with Shakespeare did: "To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell." Like Shakespeare's lover, Lysander has gone from "Heav'n all open to his view" (76) to "the Hell of Impotence" (140). Her main theme, however, can be seen in the three stages of uncontrolled lust that Shakespeare identifies:

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.

During his "hunt," Lysander abandons reason and thought, being "By an impatient Passion sway'd" (2). He never answers Cloris' whispered plea, "What wou'd you do?" (26); in truth, Lysander loses the power of speech completely until the end, when he gives way to cursing. In Behn's words, he becomes "o'r ravish'd" (69), psychologically overcome by his own sexual appetite, a "too transported hapless Swain" (72). Ejaculating prematurely, Lysander cannot put his love into action, and he falls victim to rage (85, 100) and despair (93). Hatred ensues from the hunt. Like Shakespeare's lover, he "Renounc'd his Reason with his Life" (94). By the end, "Storms" of "Fury" have made Lysander the taker mad.

Behn's fourteen stanzas show her subtle art in developing the changing fortunes of Cloris and Lysander. His impotence is announced at line 70, the very middle of the poem, with him "Unable to perform the Sacrifice." This point of balance shifts him from "vast Pleasure" before, to "Pain" afterwards (73). The causes of his pain also appear, balanced, in the poem's first stanza as "an impatient Passion sway'd" (2) and in the last stanza as "those who sway'd his Destiny" (134). Behn describes those who control his "Fate" (92) as conspiring "envious Gods" in the central eighth stanza (79). This convention, where the individual's acts are not his but are determined by the masterminding gods, the supernational machinery of the classical epic, gives the poem a slightly mocking quality. Is Cloris's fate really sealed because Phoebus did "conspire" (5) to set at the beginning? What guides Cloris' hand, "Design or Chance" (104), to finger Lysander's genitals when she does? Behn implies that these gods are truly Cloris and Lysander themselves. His phallus is "That Potent God" (106); Lysander is "that God of her Desires" (112), like the "Delphic God" from whom Cloris, like Daphne, fled (122). She in turn is compared to Venus (129); Lysander cursed, most of all, her "Charms" and "soft betwitching influence" as what "sway'd his Destiny." They are responsible for their own plight.

Behn writes a psycho-sexual drama in "The Disappointment." The supernatural gods are only convenient labels for mysterious inner drives, the impatient passions that affect both lovers. These include vigour (or power) and sexual desire, shame, and rage. The first is sexual drive. Lysander begins with this permitted "force" (14), whereas Cloris "wants the pow'r" (2). Her beauties are Lysander's "Spoils and Trophies" (40); she is the "Victim" (68). Then, midway through the poem, just as he throws himself on her nakedness, he loses "his Pow'r" (80), "his fleeting Vigour" (86). Sexual desire is compared often with fire. Before, "burning" with "Love's Sacred Flame," like the sun-god Phoebus, Lysander handled her breast and her genitals (36, 45, 68) while she lay "half dead and breathless" (55). In a balanced turnabout, his "Active Fire" then chilled, and Lysander lay "fainting" (120), while Cloris recovered "from the Trance" and herself handled his genitalia. Initially, his power and sexual fire acted as aphrodisiacs for Cloris, and she yielded "with a charming Languishment" (13). Once she discovered that his power and sexual fire were out, she became the "Lightning" (121) and escaped. Last, there are the emotions of shame and anger. Cloris, at first conflicted with "Shame" (22), loses it as Lysander overpowers her (65), but then it returns with blushes when she feels his chilled "Flow'rs" (117-18). Lysander's "Rage is tam'd, and Anger pleas'd" at first (48), when his hand possesses Cloris genitalia, but it returns (100) when he (likely his hand) cannot "call his fleeting Vigour back."

Behn delicately reasons out the causes for Lysander's failure. He took his pleasures uncontrollably as she lay senseless and naked, unable to move. Premature ejaculation led to the loss of "Nature's support" (81), for Behn a matter of "slacken'd Nerves" (84), although we know now the cause lies physiologically elsewhere. Still, Lysander need not have given up if he retained "his Reason" (94); more faith in his "Brisk and Active Fire" within, "the Nobler Part [to] inflame" again (95-96), might have worked, but he was too consumed with "Rage" (100). This self-anger, not erectile disfunction, prevented Lysander from recovering. Outrage at a momentary loss of potence "debauch'd his Love" (100), not that impotence itself. Behn implies that only poets attribute potent divinity to the phallus. What happens in fact turns out frequently otherwise.

Unlike so many other poems about sex, Behn's "The Disappointment" touchingly describes a very human plight in a world whose social or moral code deprecates and prevents genital play. Lysander and Cloris long to know each other's genitals more than their hearts. The phrases of courtly love (Objects of his Vows," "Love's Sacred Flame") contrast amusingly with what the two lovers' hands are up to. Behn, a true Restoration poet, sees nothing wrong with this play. She depicts Cloris's enticing reluctance, her coyness, and her "resentments" later, sympathetically; after all, she is Cloris and experienced all this first-hand. Lysander, to Behn so "capable of Love" (32), desirable, and "hapless" (72), is no threat at all. Not unlike Chaucer's Troilus, who faints at Criseyde's bedside and has to be helped into her arms, Lysander only acts once Cloris has told him that he has just two options: "retire, / Or take that Life whose chiefest part / I gave you with the Conquest of my Heart" (28-30). The second option, described at greater length, sounds like her preference. Her very garments are "willing" (75).

Behn also portrays sexuality, not with four-letter words or obscenity, but with reverence for its living beauty. She may allude to Milton's description of the rivers of Eden in Paradise Lost (IV) when describing Cloris' genitalia: "That Living Fountain, from whose Trills / The melted Soul in liquid Drops distils" (49-40). Lysander's own are equally natural: "Nature's support," which gives "Being" to humans (81-82), "Verdant Leaves" (110), and "Flow'rs bath'd in the Morning-dew" (114). His penis, in disappointing, may be a snake (110), but it is a "weeping" snake (90). Her charms are "soft bewitching" (139), a qualification worth attending to.

Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1680
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1996-2000.
Rhyme: