John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, Poems on Several Occasions (1680). Facs. edn. Menston: Scolar Press, 1971. PR 3669 R2 1680AB Robarts Library.
Impatient he waits no consentBack to Line
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 ..
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believesBack to Line
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
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