There seems little doubt that Aphra Behn’s first love was poetry and that, had it been possible, she would have confined herself to this acceptably dignified form of literary expression. However, it was no easier in the 1670s and 1680s to support yourself by writing poetry alone than it is in 2012, and in order to earn a living Behn was compelled to write plays and, eventually, fiction. Though they paid much better, these “lower” forms of writing also laid their author open to vicious personal attacks.
But Behn never stopped writing poetry, gradually producing an impressive body of work that, at its best, is notable for its wit, its deft command of language and imagery, and its daring sexuality – as we have already seen. There is, however, a subset of Behn’s poetry that can make even her most devoted admirers squirm: the frankly political poems through which she declared her ongoing allegiance to the Stuart cause and (unavailingly, it need hardly be said) tried to win royal notice and, more importantly, patronage.
Although political themes became more common in Behn’s writing from the time of the Popish Plot onwards, the death of Charles II in February 1685 prompted Behn to write the first of a series of royalist poems that continued through – and past – the reign of James. Completely without subtlety in their imagery and politically embarrassing, the only redeeming feature of these lengthy odes and “pindaricks” is a sense that Behn herself did not take them entirely seriously—or at least, had accepted that if she was to have any hope of being recognised for her work, it would be necessary to shout. Lurking in most of these poems is a moment of self-portraiture, in which we glimpse Behn jumping up and down, waving her arms and calling out, “HELL-OOO, LOYAL STARVING ARTIST OVER HERE!!”
Behn’s first royalist poem was A Pindarick On Death Of Our Late Sovereign; With An Ancient Prophecy On His Present Majesty; and if, in Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, we winced at her references to Charles as “…this god-like King…”, we can only cringe at her recasting of him, in the wake of his death, as nothing less than Jesus on the cross:
Again I heard, and yet I thought it Dream;
Impossible! (I raving cry)
That such a Monarch! such a God should die!…
They did the Deity, and Man adore;
What must they pay, when He confirm’d the God;
Who having finisht all His wonders here,
And full Instructions given,
To make His Bright Divinity more Clear;
Transfigur’d all to Glory, Mounts to Heav’n!
So fell our Earthy God! so Lov’d, so Mourn’d,
So like a God again return’d…
Behn then goes on to give us her version of, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – before taking consolation (as did Charles, we gather) in the fact that this “Earthly God” will be immediately succeeded by another:
And blest His Stars that in an Age so Vain,
Where Zealous Mischiefs, Frauds, Rebellions, Reign:
Like Moses, he had led the Murm’ring Crowd,
Beneath the Peaceful Rule of his Almighty Wand;
Pull’d down the Golden Calf to which they bow’d,
And left ’em safe, entr’ing the Promised Land;
And to good JOSHUA, now resigns his sway;
JOSHUA, by Heaven and Nature pointed out to lead the way.
Full of the Wisdom and the Pow’r of God;
The Royal PROPHET now before him stood
On whom his Hands the Dying MONARCH laid
And wept with tender Joy and Blest…
This poem was accompanied by another addressed to Catherine of Braganza, A Poem Humbly Dedicated To The Great Pattern Of Piety And Virtue Catherine Queen Dowager. On The Death Of Her Dear Lord And Husband King Charles II, which, although paying due tribute to Catherine’s loyalty and steadfastness through the accusations and humiliations of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, unfortunately does so by a continuance of the uncomfortable religious imagery:
Witness the Steddy Graces of your Soul
When charg’d by Perjuries so black and foul,
As did all Laws, both Humane and Divine controul.
When Heaven (to make the Heroin understood;
And Hell it self permitted loose abroad)
Gave you the Patience of a Suffering God.
So our blest Saviour his Reproaches bore
When Piercing Thorns His Sacred Temples wore;
And stripes compell’d the Rich Redeeming Gore.
Your precious Life alone the fiends disdain’d
To murder home; your Vertue they prophan’d;
By Plots so rude; so Hellish a Pretence
As ev’n would call in question Providence…
Although Catherine does indeed seem to have grieved more for Charles than we might feel he deserved, Behn’s casting of her as the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross does seem just a tad over the top:
Princes we more than Humane do allow,
You must have been above an Angel too;
Had You resisted this sad Scene of Woe;
So the Blest Virgin at the Worlds great loss,
Came, and beheld, then Fainted at the Cross…
So She bewail’d Her God! so sigh’d, so Mourn’d;
So His blest Image in Her Heart remain’d,
So His blest Memory o’re Her Soul still Reign’d!…
(It is perhaps worth mentioning that the actual parting between Charles and Catherine was much more dignified and, I think, much more touching than this. Although she did not enter his death chamber, Catherine sent her husband a final message begging for his pardon if she had ever offended him, to which he responded: “Alas, poor woman! She asks for my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart; take her back that answer.”)
But Behn was only getting warmed up. Although her loyalty to Charles and the Stuart cause was real and profound, her deepest devotion, as we have seen, was to James; and she greeted his accession with A Pindarick Poem On The Happy Coronation Of His Most Sacred Majesty King James II. And His Illustrious Consort Queen Mary, a work of almost 1000 lines in length.
The gap between theory and reality in this poem is, if anything, even wider than that in its predecessors:
So on Olympus top the GOD appears,
When of his Thunder he disarms,
And all his attributes of mercy wears
The sweetness of Divine forgiving Charms.
With Smiles he casts His Gracious Eyes around,
Inspiring FAITH from ev’ry look and Grace,
No Soul so dull to humane sense was found
As not to read its safety in His Face.
Where FORTITUDE and BRAVERY sate
In solemn Triumph over Fate,
Where TRUTH in all her honest Glory shin’d,
That darling vertue of His Godlike mind…
We eventually get all sorts of James-es in this poem – an earthly god, a military hero, a stern but just ruler, a passionate lover and a thoroughly domesticated husband and father – along with an amusingly unrecognisable Mary of Modena:
And no soft Venus could his Soul subdue;
All bent for nobler spoil than Beauties Charms,
And loos’d a while from Sacred LAURA’S Arms.
LAURA! the Chast! the Pious! and the Fair!
Glorious, and kind as Guardian-Angels are,
Earths darling Goddess! and Heav’ns tend’rest care!
James’ rise to the throne is seen as the decisive blow to the traitorous Whigs and their collaborators:
None bow beneath the Pressure of a thought,
Unless where ENVY has her vipers hurl’d,
And raging MALICE even to MADNESS wrought,
They hate the Light that guides the work Divine;
And how’l and gnash their Teeth, and suffer Hell before their time.
The Brave are glad, and gay, the young rejoyce,
The old in Prayers and Blessings lift the Voice…
The second half of the poem describes the coronation processions, and pays tribute by name to those men who stayed loyal to James and the Stuart line through the upheavals of Charles’ reign:
And now the ravisht People shout a new!
Their KING! their dear-lov’d MONARCH is in view;
The constant AYLESBURY and the Loyal GRAY,
Prepare the mighy Way.
Yes—she does mean THAT Lord Grey.
Aphra herself is more visible in this poem than the earlier ones, openly mourning the unkind fate that has excluded her from the privileged circle of her beloved royals:
Oh Blest are they that may at distance gaze,
And Inspirations from Your looks may take,
But how much more their happier Stars they Praise,
Who wait, and listen when you speak!
Mine for no scanted bliss so much I blame,
(Though they the humblest Portion destin’d me)
As when they stint my noblest Aim,
And by a silent dull obscurity
Set me at distance, much too far
The Deity to view, or Divine Oracle to hear!
It is uncomfortably clear in this poem that Aphra had real hope that James might finally recognise her efforts for the cause in a concrete way—but she was, as always, doomed to disappointment. Her loyalty remained unshaken, nevertheless; although possibly it would have been better for almost all concerned if at this point she had given up on the Stuarts in disgust.
When Mary of Modena’s pregnancy was publicly announced in January 1688 there was, as we have seen, a rush on the part of the loyalists to voice their belief that the child would be a boy, a mark of Divine favour, a sign that God was on James’ side. One of those who prepared to put their faith on paper was Aphra Behn, who early in the year published A Congratulatory Poem To Her Most Sacred Majesty, On The Universal Hopes Of All Loyal Persons For A Prince Of Wales; and while the poem’s title spoke of “hopes” that the baby would be a boy, the text declared it to be a certainty—a godlike son born to godlike parents, whose coming would defeat James’ enemies once and for all, and bring about a unified Britain:
Like the first sacred Infant, this will come
With Promise laden from the Blessed Womb,
To call the wand’ring, scatter’d Nations home.
Adoring PRINCES shall arrive from far,
Inform’d by ANGELS, guided by his Star,
The new-born Wonder to behold, and greet;
And Kings shall offer Incense at his Feet.
Hail, Royal BOY!…
O Happy KING! to whom a Son is born!
What more can Fortune, Heaven, and You perform?
Behold, with Joy three prostrate Nations come:
ALBION, HIBERNIA and old CALEDON
Now join their Int’rests, and no more dispute
With sawcy Murmurs, who is Absolute;
Since, from the wonders of your Life, ’tis plain,
You will, you shall, you must for ever reign.
The lady protesting too much? It’s hard to know how seriously we are to take these effusions. Certainly, at a time when James’ grip on his throne was already shaky, those “universal hopes” of the poem’s title look like irony; although perhaps the operative word is “loyal”.
And while you may think that after this outpouring there was nothing left for Aphra to say on the subject, when the child in question did turn out to be a boy, she took up her pen once more, with A Congratulatory Poem To The Kings Most Sacred Majesty On The Happy Birth Of The Prince Of Wales, which goes even further over the top in its religious imagery, being peppered with biblical allusions, and then dwells with unabashed Schadenfreude on the disappointment of William of Orange:
No MONARCH’s birth was ever Usher’d in
With Signs so Fortunate as this has been.
The Holy Trinity his BIRTH-DAY claims,
Who to the World their best Lov’d Blessing sends.
Guarded he comes, in Triumph over FATE,
And all the Shining HOST around him wait.
Angels and Saints, that do his Train Adorn,
In Hallelujahs Sing, A KING IS BORN!…
Methinks I hear the Belgick LION Roar,
And Lash his Angry Tail against the Shoar.
Inrag’d to hear A PRINCE OF WALES is Born:
Whose BROWS his Boasted Laurels shall Adorn.
Whose Angel FACE already does express
His Foreign CONQUESTS , and Domestick PEACE.
While in his Awful little EYES we Fin’d
He’s of the Brave, and the Forgiving KIND.
Originally released separately, these two poems were bundled together and reissued quite late in 1688; during the time, as it happened, that William of Orange was waiting for a break in the weather; and, well, we all know how that story ended…
While these poems hardly represent Aphra Behn at her best, the painful mix of devotion and desperation that they express is terribly moving, particularly when we reflect that they were written at a time of great personal hardship and failing health. Although, also in 1688, James overcame his previous scorn of the literary support that Charles had encouraged and began commissioning plays in support of his cause, he never did deign to notice the efforts of one of the few people in England whose loyalty to him was unwavering.
And don’t think that Aphra’s writing didn’t have an impact at the time, or that efforts weren’t made to shake her loyalty. On the contrary: almost at the last, an open effort to buy her services was made on behalf of the pro-Williamites by the Reverend Gilbert Burnet.
Famous as an historian and a linguist as well as a theologian, Burnet managed to stay in favour with Charles II in spite of his association with the Whigs. He earned notoriety in 1680 by attending the deathbed of the Earl of Rochester at his mother’s request, and later publishing an account of Rochester’s last-minute denunciation of libertinism and religious conversion: an account vigorously disputed by those who knew the Earl best, although certain of his papers seem to confirm his conversion, at least.
After the death of her close friend, Aphra Behn published On The Death Of The Late Earl Of Rochester, which caught the attention of Anne Lee Wharton, Rochester’s niece and a member of his household. Wharton had herself gained some fame as a writer of verse-dramas and poetry, and she expressed her gratitude to Behn in a poem entitled To Mrs A. Behn, On What She Writ Of The Earl Of Rochester. Behn, who genuinely admired Wharton’s writing, was pleased and touched, and responded in turn with To Mrs W., On Her Excellent Verses. A real friendship began to grow between the two women, one doubly important to Aphra because she had so few female friends, and none who were conventionally respectable. However, before it could blossom, the friendship died—or rather, was killed off by Doctor Burnet.
Behn and Burnet had already crossed paths, and swords, Burnet denouncing Behn publicly for the “bawdiness” of her writing. When he got wind of Anne Wharton’s friendly reception of Behn’s overtures Burnet immediately intervened, writing her a letter in which he warned her that associating with Behn would damage her reputation, and insisting that she sever the connection at once:
“…She is so abominably vile a woman, that I am as heartily sorry she has writ any thing in your commendation as I am glad, (I had almost said proud) that you have honoured me as you have done…”
Albeit reluctantly, Wharton obeyed. It was a blow Behn never forgot or forgave.
By the end of 1688, Aphra Behn was in debt and seriously ill, and no-one could have blamed her if, in this extremity, she had allowed pragmatism to override loyalty and sold her pen to the faction trying to build up support for William and excusing the removal of James. If nothing else, the Whigs always paid well for the services they bought—unlike the Tories, who considered that the honour of serving ought to be enough. And perhaps, at the last, Behn might have given in and served her enemies for the money, if only their agent had not been Gilbert Burnet, who courted her with praise of the very literary powers which before he had reviled and condemned. As it was, Behn rejected the Whigs’ overtures and set her pen to paper one last time, publishing early in 1689 A Pindaric Poem To The Reverend Doctor Burnet, On The Honour He Did Me Of Enquiring After Me And My Muse.
Much superior to the royalist poems that preceded it, this work is one of many moods. There is a great deal of sadness, as well as understandable regret for what its author is passing up; an acknowledgement that she would be personally better off if she did sell out, as many others had done, mixed with condemnation of the rats that had deserted the sinking ship; while towards Gilbert Burnet himself we detect more than a little sarcasm. It was, in any event, her parting shot: within weeks of its publication, William and Mary had been crowned, and Aphra was dead.
But oh! if from your Praise I feel
A Joy that has no Parallel!
What must I suffer when I cannot pay
Your Goodness, your own generous way?
And make my stubborn Muse your Just Commands obey.
My Muse that would endeavour fain to glide
With the fair prosperous Gale, and the full driving Tide.
But Loyalty Commands with Pious Force,
That stops me in the thriving Course,
The Brieze that wafts the Crowding Nations o’re,
Leaves me unpity’d far behind
On the forsaken barren shore,
To sigh with Echo, and the Murmuring Wind,
While all the Inviting Prospect I survey,
With melancholy eyes I view the Plains,
Where all I see is Ravishing and Gay,
And all I hear is Mirth in loudest Strains;
Thus while the Chosen Seed possess the Promis’d Land
I like the Excluded Prophet stand,
The Fruitful Happy Soil can only see,
But am forbid by Fates Decree
To share the Triumph of the joyful Victory…