De-gendering genre: Aphra Behn and the tradition of English verse satire

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Date: Spring 2002
From: Philological Quarterly(Vol. 81, Issue 2)
Publisher: University of Iowa
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,923 words

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Satire has traditionally been a masculine genre, with satirists assuming positions of authority and power deemed appropriate to the male gender, and focusing much of their outrage and ridicule on women. Conventional scholarship on British satire written during the Restoration and eighteenth century assumes that the genre was entirely the provenance of men. Felicity Nussbaum, among others, has argued that the female has been the object, not the subject, of satire since classical times. (1) However, some female writers did participate in the genre, and Aphra Behn's contributions not only show her familiarity with the masculine conventions of satire but also reveal her original contributions to the development of the complex theory and practice of satire that characterizes a major component of eighteenth-century literature in England.

Reading Behn's satires helps us understand the complex nature of eighteenth-century satire, for her works highlight the areas where the genre is under pressure, needing to change. Ralph Cohen observes that we need to look at what changes and what remains in a genre if we are truly to understand its literary history and significance: "literary history ... necessarily involve[s] ideological conflicts since genres as they change nevertheless have some continuous elements." (2) The female satirist, Behn, presents an ideological conflict by virtue of her gender; her very act of satirizing demonstrates the need for the genre to question the satirist's own traditional authority, destabilizing conventional literary, social and political assumptions simultaneously.

Behn's satires on poetry, and particularly on the contemporary male poets she reads, reveal an attitude that integrates the distinctions carved out by writers and critics as disparate as Dryden, Collier, Steele and Pope. As she does in many of her poems of different genres, Behn experiments in her satire with different relationships with masculine power and authority. Without losing satire's essential emphasis on difference, she challenges the assumptions of power in the gendered language of her contemporaries, the poet "Bavius" (Joseph Baber), the unidentified "Alexis," and the poet laureate John Dryden. Rather than attacking the male poets for their gender, as male satirists traditionally attacked women, Behn critiques the social relations between men and women, seeking to expand the poetic arena in areas where male poets have excluded women.


As we will see in some of Behn's poems, her satire functions to crack open our minds, compel us to sustain disparate meanings simultaneously. But she is not always so subtle. There are moments in her satire when she moves into lampoon, where the speaker's intellectual superiority is announced and then wielded as a club to beat the subject into submission. Behn seldom goes on the attack so overtly, but when she does, she is deadly. In her response poem to the poet Joseph Baber (Bavius), Behn displays her most vituperative lampoon, enriching the male poet's meaning with her female knowledge of linguistic doubleness. Superior, angry, and mocking, the speaker in "To Poet Bavius; Occasion'd By His Satyr He Writ in his Verses to the King, Upon the Queens Being Deliver'd of a Son," (3) turns Baber's words back onto their author to reveal his inept appropriation of the organic metaphor of pregnancy and his deplorable attempts to rhyme and reason. As she highlights Baber's incompetence in sexual and poetic matters, Behn demonstrates his analogous lack of authority in politics, and stands to correct Bavius's errors by modeling her own expertise in issues of femininity, poetry, and policy.

Joseph Baber's instigating poem may have been motivated in part by Behn's earlier poem "A Congratulatory Poem of her Most Sacred Majesty, on the Universal Hopes of All Loyal Persons for a Prince of Wales," in which Behn presents the possibility of a male Roman Catholic heir with hope and faith. The depth of that faith (that despite eight pregnancies and no male survivors, the queen might yet produce a son) is trampled by Baber's claim that his poem surpasses the queen's creation of an actual heir. Baber begins the poem by asserting that he has been pregnant with his poem for an extended period, and has wanted to "give the King a Son before the Queen: / But Duty has Controul'd the Muses Pow'r, / And check'd my Rage to wait Her Happy Hour." (4) Baber's assertion that his creation is primary is thinly disguised in his gallantry of waiting for the queen to have her moment of fame. His arrogance and his simultaneous appropriation of female power--pregnancy and birth--are immediately attacked by Behn.

Baber's poem contains numerous other offenses to Behn's female, poetic, and logical sensibility. Baber further diminishes the Queen's female power by asserting that she gives beauty to the baby while the king gives authority and power: "all hereafter may be Successors / To Her bright form, who are to Empire Yours." Additionally, Baber's lack of skill as a poet certainly irked Behn; among other gaffes he claims that the king is "Above the Flight of Rapture, or of Rhyme / ... Vain the Attempt is, and I quit the Task', only to provide 62 more lines of praise.

Behn's strategy in her poem about Baber is to select passages from Baber's work and, sometimes inaccurately and sometimes out of context, present them in her own poem to satiric effect. Like earlier (as well as later) models of mocking literary analysis such as Spenser's Shepherds Calendar and Pope's Dunciad, Behn's poem has a running commentary in the margin that reduces Baber's poetic argument to its most ridiculous simplicity. Here and throughout, the italicized lines in the poem are Behn's quotation of Baber. Behn begins:

   A Labouring Muse, that full Nine Months had been
   In Painful thro's Pregnant at last became,
   Nine Months a Loyal Zeal had Fir'd my Breast,
   Which for Nine Muses cou'd not be at rest.
   Tell me, vain hard'ned Scribler, what Pretence,
   Have those two Lines, to kindred or to Sense?

   First in Labour
   and then Pregnant
   So long Loyal.

Not content with showing Baber's illogical reversal of the process of pregnancy, which reveals his lack of knowledge of that creative (and feminine) act, Behn immediately moves in on Baber's simplistic poetry, which reveals his lack of imagination and artistry:

   The Luckey gingle of the Nine and Nine,
   Produc'd 'era without Thinking or Design.
   The first thy Loyalties short date Rehearses:
   The next, how Damnably thou Pump'st for Verses.

Behn's explication of the "luckey" internal exact rhyme--or repetition--turns Baber's verse against him, showing that his nine-month loyalty to the Queen and her son (and by implication, the principle of succession) is inadequate, and that his labor over his poem has created rhymes--"nine" and "nine," and the feminine "rehearses" and "verses"--that are "damnably" forced, a sardonic way of describing Bavius's futile efforts to versify easily and naturally. (5)

Later in the poem Behn again draws a parallel between Baber's inapt simile and his facile political commentary. Baber metonymically compares the ousted civic officials ("Maces and Furrs") with blown roses; Behn reads the simile as a shallow comment on mere appearances and suggests that even there Baber is too simple:

      If Roses after June; are Roses still;
   Retain their Colour, Beauty, and their Smell:
   The Novelty begets 'em more Esteem,
   Than if they Bloom'd the common Month of June.
   So while the City keeps her Loyalty,
   She's still in Favour; and deserves to be,
   Inspight of all thy ill-tim'd Poetry.
   And who, but Rhiming Bavius, could suppose
   Maces, and Furrs, so very like a Rose.

   Upon his simily of
   the Rose confuted

Behn further illustrates Baber's superficiality as a poet and a thinker later in the poem with the epigram: "In Bavius Sense, Wit, Honour, Vertue lyes / In the Lac'd-Coat and Gay-Embroaderies." That superficiality, Behn suggests, would be better employed in panegyric than in satire, which requires less artful complexity and does less damage than satire. If Baber must attempt satire, he should not reach beyond bowdlerizing an established satiric text as he had by translating Samuel Butler's Hudibras into French:

"We are content thou shouldst in Scoundrel Verse / Put into French the Famous Hudebras; / ... And move at once our Laughter and our Scorn." In his mangled French Baber's errors might induce amused derision, not the righteous scorn his poem on the Queen elicits.

Behn concludes her attack on Baber with a devastating description of a kindly reader's response to Baber's poetry, which requires all the "Patience" and "pitty" a reader can muster. Those readers will:

      ... see the Politiques that shine,
   Thro' all the Nonsense of each strugling Line:
   Thy exact Grammar, and Coherence views,
   With the good Nature of thy Railing Muse:
   Thy Wit, thy Parts, thy Conduct, Mien and Grace,
   Thy Presence, Cringes, and thy Court Grimarce,
   But Swears Heaven meant thee for a perfect--As--

   See Bavius.

Behn's satire on Baber highlights his weaknesses even as it displays her strengths: his lack of aesthetic judgment is corrected by her explication of the art in her own poetry; his lack of artistic ability is demonstrated repeatedly and contrasted with Behn's greater skill in rhyme, meter and metaphor (though the quoted triplet, "Grace," "Grimarce," and "As--" shows Behn's own liberality with sound!).

As Fredric Bogel observes, satire is "an effort to make a difference, to create distance, between figures whom the satirist--who is one of those figures--perceives to be insufficiently distinguished." (6) So Behn seizes the opportunity not only to mock and degrade an ill-equipped poet, but also to celebrate herself as his better. Her success in establishing her superiority draws the reader to her side to admire both her poetry and her politics. It is an unaccustomed position for the female writer, a "privileged distance above ... the object of [her] critique." (7)

The traditional competition of masculine satire is well within Behn's reach, and when she chooses to attack and destroy she does so effectively, engaging in a verbal war with an enemy. At the same time, in this satire, the most conventional of her efforts, Behn's voice lacks the emotion, the passionate commitment to her ideas that characterizes her tone elsewhere. She is uninspired, confined by the role of corrector, bored by Baber and his bad verse. In the two "Alexis" poems, however, Behn has more ideas to work with, and she treats the object of her satire with a bit more respect, that of an unequal but significant opponent in a political debate. These satires show Behn moving out of conventional satiric skirmishes and into engaging dialogue with provocative contestants.


Two of Behn's satiric poems set up a masculine poet, Alexis, as their object. The historical (and unidentified) "Alexis" was the author of "A Poem against fruition written on the reading of Mountains [Montaigne's] Essay [2.15]." Unlike the satire on Baber, Behn's poems in response to Alexis appear with the male poet's work, in Behn's miscellany Lycidus. In that volume, Anne Russell notes, "Behn deliberately places some of her own poetry to illuminate its relations with works by others, in a complex web of political, poetic, and personal exchanges." (8) In the instigating poem, Alexis takes as his subject the presumably generic and inclusive "Man." In an editorial comment Janet Todd asserts that "Alexis's poem is addressed to 'Man' in the sense of humanity, and argues that all forms of human desire divert us from the possibility of satisfaction in the present and lose their power and attraction once their goal has been attained." (9) It seems equally feasible, however, to read the poem as gendered, with a resulting argument that the human male is cursed with insatiable desire--an attribute, of course, often used to describe dangerous women: viragos or, perhaps, writers.

Behn's satire in the two Alexis poems analyzes the hegemony that male writers operate within, and the ways in which women are excluded from that literary, social and political experience. As both a writer and a reader, Behn recognizes that power "is allocated not in accordance with biological sex identity, but with the perception of gendered, gender-as-signed characteristics." (10) Behn interprets the male poet's language as a gendered construct. Reading Alexis's poem from a distinctly female perspective, rather than submitting herself to the position of a woman reading as a man, Behn exposes the limitations that male language poses for women and then shows how such language functions to establish and maintain gender distinctions in sexual behavior as well. As Dustin Griffin observes, such satiric efforts challenge the established hierarchies that organize a culture:

By conducting open-ended speculative enquiry, by provoking and challenging comfortable and received ideas, by unsettling our convictions and occasionally shattering our illusions, by asking questions and raising doubts but not providing answers, satire ultimately has political consequences. (11)

Behn's resistant reading and revisionary writing require her readers to analyze the assumptions of the generic masculine in a variety of ways, including verse form, satiric persona, and assertion of an alternative, more truly inclusive language.

In the first poem about Alexis, Behn deliberately interprets the generic masculine noun as gender specific and tailors her response poem to the males of the species. In so doing she draws our attention to the problems of assuming gender inclusiveness, for her argument demonstrates that Alexis does not exactly consciously include women in the term "Man," and that to do so would require a specific awareness of gender exclusion, of which the masculine poet might well be oblivious. In fact, Behn's poem shows that Alexis's typical male problem is exactly such oblivion: a man using potentially generic terms can do so blithely, presuming the inclusion to extend to all men, but not to all people.

In Alexis's poem the desire man experiences is a trick, a visual deception that the "inchanting objects" cause helpless man to experience again and again as his "boundless vast desires can know no rest." The poem presents man as inherently foolish, weak and trapped in the false promises of desire:

   Far from our Eyes th'inchanting objects set
   Advantage by the friendly distance get.
   Fruition shews the cheat, and views 'era near,
   Then all their borrow'd splendours plain appear,
   And we what with much care we gain and skill
   An empty nothing find, or real ill.
   Thus disappointed, our mistaken thought,
   Not finding satisfaction which it sought
   Renews its search, and with much toyl and pain
   Most wisely strives to be deceiv'd again.

While clearly a satire on human susceptibility to beauty and desire, Alexis's poem--with its emphasis on fruition as the redirection rather than satisfaction of desire--conceptualizes desire as a synonym for promiscuity and ambition, even calling desire "the Ambitious feaver [that] still returns / And with redoubled fire more fiercely burns." The blur between sexual desire and ambition in the poem is one of several assumptions that Behn challenges as essentially male and problematic.

Behn's poem "To Alexis in Answer to his Poem against Fruition" (1:272-73) was published in Lycidus in 1688. An irregular ode, the poem's form is used by Behn to lead the reader through the familiar steps of turn, counterturn and stand; her argument moves from a criticism of male sexuality to an analysis of female behavior relative to male sexuality, to the epode that shows how both men and women are adversely affected by the hierarchical sexual dynamic, men with their loss of desire and women with their lack of sexual satisfaction. The rhyme scheme augments the ode's tri-partite form as in each stanza there is a variation in a pattern of three rhymes which permits Behn to imitate the turn-counterturn-stand movement within a single stanza, and appear to be making a balanced and evenhanded argument at every step.

In the poem, Behn's speaker makes her points with some detachment; her persona is female, but she garners authority by observing the poetic conventions of making the persona superior, giving her the distance to demonstrate the overall effects of both men's and women's sexual behavior. The poem begins with a satire against men that is the feminine counterpart of the prevalent satire against women: Behn speaks of men's sexuality with contempt as she exposes its natural and acquired limitations:

   Ah hapless sex! who bear no charms,
   But what like lightning flash and are no more,
      False tires sent down for baneful harms,
   Fires which the fleeting Lover feebly warms
      And given like past [D]eboches o're,
      Like Songs that please, (tho bad,) when new,
      But learn'd by heart neglected grew.

Men's foibles are two: the mechanics of male sexuality renders their desire ephemeral since all "fleeting" men do is "flash" a "false tire" that offers a "feeble" warmth. And men's response to their own ephemeral experience is a cultivated fickleness: they make no initial assessment of the quality of appropriateness of their potential sexual experience--"Like Songs that please, (tho bad,)"--and when the sexual experience with a particular lover becomes too familiar--"learn'd by heart"--they move on to something new, leaving the lover "neglected" and unsatisfied. Behn indicates her disapproval of these masculine qualities by the notable alliteration of the fricatives, which cause a jarring violence in the sounds of the first four lines of the poem much like the disruptive behavior she is describing in the stanza.

Behn's sympathy is clearly with her own sex, but not necessarily because of women's behavior, which is described with sympathetic satire. In the counterturn Behn appropriates the conventional satiric jabs at women's vanity and loose sexuality, seeming to present herself as a "manly" satirist. However, she also unsettles the reader by identifying herself (the persona) with the female objects she satirizes. By using the inclusive pronoun "we," she erases the objectification of the female. She begins the description of women with a favorite device, the audience-inclusive rhetorical questions:

      Why do we deck, why do we dress
      For such a short-liv'd happiness?
      Why do we put Attraction on,
   Since either way tis we must be undon?

Later she describes women's efforts to "charm" men, asserts that men are women's "great business and ... aim," and that women "spread ... fruitless snares" to capture men. The terms Behn uses clearly echo the ways male satirists describe women, and it is possible to think that Behn participates in a misogynistic satire against women, as Jayne Lewis declares women had to if they were to write gender satire at all. (12) But Behn's comments about women's behavior occur in a context that has already established male weakness, and Behn sustains that portrait of men by continuing to excoriate them. Dustin Griffin suggests that it is important to focus on the discourse of satire more than on the events or plot. (13) To a certain extent, what matters is how Behn talks about both men and women. She begins with the women's behavior and then moves to the men's, implying a relationship between the two. Men are innately illogical and foolish: "... Man with that inconstancy was born, / To love the absent, and the present scorn" and "They fly if Honour take our part, / Our Virtue drives 'em o're the field." Ultimately, men's behavior is sadly empty: "Inconstancy's the good supream / The rest is airy Notion, empty Dream!"

Here and throughout the poem, Behn moves beyond typical gender satire, which describes the paradox of co-existent desire and satisfaction, to illuminate the cause of the situation she is satirizing. Describing the symptoms of that paradox in each sex helps Behn present solutions that are pragmatic and cooperative. By looking at the cause of the problem she satirizes, and by seeing that the cause has several dimensions, feminine and masculine, Behn makes satire both more complicated and more realistic, and initiates the transformation in the genre that Matthew Kinservik sees asa shift from invective to moral instruction. (14)

Ralph Cohen asserts that such a generic change as we seen in Aphra Behn's satire occurs through the appropriation and then subversion of the established form:

... the resistance to the received view of a genre generates alterations within it. It is not merely personal resentment or social and economic or literary exclusion or the class opposition, but the omission of addition of components that lead to alterations of writing. (15)

Behn's analysis of the gendered assumptions of language begins to alter satire to be more inclusive, and in the process to indicate means of social change, an alteration of the function of satire which would resonate throughout the eighteenth century.

In the biggest part of the Alexis poem, the counterturn, Behn explores the cause of men's and women's differing sexual dissatisfaction. She analyzes women's behavior with the men she has described in the turn of the poem. The speaker continues to identify herself as female, this time by including herself in the group affected by men's inconstancy: "... all our joys are stinted to the space / Of one betraying enterview." Women suffer from that inconstancy, since men love-and-leave them with a price to pay for their sexual activity, either in their reputations when men claim "The Trophies of [their] conquest and our shame" or in the serious problem of extra-marital pregnancy: "With one surrender to the eager will / We're short-liv'd nothing, or a real ill." In the counterturn, Behn suggests a causal relationship: men are flawed in their sexual behavior, but that flaw only limits them while it actually damages women. Men lose their sexual desire (temporarily, and with a particular woman) but women are left holding the baby. The interaction necessarily fails to satisfy either sex.

Behn shifts in the poem's final section to a declaration of principle, the overtly didactic end of her satire. The conclusion is a bleak definition of desire as a phenomenon that is "fatal" to women and that diminishes men:

      Then, heedless Nymph, be rul'd by me
      If e're your Swain the bliss desire;
      Think like Alexis he may be
      Whose wisht Possession damps his tire;
      The roving youth in every shade
   Has left some sighing and abandon'd Maid,
   For tis a fatal lesson he has learn'd,
   After fruition ne're to be concern'd.

Illicit sexual behavior leaves women abandoned and potentially bearing the "fruit," and men disconnected from women, and indeed from all the ramifications possible in that relationship.

The ability of Behn's speaker to see the detrimental effects of desire on both men and women heightens the satire Behn is making on Alexis, the man secure in his hegemonic language and philosophy. Pointing out the masculine bias in Alexis's humanistic "Man," Behn analyzes the way that women are conveniently subsumed in men's sexual needs and excluded from society's--"Man's"--language. Assuming that men's experience of sexuality, those flashes of lightning, is what sexuality is, and that man is what humanity is, men can disappoint and destroy women without even noticing, and be unaware--conveniently--of the fruit of their loins, something women cannot escape. Language allows men to ignore women's social and physical reality.

Isolated from those definitions of sexuality and humanity, Behn seeks to enlarge the terms, to make them inclusive of women. Behn's deconstruction of Alexis's language results in a revelation of women's sexual experience, and establishes the politically loaded gender distinctions concealed under the convenient hegemony that preserves masculine authority and freedom from recognition of masculine responsibility for sexual "fruition." By exposing the false assumptions in Alexis's language, Behn is able to articulate women's experience outside that language and establish the centrality of the collaborative nature of sexual intercourse, complicating Alexis's deceptively exclusionary definition of fruition.


In the other Alexis poem, "To Alexis, On his saying, I lov'd a Man that talk'd much" (1:273-74), Behn develops the idea of masculine privilege in verbal and sexual hegemony. In this poem, the speaker responds to criticism from Alexis for loving a man who, in fact, behaves just as Alexis does. Alexis's blindness to his own weakness becomes a metaphor for men's blindness to gender as a political category, particularly to the privileges that gender accords men.

The second poem to Alexis appears directly after the first in Lycidus; Alexis's words do not appear; he apparently did not write a poem, but rather spoke to Behn about loving a man that "talk'd much." Several issues emerge here. While Behn presents Alexis as a provocative participant in an ongoing dialogue, he does not have equal space nor are his actual words recounted: Behn clearly controls the dialogue in Lycidus, not only by having two responses to Alexis's one, but also by ordering the exchanges so that she is in the respondent's position, placed to correct the propositions he presents and, of course, have the last word. Also, the title of Behn's second poem draws our attention to the personal nature of this second exchange. No longer in the realm of philosophy and aesthetics--desire and beauty--the dialogue has shifted to the personal: what Alexis said to Behn about Behn's personal romantic experience. Just as the whole dialogue between Alexis and Behn in Lycidus would suggest, this poem implies that the relationship between the two poets is not simply poetic, philosophical, or professional, but that it is also personal. Anne Russell asserts that in her print miscellanies (Covent Gardern Drolery [1672], Miscellany [1685], and Lycidus [1688]), Behn "blurred the distinctions between the 'public' literary world reserved primarily for men of letters and the 'private' circles of manuscript transmission in which women had recognized places as writers." (16) I would argue that the distinctions are blurred not only bibliographically, as Russell argues, but also epistemologically: in the Alexis poems Behn erases the traditionally exclusive hierarchy between professional and personal rhetoric.

Behn begins her second poem, the response to Alexis's personally spoken words, with heavy sarcasm, turning his words back to him ironically:

   Alexis, since you'l have it so
   I grant I am impertinent.
   And till this moment did not know
   Thro all my life what 'twas I ment;
   Your kind opinion was th' unflattering Glass,
   In which my mind found how deform'd it was.

Immediately Behn establishes that Alexis himself "talks much," and about her: he describes her as impertinent, tells her what she means, and opines that her mind is deformed. The speaker suggests that she appreciates Alexis's description and opinion, and that she benefits from his words, but in fact the speaker's polite appreciation is undercut by "since you'l have it so," and "till this moment [I] did not know." The figure of Alexis's opinion as an unflattering mirror may reflect the deformity of Alexis's opinion as much as the speaker's mind, the referent of "it" in line 6 not being utterly clear. The speaker knows that she is superior to arrogant Alexis, and sets out in traditional satiric persona to demonstrate her better wit.

Behn devotes the rest of the poem to the speaker's doubletalk, emphasizing how Alexis will interpret everything the speaker says as complimentary and servile to him while every line is potentially ironic as well. Thus "By what you hate, you teach me to be wise" may signify the speaker's acquiring wisdom by following Alexis's example, as Alexis would assume, or it may mean that Alexis's hatred teaches the speaker to evaluate for herself, and thereby acquire true wisdom. When Alexis "reclaims" the speaker by "subduing" her "impertinence," the speaker uncovers the man's massive pride wherein he sees himself as the paradigm of perfection, a standard which he, with godlike powers, can help her meet: "To so divine a power what must I owe, / That renders me so like the perfect--you?" Again, the irony is clear to the reader who is not blinded by pride; the imperfect rhyme, the penultimate pause, and the question mark after "you" all serve to show us that Alexis is not what he thinks he is.

In the final stanza, the speaker's elevation of Alexis to the position where his every word is eagerly (and patiently) awaited functions as the hyperbole that renders Alexis's verbosity absurd:

   For ever may I listning sit,
   Tho but each hour a word be born:
   I wou'd attend the coming wit,
   And bless what can so well inform:
   Let the dull World henceforth to words be damn'd,
   I'm into nobler sense than talking sham'd.

The speaker is "sham'd" into "nobler sense" by Alexis's words, and while Alexis interprets that shame as the success of his teaching--he has made her aware of her need to listen to him, rather than assert her own views--the opposite interpretation is equally valid and more in keeping with the satiric tone of the poem. The shame the speaker feels is on Alexis's behalf; she values her own ability to think far above the damnably dull talking of Alexis.

The speaker's sense of her intellectual superiority to Alexis, and her witty way of twitting him with her irony, permits Behn to imply a female authority, the authority she herself models. As Griffin observes, satirists work by demonstrating their "rhetorical skill, their wit, their erudition, their power." And in outperforming Alexis in verbal contest, Behn "establishes a pecking order." (17) The female authority she demonstrates encompasses the masculine hegemonic language and instills another meaning into it, a meaning inaccessible to men who, like Alexis, think they know all there is to know. In that way, Behn is able to privilege women, who necessarily comprehend masculine language in order to function in the male-dominated world, and who also have a language of their own. Behn's pointed attack on Alexis, a specific man rather than all men, allows the male reader who is sensitive to irony, and therefore open to the possibility of women having wit, to be kept clear of her satire's scythe. It is only the dense men whom the poem attacks; the wise men speak her language.

In effect, then, the poem itself functions exactly as Behn argues language should: it expresses multiple possible meanings, and is not structured by the speaker's desire to completely control its readers, but rather to awaken in them an awareness for diversity of ideas. Such is the work of satirists, as Bogel writes: "[Satirists] ask us ... to meditate on the problematic intricacies of identification and difference by which we define our own identities and our relations to others of whom we cannot fully approve or disapprove." (18) Such is Behn's situation in her satire on the Poet Laureate, a poem that exemplifies her powerful energy when she is inspired by strong convictions about a challenging subject, her sometime-friend John Dryden.


The paradox of satire ridiculing a subject too ridiculous to recognize that it is being ridiculed--and thus of satire that does not set out of reform or teach--leads Behn to a new satiric position, one that permits her to contend with her subjects in their own language and context. To do so, she relinquishes the satirist's position of absolute superiority and comes into the fray as both participant and observer, or as teacher and student. (19) It is a relationship with her readers and her subjects that Behn always liked, the "we" that really signified a group of peers, a focus on the human qualities that connect us all. Kinservik finds a similar focus on connection in satire in the works of Richard Steele: "Rather than lashing vicious persons from a position of moral superiority and encouraging others to scorn the satiric target, [Steele argues that] the true satirist sympathizes with the target and insinuates that he/she shares the target's vices." (20) Kinservik credits the early eighteenth-century essayist with a positive change in satire from sheerly destructive condemnation to ethical education. But Aphra Behn clearly saw satire's potential for constructive moral advancement long before Steele did. Behn's subtlety rests in her melding of convention and subversion: she seizes the position of moral superiority and sympathizes with the target, with the effect that she elevates the target by assuming that it can (and will) be reformed. Her challenge for improvement demonstrates not only her faith in human goodness but also in the capacity of poetry to change society; her satire is a work of praxis.

The satire on Dryden is clouded in controversy. First, the poem was not published during Behn's lifetime and only two copies of the poem exist in manuscripts dating during that period. Of those two manuscripts, only one attributes the poem to Behn. Examining the other manuscript, Mary Ann O'Connell has raised some important challenges to that attribution. With some reservation, I have decided to treat the poem as Behn's. (21) As I argue below, Behn's treatment of Dryden builds on her earlier efforts to make satire an argumentative discourse that does not need to be elitist. In the satire on Dryden, the satirist tackles the poet who dearly wanted and strove to gain a position of absolute power in the literary world--and who achieved that goal with impressive wit and work. The satirist willing to challenge that poet had to be brave, smart, and truly democratic to succeed; she also was aware of her own position relative to Dryden's literary hierarchy. In many ways, only an outsider can topple the throne.

In the "Satyr on Dr. Dryden" (1:231), Behn treats John Dryden very differently than she does Joseph Baber; rather than quoting from Dryden's poetry to illustrate his moral weaknesses, she lambastes Dryden with many of the same poetic devices and strategies that Dryden used to satirize his victims. Dryden's poetry is essentially off-limits, beyond criticism, for Behn, and her respect for Dryden's poetic accomplishments here as elsewhere is shown in her use of many of Dryden's characteristics: the powerfully rising rhythm of the couplet, the epigrammatic end rhyme, the artful manipulation of couplet figures such as chiasmus and zeugma. By doing what Dryden does Behn compliments the poet even as she condemns the man by revealing a reprehensible pattern in his personal behavior. Even that strategy, of showing the admirable qualities in her subject while she attacks him, is similar to Dryden's inclination to be fair, as in his portrait of Shaftesbury in Absalom and Achitophel and, less compactly, in works as distinct as An Essay on Dramatic Poesy and The Hind and the Panther.

Behn's "Satyr" bites sharply because of its emotional layers: she is not simply disgusted with Dryden, as she is with Baber; she feels disgust, love, disappointment, and shame for her subject. The passion underlying the satire is complex, but also very focused: Behn channels all her emotion into the theme of what she sees as Dryden's inconstancy--religious, sexual, political and literary--in the cause of opportunism. (22)

Rhetorically, the poem is expressed in a series of seventeen heroic couplets with no punctuation except three caesurae and two end commas. There is no full end stop anywhere, with the effect that the poem is a spontaneous burst of breathless scorn. This streamline of feeling and language makes the satire utterly lyrical:

   Scorning religion all thy life time past
   and now embracing popery at last
   as like thy selfe and what thou'st done before
   defying wives and marying a whore
   alas how leering Hereticks will laugh
   to see a grey old hedge bird caught with chaffe,
   a lewd old Atheist some religion owne
   yet one to show his judgment wors then none
   a poet to from greate heroick th[e]ames
   and inspiration, past to dreaming dreams
   yet this the preists will gett by thee at last
   that if they mend thee miracles are not ceast
   for tis not more to cure the lame, and blind
   then haile an impious ulcerated mind
   This if they doe and give thee but a graine
   of common honesty, or common shame,
   'twill be more credit to theire cause I grant
   than twou'd to make another man a saint
   but thou noe party ever willt adorne
   to thy owne shame and natur's scandall borne
   all [shun] a like thy ugly outward part
   while none have right or title to thy heart,
   resolv'd to stand and constant to the times
   fix't to thy lewdness, settl'd in thy crimes
   whilst Moses with the Israelits abode
   thou seem'st content to worshipp Moses god
   but since he went and since thy betters fell
   thou found'st a goulden calfe would doe as well
   and when another Moses shall arise
   once more I know thou'lt rub and clear thy eyes
   and turn to be true Israelite againe
   for when the act is done and finish't cleane
   what should the poet doe but shift the scene

The first point Behn makes is her usual assertion that a man's treatment of women is a prediction of the man's moral character. Dryden's "defying wives and marying a whore" may be an aspersion on Dryden's wife, Elizabeth Howard, who was reputed to have had a liaison with the rakish Earl of Chesterfield before she married Dryden; Elizabeth Howard also had familial connections with the Catholic Howard family and therefore was perhaps a subject of scorn for Behn. But it seems more in keeping with Behn's attitudes toward married women to read the "whore" as Anne Reeves, an actress whom Dryden took as a mistress in 1671. (23) If she is referring to Dryden's preferential treatment of Reeves, then Elizabeth Howard is indeed "defied," her claims and wishes as Dryden's wife being publicly disregarded by the poet laureate.

Behn's description of Dryden as a "hedge bird" emphasizes both the illicit possession of another woman (hedge bird as footpad or highway robber) and the figure of moral rootlessness (hedge bird as vagabond). (24) Finally, of course, Dryden's depiction of marriage in several plays of the 1670s makes light of a married woman in favor of the glamorized whore. (If the line refers to his plays, Behn is reading selectively, since in some plays Dryden presents married women very sympathetically, particularly in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, where he gives Antony's wife Octavia a powerfully scathing speech about Antony's disregard of his marital obligations while he is involved with Cleopatra.) In any case, Dryden's treatment of women is, in Behn's eyes, reprehensible since he values sex more than the fidelity of marriage.

Dryden's lack of fidelity to a wife is only the first instance of his inconstancy: the poem also enumerates his changes or revisions of religious faith (from Puritan youth to Anglican apologist to Catholic convert) and what Behn argues are the causal changes in political support (Cromwell--Charles II--James II). When Behn asserts that Dryden was "scorning religion all thy life time past," she is perhaps arguing that his multiplicity of beliefs has played out in no belief at all, an idea she develops by calling him a "lewd old Atheist." The juxtaposition of "lewd" and "Atheist" also implies, of course, that Dryden's behavior has not supported his declarations of belief: nominally professing Protestant values but actually being "lewd" and possessing "an impious ulcerated mind." Behn asserts that if the Catholic "preists" can "mend" Dryden by making him honest and shameful, they will have performed a miracle. Behn's sarcasm not only chastises Dryden for the disparity of denomination over the course of his life, but also attacks the disparity between his words and his behavior. As Michael Seidel notes, "Satire refuses to recognize the necessity of disguise.... [T]he revelation of hypocrisy is the satiric dissociation of action and intent." (25)

As Dryden himself recognized, satire often uses physical characteristics to signify moral attitude; hypocrisy is, at some level, ultimately impossible to disguise--our bodies will betray us, reveal us for what we are. Following Dryden's poetic lead in this way, Behn interprets her subject's physical appearance as both a symptom and a symbol of his moral depravity. Like Dryden's description of Shaftesbury's body in Absalom and Achitophel, "A fiery Soul, which working out its way, / Fretted the Pigmy Body to decay: / And o'rinform'd the Tenement of Clay," Behn's representation of Dryden's appearance makes the poet's ugliness an inevitable ramification of his immorality: "... thou noe party ever willt adorne / to thy owne shame and natur's scandal borne / all [shun] a like thy ugly outward part." Indeed, Dryden is constant only in his immoral behavior: "Fix't to thy lewdness, settl'd in thy crimes," and his "outward part" naturally expresses his inward character.

The satire on Dryden's opportunism condemns the poet for his past actions, his lack of moral integrity. But Behn is not content to stop there, with Dryden censured by her superior moral understanding. Rather, she brings herself down to his level, indicating that she sees Dryden's greater potential and has faith in his ability to rise above the past pattern of inconstancy. His inherent goodness lies in his capacity to see clearly: "I know thou'lt rub and clear thy eyes," she affirms. After complimenting his latent moral vision, she expresses understanding of and sympathy for his having fallen away from rectitude: "for when the act is done and finish't cleane / what should the poet doe but shift the scene." As a human being, Behn identifies with Dryden's errors; as a fellow poet and, significantly in the metaphor, as playwright, she understands the literary imperative to imagine "different scenes," alternate realities and moralities.

In that sympathetic explanation for Dryden's seeming fickleness, Behn accomplishes several important aims for her satire. She offers a somewhat persuasive excuse for Dryden's behavior--poetic license, basically--and keeps Dryden in the realm of her affection, a useful place for him to be for her, even after his conversion. (And indeed, if Behn weren't as outspoken and critical as she is at the beginning of the poem, the end might be read as mere flattery.) But more importantly, she also creates an important identity for herself: she understands the demands of his poetic life, being a poet and playwright herself; one might even gather she is as good a poems he, equally knowledgeable. And she is morally superior to him, able to preserve her integrity while he sells his to fuel his ambitions. In the end of the poem, then, Behn has elevated herself to be not only the same as Dryden in terms of poetic comprehension, but also above him from an ethical perspective.

In the course of the four literary satires, Behn has made an astounding move as a satirist: from superior lampoonist in the Baber poem to didactic respondent in the Alexis poems to equal professional in the satire on Dryden. In that move she has in one way "lowered" herself: from boss to teacher to colleague. But in sacrificing the hierarchy of literary authority, Aphra Behn has gained two things: she has found a voice for female satire, and she has revealed that that voice has more moral authority--the practical aspect of satire--than any male satirist's based on schooled knowledge of poetic conventions. Women could have the scholarly knowledge of classical literary conventions, she demonstrates in her early satires; they could also rise above such knowledge.

California State University, Long Beach


(1) Felicity Nussbaum, The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women 1660-1750 (U. of Kentucky Press, 1984).

(2) Ralph Cohen, "Generating Literary Histories," in New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History," ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds (Princeton U. Press, 1993), 49.

(3) Aphra Behn, The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Janet Todd, 6 vols. (Ohio State U. Press, 1992), 1: 299-303. All page references to this and other Behn works will be taken from this volume and will appear parenthetically hereafter.

(4) John Baber, "To the King, upon the Queens being Deliver'd of a Son" (1688). Wing STC B426.

(5) In 1693 Dryden would argue that feminine rhymes in satire were a sign of "something immature and irresponsible, and hence not manly," as Gary Dyer says in British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789-1832 (Cambridge U. Press, 1997), 53.

(6) Fredric V. Bogel, "The Difference Satire Makes: Reading Swift's Poems," in Theorizing Satire: Essays in Literary Criticism, ed. Brian A. Connery and Kirk Combe (New York: St. Martin's, 1995), 45.

(7) Erin Mackie, "The Culture Market, the Marriage Market, and the Exchange of Language: Swift and the Progress of Desire," in Connery and Combe, 173.

(8) Anne Russell, "Aphra Behn's Miscellanies: The Politics and Poetics of Editing," PQ77 (1998): 319. See Alexis, "A Poem against fruition written on the reading of Mountains [Montaigne's] Essay" (2.15) in Lycidus, Wing STC T129.

(9) The Works of Aphra Behn 1:432.

(10) Paula Backscheider, "Sex, Sin and Ideology: The Drama's Gift to the Genesis of the Novel," Lumen 12 (1993): 11.

(11) Dustin Griffin, Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (U. Press of Kentucky, 1994), 160.

(12) Jayne Lewis, "'Compositions of Ill Nature': Women's Place in a Satiric Tradition," Critical Matrix 2, no. 2 (1986): 49.

(13) Griffin, 197.

(14) Matthew J. Kinservik, "Censorship and Generic Change: The Case of Satire on the Early Eighteenth-Century London Stage," PQ78 (1999): 263-64.

(15) Cohen, 48.

(16) Russell, 321.

(17) Griffin, 83, 92.

(18) Bogel, 52.

(19) Brian Connery, "The Persona as Pretender and the Reader as Constitutional Subject in Swift's Tale," in Cutting Edges: Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire, ed. James E. Gill (U. of Tennessee Press, 1995), 173.

(20) Kinservik, 275.

(21) See Todd's comment on the text in The Works of Aphra Behn 1:427. O'Connell's argument, based on careful analyses of handwriting and notation on the manuscript, is in her article "A Verse Miscellany of Aphra Behn: Bodleian Library MS Firth c.16," English Manuscript Studies, 1100-1700 2 (1990): 189-227. O'Connell comments that the attribution is "one of many unanswered--and perhaps unanswerable--questions" posed by the compilation manuscript in the Bodleian (203).

(22) In his "Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire" (1693), Dryden comments that "a perfect Satire ... ought only to treat of one Subject; to be confin'd to one particular Theme; or, at least, to one principally" (The Works of John Dryden, ed. H.T. Swedenberg, et al. 20 vols. [U. of California Press, 1956-90], 4:79). Behn's organizational focus in her satire on Dryden may have helped Dryden see the power of that rhetorical strategy.

(23) James A. Winn, "Dryden and Anne Reeves: Some Facts and Questions," Restoration 10, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 2.

(24) See the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., which includes the quotation from Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair. "Out, you rogue, you hedge-bird, you pimp.

(25) Michael Seidel, Satiric Inheritance: Rabelais to Sterne (Princeton U. Press, 1979), 22.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A119782667