Aphra Behn was a famous Restoration poet of the 17th Century. She was also arguably a proto-feminist, whose prose involved confronting gender roles and men solely in the position of power. Her softly stinging poem “The Disappointment” is one of her most controversial pieces, for challenging men in the bedroom and their position of sole dominance in this sexual sphere. Behn points out that women are sexual creatures too: “[who] offer…[their] virgin innocence” (225). To avoid the repetition of previous scholarly articles on Behn and her challenging of gender roles, this paper will serve as an introduction for readers to Behn’s core concepts on gender and their relation to comedy. “The Disappointment,” a poem of male impotence, is very much set-up like a joke: “a successful literary and sexual climax is replaced by the anticlimax at the very structural center of the poem: the last line of stanza 7 in a fourteen stanza structure,” (Zeitz 508) which simply states that the first seven stanzas are like the set-up of a very well built joke. The punch line begins with a metaphor of the man worshipping the woman as if an altar: “his daring hand that altar seized,/ where gods of love do sacrifice,” and hits home with “a victim to love’s sacred flame;/ while the o’er-ravished shepherd lies/ unable to perform the sacrifice” (Behn 226-227). The male gender as a whole is fair game for Behn’s sharp wit and her pointing out of the vulnerabilities of men in sexuality creates for light humour, amusement and enjoyment for readers.
The general structure of a good joke involves the set-up and the delivery of the punch line; timing is also an important element, which weaves both the set-up and the punch line together for a focused delivery. As stated earlier, the first seven stanzas serve as the building up of the joke, as two lovers come to a sexual embrace: “in a lone thicket made for love,/ silent as yielding maid’s consent” (Behn 223). Many of the early lines in these seven stanzas are erotic in nature, with a shift of power moving from male to female: “[she] permits his force, yet gently strove;” (Behn 223). This power shift makes the man seem weaker and smaller in stature: “but he as much unused to fear” (Behn 224). The male character in the poem, Lysander, is part of the joke, with the climax, or in this poem’s case, the anti-climax beginning in stanza seven.
Lysander is unable to rise to his own sexual expectations and his inability is what makes the punch line so surprising and humorous: “while the o’er-ravished shepherd lies/ unable to perform the sacrifice” (Behn 225). The male in Behn’s poem is not all powerful: “power is not returned to Lysander” (510). Instead, Lysander is put in a very flawed and human situation, which is universally appealing to readers. The shifting of men from an all powerful position to one of mere mortality, with fallibilities makes “The Disappointment” laughable and therefore enjoyable as a short piece of prose and comedy.
Finally, the remaining seven stanzas are an extension of the joke, with Lysander the butt of the joke and this theme is repeated for effect, with metaphor further enhancing the joke: “finding beneath the verdant leaves a snake…disarmed of all his aweful fires” (Behn 226-227). The final lines in stanza fourteen clearly show who is in charge of this sexual meeting: “whose soft bewitching influence had damned [Lysander] him to the Hell of impotence” (Behn 227). Cloris, the maid, is now in charge of the sexual sphere, not Lysander.
Creative, challenging, and surprising for placing one man in the role of powerlessness in sexuality, “The Disappointment” is one of Behn’s most controversial poems by challenging man’s dominance of the time. This is a poem which changes gender roles in a comedic way, so that both genders can enjoy the poem in very different ways, or possibly even in similar ways.
Zeitz, Lisa M., and Peter Thoms. “Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn’s “The
Disappointment”.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 37.3 (1997): 501-16. Print.