Aphra Behn

Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today we’re reading a poem by Aphra Behn. Behn was the first English woman to earn her living by writing. This has made her something of a mythical figure, helped along by the fact that we know almost nothing for certain about her early life and very few biographical details about her later life. She certainly chose to make her living by writing, and produced novels, plays and poetry. She was likely born to working class parents, but ended up rubbing shoulders with nobles and was likely a royal spy. She certainly had Royalist sympathies, and with the exception of her notable status as the first commercial female writer (and her risqué poetry) seems to have been fairly conservative.

Despite being more influential for her circumstances than her work, many of Behn’s writings were well-known at the time and her poetry is still very readable – particularly since it was written during the mid-17th century. Montague Summers, resident of Richmond and literary scholar, was a dedicated advocate of her work’s literary merit. Today we are reading “Song:”

“O Love! that stronger art than wine,
Pleasing delusion, witchery divine,
Wont to be prized above all wealth,
Disease that has more joys than health;
Though we blaspheme thee in our pain,
And of thy tyranny complain,
We are all bettered by they reign.

What reason never can bestow
We to this useful passion owe;
Love wakes the dull from sluggish ease,
And learns a clown the art to please,
Humbles the vain, kindles the cold,
Makes misers free, and cowards bold;
’Tis he reforms the sot from drink,
And teaches airy fops to think.

When full brute appetite is fed,
And choked the glutton lies and dead,
Thou new spirits dost dispense
And ’finest the gross delights of sense:
Virtue’s unconquerable aid
That against Nature can persuade,
And makes a roving mind retire
Within the bounds of just desire;
Cheerer of age, youth’s kind unrest,
And half the heaven of the blest!”

Find this poem at The Poetry Foundation. You can read more about Behn and how her life has been interpreted at the University of Oxford’s Great Writers Inspire website.

Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!