To discuss gendered representations of the sexual body
In addition to being a popular writer of prose narratives and a successful playwright, Aphra Behn was an
accomplished poet. The poem you are reading for today belongs to the Restoration subgenre of the impotence
poem. Harold Love reminds us that there is a common association between the pen and the phallus, and the phallus and
power. Given the baudy culture inspired by Charles II's court, the court poets delighted in writing poems that
played upon the connections between sexuality and power, sexuality and authority to rule. The second poem for today's
class is by the notorious rake and brilliant courtier poet, John Wilmot, Lord Rochester. [He is the subject of
the 2004 movie, The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp. Recommended, but not for the squeamish.]
For today's class keep in mind the parallels here suggested between sexual performance, literary performance and
leadership or authority.
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
Your consideration of the poems should begin with our standard questions:
Who is speaking?
What is the occasion of the poem?
How would you describe the purpose of the poem?
We will consider how the poem achieves its effects in the discussion that follows.
It is important to remember that the speakers of the poems are NOT the authors. This is especially
true (and often mistaken) for Rochester's poems. He constructs a speaking character, in this case, in a form
of dramatic monologue to his penis. After you establish the speakers and the occasions, compare these two aspects of the poems. How does
Rochester's use of the first person voice compare with Behn's third person narration? How does each
affect the impact or feel of the poem?
Although both poem's address the man's sexual failure, the stories are different. What happens to "Corrinna" in
Rochester's poem? What effect does this have on the poem? What happens to "Cloris" and "Lysander" in Behn's poem? How does
Behn's scenario differ? What is the effect?
Compare the conclusions of the two poems. This comparison may help to clarify the purposes of the poems. What do you think
the purpose of Rochester's poem is? What do you think the purpose of Behn's poem is?
One of the clearest differences between the two poems is the style of language. How would you describe Rochester's language?
What examples require explanation or further consideration? What effect does his use of vulgarity have? Do you think this
use of vulgarity serves a literary purpose? Why or why not?
Describe Behn's style of writing in this poem. Include in your description some assessment of her language, metaphors,
stanza form, structure. How does this differ from Rochester's poem? What effect do her stylistic choices have on the
impact of the poem?
Consider the gendered perspectives of the author. Although I don't want you to think of the speakers as the authors
themselves, we can draw some conclusions based on the gender(s) represented in the poems. How does gender affect the perspective
of the speaker in Rochester's poem? Behn's attempts to be more neutral, using the third person. Is this a gendered
representation of a failed sexual encounter? Why or why not?
Consider the representation of sexed bodies in these poems. How does Rochester's representation of female sexuality differ
from Behn's? Why? How do the poem's differ in their themes on sexual performance? Where does the fault lie?
How does Behn's representation of male sexuality differ from Rochester's? Why? How do the poem's differ in their
themes on male sexual identity?
How do the representations of sexed bodies in these poems compare with earlier discussions of the body in Sawday and in
earlier literature? (One example might be Adam and Eve in their two sex scenes in Paradise Lost.) Where is the
"soul" located in Rochester's poem? How does Behn represent the desiring female body? What is the significance of these
Consider the parallels to be drawn between sexual performance and literary performance. In what ways might these poems
represent a competition in poetry? Who, in your opinion, wins and why?
Consider the parallels to be drawn between sexual performance and authority or power. What do the two poems say about
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