Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. II. Ben Jonson to Dryden
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
 
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Aphra Behn (1640–1689)
 
[Aphra Behn, whose maiden name was Johnson, was born in Canterbury and died in London. Her most famous comedy, The Rover, was printed in 1677; her Poems appeared in 1685.]  1
 
MRS. BEHN was the first Englishwoman who made her livelihood by the profession of literature. After a youth of much vicissitude and some not inconsiderable social splendour, she seems to have lost her fortune, and to have turned at the age of twenty-nine to her pen for support. She was a woman of no learning, but of great enthusiasm for scholarship in others, and of unbounded veneration for wit and genius. Wit she herself possessed, and something, too, of genius, though not enough to lift her above the mean standard of a debased and grovelling age. But while we condemn the laxity of her manners, and exclaim, with Pope, ‘how loosely does Astræa tread the stage,’ we must not deny her the praise due to honest work unwearily performed through nearly twenty years of poverty and failing health. Living among men, struggling by the side of Settle and of Shadwell for the dingy honours of the stage, she forgot the dignity of her sex, and wrote like a man. In eighteen years she saw nineteen of her dramas applauded or hissed by the debauched and idle groundlings of the Duke’s Theatre; and forced to write what would please, she wrote in a style that has put a later generation very justly to the blush. But in power of sustained production she surpassed all her contemporaries except Dryden, since beside this ample list of plays, she published eight novels, some collections of poetry, and various miscellaneous volumes. The bulk of her writings, and the sustained force so considerable a body of literature displays, are more marked than the quality of her style, which is very irregular, uncertain and untutored. She possessed none of that command over her pen which a university training had secured to the best male poets of her time. But she has moments of extraordinary fire and audacity, when her verse throws off its languor, and progresses with harmony and passion. Her one long poem, The Voyage to the Isle of Love, which extends to more than two thousand lines, is a sentimental allegory, in a vague and tawdry style, almost wholly without value; her best pieces occur here and there in her plays and among her miscellaneous poems. It is very unfortunate that one who is certainly to be numbered, as far as intellectual capacity goes, in the first rank of English female writers, should have done her best to remove her name from the recollection of posterity by the indelicacy and indiscretion of her language.  2
 
 
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