More than Wo/Man

Androgyny in the poetry of Aphra Behn

Christine Hoff Kraemer

 

            Aphra Behn's "To the Fair Clarinda" is a love poem with surprisingly modern sensibilities. In this playful, candidly erotic piece, the female speaker addresses her lover Clarinda who, though biologically female, plays both masculine and feminine roles in her sexual conquests of women. Though the speaker implies that in any sexual relationship there are definite masculine and feminine roles to fulfill, the poem overturns the notion that these are necessarily related to anatomy.

            The speaker begins the poem by confidently addressing Clarinda as "[f]air lovely maid," but does not even finish the first line before rethinking and then struggling with the inadequacy of the gender-specific titles used for young people in seventeenth-century English. Clarinda, the speaker feels, is not properly a "maid," as she is not passive as the title implies (neither "weak" nor "feminine"). The speaker momentarily bypasses the problem by simply applying both titles, calling her both "[f]air lovely maid" (emphasizing her feminine beauty) and "lovely charming youth" (suggesting her masculine, seductive charm). This failing of the language nicely illustrates Clarinda's union of masculine and feminine qualities. Interestingly, however, the adjectives the speaker chooses still correspond to the traditional masculine-feminine dichotomy. Clarinda is a "fair maid" and a "charming youth," not a fair youth or charming maid. Though Clarinda herself is both masculine and feminine, the poet suggests, the masculine/feminine dichotomy is still valid; Clarinda's characteristics can be chosen from both genders, but cannot be entirely genderless.

            The next section of the poem treats Clarinda not as the world at large might label her (as "maid" or "youth," depending on her behavior and dress), but rather as she appears to the speaker in the course of flirtation and seduction. Referring to these titles, the speaker explains, "This last [the youth] will justify my soft complaint, / While that [the maid] may serve to lessen my constraint; . . ." It is Clarinda's masculine half, says the speaker, with which she has fallen in love and that justifies her sexual feelings. Unlike with an individual who is anatomically male, however, the speaker feels unconstrained and free to give in to her desires. No doubt part of this sense of freedom stems from the lack of social consequences (no risk of pregnancy or loss of virginity). The fact that the speaker pursues Clarinda "without blushes" also suggests that their same-sex relationship has an unusual intimacy. Before Clarinda, the speaker implies, she has nothing to hide; the two are both women, fully aware of the existence and nature of a woman's sexual desire. Though a seventeenth-century man might expect the speaker to seem demure and chaste, as a virtuous woman was expected to be, before Clarinda the charade is unnecessary.

            It is easy to understand why the speaker finds Clarinda so irresistible and their relationship so liberating. Though the speaker still struggles with her desire as she might with her desire for a man, the reader is left with the strong impression that whatever "pain" she experiences is entirely self-inflicted. The speaker has already admitted to unashamedly pursuing Clarinda; her supposed pain is clearly just the delicious agony of a woman who is only prolonging the inevitable ("Against thy charms we struggle but in vain"). In a tone that is playfully accusatory, the speaker even charges Clarinda with using her female body to serve her lustful masculine mind ("With thy deluding form thou givest us pain, / While the bright nymph betrays us to the swain" and later, "Whene'er the manly part of thee would plead [ask for sexual favors] / Thou tempts us with the image of the maid"). Clearly, however, there has been no true betrayal, and no real deception. The speaker has already admitted to having fallen in love with the masculine part she now claims to have overlooked. Instead, she seems to be enjoying playing a feminine sexual role, casting Clarinda as the aggressor and seducer, and herself as the helpless conquest.

This notion of playing a feminine role is also supported by the fact that the speaker has changed from the singular "I" to the plural "we." She has already made it clear that she accepts the traditional male/female dichotomy; Clarinda when exhibiting masculine behavior is functionally male (a "youth" or "swain"),  and when exhibiting feminine behavior is female (a "maid" or "nymph"). Thus, by associating herself with and speaking for all womanhood ("our sex"), the speaker implicitly associates herself with femininity and feminine sexual behavior. In Clarinda's arms, says the narrator, women may behave in a feminine manner, struggling with, resisting, and then giving in to their sexual desires, much as Cloris does in Behn's poem "The Disappointment." Unlike with a male, however, this indulgence carries no dire social consequences, such as loss of virginity (their "innocence") or pregnancy. "For sure no crime with thee we can commit," remarks the speaker, "Or if we should -- thy form excuses it." Evidently, in Behn's England the possibility of sexual activity between women was so barely acknowledged as to not even be taboo. And besides, the speaker adds playfully, "For who that gathers fairest flowers believes / A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves." Who, indeed, would suspect that a sexually aggressive masculine personality lies beneath Clarinda's sweet feminine surface?

The description of Clarinda in the first stanza sets up a second, more erotic meaning for these last lines. As well as describing Clarinda's androgyny, the first stanza makes several references to the physical act of love, alluding to Clarinda's naked form ("When so much beauteous woman is in view"), suggesting tumultuous sexual play or forceful seduction with "we struggle but in vain," and finally explicitly praising non-penetrating sexual activity ("In pity to our sex sure thou wert sent, / That we might love, and yet be innocent [virginal]"). In the couplet that concludes the first stanza, the speaker's increasingly physical language emerges as a full-blown fantasy in which Clarinda is literally both male and female -- anatomically hermaphroditic. Though there is no evidence to suggest that Clarinda is physically a hermaphrodite (the title of the poem is, after all, "To the Fair Clarinda . . . Imagined More than Woman" [my italics]), the image of the phallic snake leaves no doubt that the speaker is enjoying the idea of her lover with male as well as female genitalia. In the speaker's imagination, Clarinda physically reflects what the speaker already knows to be figuratively true.

After this explicit and potentially shocking image, the speaker closes the poem with only slightly more modest language. She refers to mythology, imagining Clarinda as "[s]oft Cloris with the dear Alexis joined." Here, the ambiguous use of "joined" indicates both Clarinda's androgynous personality and suggests the sexual nature of a union of opposites -- Cloris and Alexis are combined in Clarinda's body through an act of "joining," or sexual intercourse. Finally, the speaker reiterates the uniquely satisfying nature of her relationship with Clarinda. Because Clarinda is both masculine and feminine (or to use the speaker's pun on "hermaphrodite," both Hermes and Aphrodite), with her a woman can experience both friendship and sexual love. This sentiment's prominent place as the final conclusion of the poem gives it special weight. Clarinda fills a woman's need for both masculine and feminine companionship, an accomplishment with which no typical seventeenth-century man can compete.

Though the sexual taboos of seventeenth century England are present only in weakened form in our society, "To the Fair Clarinda" still contains relevant commentary on the nature of sexuality. Behn represents personality traits as being "masculine" or "feminine" in a way that postmodernists might find uncomfortable, but she makes a strong case for the idea that gender (as opposed to biological sex) is constructed. Those qualities that are traditionally defined as masculine -- aggression, impulsiveness, strength -- can clearly be found in women, as "feminine" traits such as passivity, virtue, and weakness can be found in men. Perhaps Behn's final message is this: both Hermes and Aphrodite are contained in every individual, and anatomy need not constrain the roles we play, either in the bedroom or in the public eye. Mentally, we can all be joyful androgynes, constructing ourselves as individuals, not as permutations of artificial gender stereotypes.

 

Copyright (c) 2002 by Christine Hoff Kraemer