When literary people talk about women poets they often mention famous figures from the past. Emily Dickinson is the American poet who almost defined poetry for generations of schoolchildren as well as adults. Her name is familiar
to most readers, and a movie about her life, A Quiet Passion, impressed critics and moviegoers as recently as last year. The pale, reclusive Emily in her white dresses, scribbling her poems on little pieces of paper in her room seems the ideal poet.
Other women poets of the past are also well known. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, confined to her sickbed for years until rescued by Robert Browning, who took her to Italy and helped her become famous. Female poets are often associated with illness, delicacy and fragility. They are viewed as weak creatures, prone to suicide and early deaths. But not all women poets fit this pattern. Today I want to look back and honor the tough woman who proved that a woman could be both a writer and an active participant in worldly life—Aphra Behn.
One of the reasons Aphra Behn is not remembered, perhaps, is that we know little about her life. She was born, probably in 1640, almost two hundred years before Emily Dickinson in England. Her parents might have been a barber and a wet nurse, or perhaps not. One indisputable fact is that she learned to read and write, a rare privilege among working class women of her time. The gift of literacy made it possible for her to meet and mingle with people of all classes. Her introduction to aristocrats may have come through one of the families her mother met while acting as a wet nurse.
Coming of age during the restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, gave Aphra an opportunity to become active in the world of theater and publishing. As Oliver
Cromwell’s puritan restrictions were removed, there was an outpouring of publishing and theater. Starting out as a poet, Aphra turned to writing fiction and produced the story Oroonoko, set in Surinam, which became a long-lasting best seller. Later she turned to writing plays. She also, apparently, served as a spy for Charles II. Because she seldom discussed her background, very few facts are well established. One thing that we know for sure is that she was finally buried in Westminster Abbey—although not in the poets corner where many of her male friends and colleagues lie.
For those who would like more information about her life, I recommend a biography by Janet Todd, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life. It is long, but gives a continuously fascinating picture of a life shaped by history and secrets.
Perhaps the most important statement about Aphra Behn was made by Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of Her Own”. All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.
So as we read the poetry of the delicate women poets of the 19th century during this Poetry Month, we also ought to pay tribute to a woman who came before them. She struggled with poverty and class prejudices to make her way in a man’s world and in doing so she ensured that women’s voices would eventually be heard.
This year has been a disappointment for so many people and a disaster for some. Almost all the notes written on holiday cards from friends include some reference to being shocked and depressed by the election results last month. We are all wondering what the spring and summer will bring.
At a time like this it is a relief to take refuge in some of the books I have loved since childhood. I remember a poem by Oliver Herford that I read many years ago:
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
That poem was in a book called More Silver Pennies that my mother bought in a second-hand bookstore. It has echoed in my head every January for years.
When I was growing up, my friends and I had access to many poems that we read and reread. As a preteen I remember finding a book of Dorothy Parker’s poems at the home of one of my Girl Scout leaders. My best friend and I used to giggle over Parker’s verses when the scout meetings seemed long. We especially liked this one:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
That struck us as the most sophisticated and witty language we had ever heard. Parker gave us a glimpse of the glittering world of Manhattan just across the river from the quiet streets of Queens. We both decided that someday we would live in that world.
I know that school children today are encouraged to write their own poetry and express their feelings, but I hope they are also reading other people’s poetry. Poems, especially the old-fashioned kind that have rhythm and rhyme, linger in the mind and can be a lifelong pleasure.
Another favorite poet of my childhood was, of course, Emily Dickinson. Her works were everywhere—in schools and libraries . Teachers read them to us and we recited them back in class during Friday afternoon poetry sessions. Some of them are still with me.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
At the end of this long and trying year, I am grateful I grew up with poetry. I hope children today are doing the same. Hope remains. Let’s all keep it in our hearts during the year ahead.