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Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn was born in approximately 1640 in Kent, England. Though little is known about her early life, she is thought to have spent part of her childhood in Suriname and to have married a merchant by the name of Behn in 1664.

Following a separation from her husband, she traveled to the Netherlands as a spy for King Charles II. During her time in England, she went into debt and spent a brief period in debtor’s prison; after this, she turned to writing to earn a living. Despite her lack of higher education, she is now remembered as the first Englishwoman to support herself entirely through writing.

Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage (London), was produced in 1670, followed by several other tragicomedies, including The Amorous Prince (London, 1671) and The Rover (London, 1677). She is also remembered for her fiction, especially the short novel Oroonoko (W. Canning, 1688), which dealt with themes of race and gender and influenced the development of the modern novel.

Along with her plays and novels, Behn wrote poetry, published in Poems upon Several Occasions, with The Voyage to the Island of Love (R. Tonson and J. Tonson, 1684) and Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion (Joseph Knight and F. Saunders, 1688). She was a literary icon during her lifetime, and since her death she has been celebrated for her independence and concern for equal rights. She died in April, 1689, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Selected Bibliography

A Congratulatory Poem to Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary (R. Bentley and W. Canning, 1689)
Lycidus: Or The Lover in Fashion (Joseph Knight and F. Saunders, 1688)
Poems upon Several Occasions, with The Voyage to the Island of Love (R. Tonson and J. Tonson, 1684)

Oroonoko, or, The Royal Slave (W. Canning, 1688)

By This Poet


A Thousand Martyrs I Have Made

A thousand martyrs I have made,
   All sacrific'd to my desire;
A thousand beauties have betray'd,
   That languish in resistless fire.
The untam'd heart to hand I brought,
And fixed the wild and wandering thought.

I never vow'd nor sigh'd in vain
   But both, tho' false, were well receiv'd.
The fair are pleas'd to give us pain,
   And what they wish is soon believ'd.
And tho' I talk'd of wounds and smart,
Love's pleasures only touched my heart.

Alone the glory and the spoil
   I always laughing bore away;
The triumphs, without pain or toil,
   Without the hell, the heav'n of joy.
And while I thus at random rove
Despis'd the fools that whine for love.

About this poem:
Virginia Woolf writes of Aphra Behn, in A Room of One's Own, that: "She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote, even the splendid 'A Thousand Martyrs I have made,' or 'Love in Fantastic Triumph sat,' for here begins the freedom of the mind or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes."


Love in Fantastique Triumph satt

Love in Fantastique Triumph satt	
Whilst Bleeding Hearts a round him flow'd,	
For whom fresh paines he did Create,	
And strange Tyranick power he show'd; 
From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurl'd;	
But 'twas from mine he took desire,	
Enough to undo the Amorous World.	
From me he took his sighs and tears,	
From thee his Pride and Crueltie;
From me his Languishments and Feares,	
And every Killing Dart from thee;
Thus thou and I, the God have arm'd,	
And sett him up a Deity;	
But my poor heart alone is harm'd,
Whilst thine the Victor is, and free.