Selected Poems by John Dryden edited by Donald Thomas (1993)

John Dryden was the most successful poet, playwright, critic, translator and man of letters of his time, that time being roughly the late-1660s through to his death in 1700.

Early life

Dryden was born into a Puritan family in Northamptonshire in 1631. He was sent to the prestigious Westminster private school in 1645, the year Charles I’s army was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. In 1649 Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, just a few hundred yards from Dryden’s classroom. He went up to Cambridge in 1650 and four years later returned to London to work as clerk to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain. When Lord Protector Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote a set of Heroic Stanzas about him, but when Charles II was restored to the throne eighteen months later, Dryden wrote a poem celebrating this event too – Astraea Redux.

To modern eyes this abrupt switching of allegiances might look like hypocrisy, but the editor of this selection of Dryden’s poetry makes two points:

  1. Dryden was merely following the mood of the entire nation which switched, with surprising speed and conviction, in favour of the restoration of Charles II.
  2. Stepping back from the politics, what these two early examples of his work show is Dryden’s natural predilection to be a poet of politics and political power.

Marriage and public poetry

In the mid-1660s Dryden made a fashionable marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard but he was not making money. He decided to make a conscious career decision to commit himself to ‘the poetry of public life and political argument’, to writing poems on public occasions and poems about political life. The first great example was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders 1666, 1,200 lines of verse divided into 304 quatrains.

Three points.

1. The obvious one is that the poem deals with major public events – in the first half some of the sea battles which were part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667), in the second half the Great Fire of London. It isn’t love poetry or elegiacs or pastoral poetry.

2. Second, Dryden rewrote history to cast Charles as the hero of the age. The poem emphasises Charles’s wisdom and strategic prowess during the war, and his heroism during the fire, and how his prayer to God for help was answered. Dryden was a conservative: he believed in hierarchy and the monarch and law and order. All his poetry supports the existing order against the constant threat of factions and politicking which, he feared, would lead to anarchy and civil war. Annus Mirabilis earned Dryden his reward. In 1668 he was made Poet Laureate with an annual salary of £200 and a barrel of sack, and two years later was appointed Historiographer Royal (although he continued to be for many years, relatively hard up). Here’s Dryden sucking up to Charles:

This saw our King; and long within his breast
His pensive counsels ballanc’d too and fro;
He griev’d the Land he freed should be oppress’d,
And he less for it than Usurpers do.

His gen’rous mind the fair Ideas drew
Of Fame and Honor, which in dangers lay;
Where wealth, like Fruit on precipices, grew,
Not to be gather’d but by Birds of prey…

He, first, survey’d the Charge with careful eyes,
Which none but mighty Monarchs could maintain…

His pensive counsels, his grieving for his country (abused by the Dutch), his generous mind, ready to pluck fame and honour from their dangerous precipice, his ‘careful’ eyes (careful in the modern sense but also full of care and responsibility), trademark of a mighty monarch… and so on. Top brown-nosing, Dryden deserved his £200 a year.

3. Thirdly, Annus Mirabilis wasn’t an original work – it was a polemical riposte or reply to an earlier work by someone else. It was part of a literary dialogue. In 1661 a seditious pamphlet titled Mirabilis Annus: The Year of Prodigies had predicted God’s vengeance on a nation which tolerated a sinful king and a wicked government, and was followed by other pamphlets using the same title. Dryden’s poem is a deliberate and polemical response. It isn’t a Wordsworthian inspiration. It is arguing a case about the nature of Charles’s rule and society in the 1660s.

This is what becoming a ‘poet of political argument’ meant – that his works more often than not actively engaged in public debates and controversies, often as direct replies to previous publications by other writers with contrary views.

Drama

But public poetry wasn’t the only string to Dryden’s bow. In 1663 he published his first play, The Wild Gallant, and for the next 20 years produced a stream of comedies (Marriage-a-la-Mode) and heroic tragedies (All For Love, The Conquest of Granada). Some of these were original works but, rather as with the political poems, it’s notable how many weren’t. All For Love is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and The State of Innocence is a dramatised version of Paradise Lost. These are pretty obvious large-scale copyings, but Dryden was also to be criticised throughout his career for plagiarising lines and entire passages from other poets.

This volume includes some of the many prologues and epilogues he wrote to his plays, as well as poems addressed to specific actors and fellow playwrights such as George Etherege and William Congreve.

Satire – Absalom and Achitophel

Writing plays under the Restoration required a thick skin since new works were savaged by scores of wits and self-appointed critics. The plays themselves often contained scabrous satire about the values of the times and sometimes lampooned specific individuals. To write and publish almost anything involved exposing yourself to extremes of ridicule and abuse.

So that by the time the Popish Plot (1678) had evolved into the Exclusion Crisis (in which leading Whig politicians three times tried to pass an Act of Parliament excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother, the future James II, from the succession) Dryden had developed a thick skin and a razor-sharp pen. And he used it, as the king’s Poet Laureate, to savage and ridicule the king’s Whig enemies. The result was his masterpiece, Absalom and Achitophel.

In the Bible (2 Samuel xiv-xviii) handsome young Absalom is encouraged by the sinister old politician Achitophel to rebel against his father, King David. In Dryden’s work scheming old Achitophel is a portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who emerged as leader of the radical Whigs and led the three attempts to exclude James II from the succession. Absalom stands for King Charles’s illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouthshire, charming but gullible, who was egged on by the canny Shaftesbury to position himself as the rightful, Protestant heir to the throne. Various other key political figures appear under Biblical names and the and poem leads up to a grand speech by King David from the throne which echoes Charles’s final speech to his recalcitrant Parliament before he dissolved it for good in 1681.

Horace versus Juvenal

When it came to satire, Thomas makes the point that Dryden, like many others, drew a distinction between the satires of Horace – which were designed to laugh men out of their follies – and those of Juvenal, which expressed what he called his saeva indignatio, his fierce contempt for the vices of his time.

Horace is often amiable and funny; Juvenal is rarely funny, his satire is full of wit and attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a Juvenalian satire. It is grounded in the grim and bitter reality of the political struggles of the Exclusion Crisis and aims to give insightful, psychologically perceptive and devastating criticisms of its key characters. It is not intended to be funny. But Dryden was just as capable of a completely different style of satire, the laughable and ludicrous.

The mock heroic – Mac Flecknoe

As 17th century literary critics discovered and popularised classical ideas about poetry, so the notion spread that the highest achievement a poet could aspire to was to write a great Epic Poem, in the lineage of Homer and Virgil. Dryden was no exception:

A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest Work which the Soul of Man is capable to perform.

He nurtured ambitions to write some kind of national epic tracing the history of Britain and dedicated to his hero Charles II as Virgil had dedicated the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. But it was not to be. His long-meditated epic was never written. Instead Dryden ended up helping to develop the anti-epic, written in the so-called mock heroic style. This consisted in applying all the trappings of the epic poem – lofty diction, elaborate similes, mythological trappings, men mighty as gods – to subjects which were low and pathetic, in order to create a comic disjuntion, to create burlesque and travesty.

Dryden’s early poem, Annus Mirabilis, had already used many of the exaggerated trappings of heroic poetry, notably the extended epic simile and the direct involvement of heavenly powers (or gods or angels).

Heavenly powers

To see this Fleet upon the Ocean move,
Angels drew wide the Curtains of the Skies:
And Heav’n, as if there wanted Lights above,
For Tapers made two glaring Comets rise.

Extended epic simile

So Lybian Huntsmen on some Sandy plain,
From shady coverts rouz’d, the Lion chace:
The Kingly beast roars out with loud disdain,
And slowly moves, unknowing to give place.

But if some one approach to dare his Force,
He swings his Tail, and swiftly turns him round:
With one Paw seizes on his trembling Horse,
And with the other tears him to the ground.

So far, so epic but, as Thomas explains, the mock epic, like the epic itself, needs to address one central theme – and Annus Mirabilis is more of a series of episodes or incidents strung together, impressively so, but it is a scattered work.

It’s this idea of uniting everything in one central theme which is what makes MacFlecknoe Dryden’s masterpiece of the mock-heroic. Basically, it is a hilarious 217-line demolition of one of Dryden’s rivals in the theatre, the poet Thomas Shadwell, renowned for being dull and unimaginative, who is transmuted via Dryden’s mock-heroic style into a monstrous burlesque figure.

The aim of the mock-heroic is to attribute to a trivial person or subject such ludicrously over-inflated actions and qualities as to make them ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes him a royal progress and coronation, garlanded with biblical and imperial comparisons. But his ‘throne’ is set up among the brothels of Barbican and instead of the royal orb he holds a Mighty Mug of Ale in his hand, and every other detail of the poem is carefully undermined and burlesqued.

The name Mac Flecknoe derives from the comic notion that Shadwell is the son (‘mac’ in Gaelic) of Richard Flecknoe, an even more obscure poet, who appears in the poem declaiming a grand abdication speech, before comically disappearing down through a trapdoor, leaving Shadwell the undisputed ruler of the land of Nonsense. It is all blown up to enormous proportions in order to be mocked and ridiculed.

Dryden was extremely proud of Mac Flecknoe because it was, at that point, the most complete and finished example of its kind in English. Relatively brief though it is, it was to form a template or inspiration for the mock epics of a later generation, most notably Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712) and then his enormous satire on the literary world, The Dunciad (1728).

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

Religio Laici or a Layman’s Faith (1682) consists of 456 lines of rhymed couplets arguing against the fashionable Deism of the time and defending the Church of England against Roman Catholicism. It is characteristic of Dryden, as we’ve seen, that many of his works are responses to previous publications and Religio Laici is a good example. An English translation had recently appeared of a theological book by a Frenchman, Father Richard Simon, A Critical History of the Old Testament which laid out the many ways in which the text of the Old Testament is compromised and imperfect. In the Catholic Father’s view, Protestantism relied too heavily on the (highly imperfect) text of the Bible; it was wiser for Christians to base their faith on the unbroken traditions of the (Catholic) church as an institution.

Dryden’s poem directly addresses Father Simon’s ideas and points out that, if the Biblical text can err, so can tradition. Both need to be supplemented or informed by God’s revelation. In this, Dryden was defending the Anglican media via between the extreme reliance on the Bible of the Puritans and deference to a tradition cluttered with saints and absurd legends which characterised Catholicism.

Several things strike me about Religio Laici. For a start it is preceded by an enormous preface which is longer (4,317 words) then the poem itself (3,573 words). And this brings out just how disputatious a poet Dryden was. Even after he has cast his elaborate series of arguments into verse, he cannot stop, but has to repeat or anticipate them in a long prose preface.

Having just struggled through the poem twice, with the help of notes, I think I’ve understood most of its meaning. But when I studied English at university, it was a standard strategy to read any text on at least two levels – on one level for the overt sense or meaning; but at the same time, alert for key words, themes or ideas which recur, and work on the reader at a less logical level, by virtue of their repetition.

So the third or fourth time I read the word ‘safe’, I began to realise that although Religio Laici consists of a series of theological points, at a deeper level it works on a polarity between the twin extremes of safety and danger. To put it more clearly, Religio Laici doesn’t come from an era when a person could speculate about religion and God and the Bible in calm and comfort. On the contrary, Puritan views had, in living memory, contributed to a catastrophic civil war which had led to the execution of the king, the overthrow of traditional institutions and a military-religious dictatorship; and more recently, scare rumours about a Catholic plot to murder the king and seize control of the state had led to a mood of hysterical witch-hunting. Speculation about religious belief was fraught with danger.

Dryden’s use of the word ‘safe’ points to the fundamental message of the poem which is that all speculations on this subject should remain private, personal and moderate, in order to preserve the peace of the realm. He espouses moderation in belief and behaviour because his generation are acutely aware what lack of moderation leads to.

And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern.

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

However, just five years later Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, A Poem in Three Parts (1687) a much longer and more complex poem. At 2,600 lines it is much the longest of Dryden’s original poems (i.e. excluding the long translations he made at the end of his life) and it comes as quite a surprise because he now rejects the theological position of the earlier poem and wholeheartedly embraces Roman Catholicism.

Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1687, a couple of years into the reign of the openly Roman Catholic king James II in 1685, much to the disgust and mockery of his many enemies. The Hind and the Panther is divided into three distinct parts and derives its title from part one, which presents an extended allegory or animal fable in which the different religious denominations in the England of the day appear as animals, namely Roman Catholic as ‘A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged’, the Church of England as a panther, the Independents as a bear, the Presbyterians as a wolf, the Quakers as a hare, the Socinians as a fox, the Freethinkers as an ape, and the Anabaptists as a boar.

Critics from Dryden’s day to our own praise the skilful use of verse, vocabulary and imagery, but lament the fact that the animal fable was a poor way to convey complex theological arguments and positions, which would have been much more effective if plainly stated. Dr Johnson commented that it was a good poem despite its subject matter.

Translator

Unfortunately for Dryden, his new patron, the Roman Catholic King James II, only lasted three years on the throne before being booted out by the so-called Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by William III who was not just a Protestant but a Calvinist, a humourless man ruthlessly focused on the essentials of international power politics, and completely indifferent to art, culture, plays or poems. All officials in William’s new court were required to take oaths of allegiance including clauses pledging allegiance to the Church of England. As a newly devout Catholic Dryden couldn’t do this and so he was sacked as Poet Laureate and, in one of the supreme ironies of literary history, replaced by the man he had expended such labour ridiculing in Mac Flecknoe, Thomas Shadwell.

Deprived of all public offices Dryden now had to live by his pen and – after the public poems of the 1660s and 70s, his many plays, the satires of the Exclusion Crisis and the poetry of religious debate, in his final decade Dryden turned to literary translation.

In 1693 he published translations of the satires of Juvenal and Persius which he prefaced with a Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In 1697 his translation of the works of Virgil, including a complete translation of the Aeneid was published by subscription and brought him the notable sum of £1,400. And in 1700 he published Fables Ancient and Modern which included translations into contemporary English of tales Chaucer, Ovid and Boccaccio.

Heroic couplets

In Thomas’s account, the 1610s and 20s produced poets who liked far-fetched comparisons and irregular verse forms, such as John Donne (d.1631) or George Herbert (d.1633). Later generations dubbed them the ‘metaphysical poets’ (the expression was first used by Dr Johnson in 1780 but in fact Dryden himself had already referred, in an essay, to Donne’s ‘metaphysicals’). The Caroline poets of Charles I’s court similarly wrote lyrics and other forms in sometimes complex metres and forms, although with markedly less convoluted similes and metaphors.

But the future lay with neither of these groups but with the much more open, smooth and regular form of the rhyming couplet. The medium of two rhyming iambic pentameters had long ago been used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
(Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 19 to 26)

and couplets were a familiar device in Elizabethan theatre to bring a speech in unrhymed verse up to a kind of boom-boom conclusion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, scene 3)

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended distances was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606-87) and Sir John Denham (1615-69). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smooth rhyming couplets:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’er-flowing, full.

Relaxing, isn’t it? Dryden’s achievement was to take the rhyming couplet, use it for extended poems, and hugely expand its potential, turning it into a versatile medium for panegyric, satire, political argument, theological debate or straightforward narrative. In the right hands these couplets have all sorts of potential. Individual lines can be used to make sharp distinctions or antitheses:

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

Or in this description of the Duke of Buckingham, who would do anything for amusement.

Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.

The couplet lends itself to express maxims or pearls of wisdom, the end-rhyme of the second line giving it a kind of proverbial or didactic power:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,
When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!

But the obvious risk with the rhyming couplet is that each set of paired lines becomes a unit in itself, the temptation being to provide a boom-boom payoff at the end of the every second line, so that each couplet ends up standing alone, and reading them becomes like having hiccups – every ten seconds another clever rhyme, so that an extended poem comes to feel like a sequence of same-shaped bricks, and that this becomes wearing and tedious over the long haul.

But Thomas demonstrates how Dryden expanded the form’s potential by breaking through this barrier, to create units of meaning across multiple lines, letting the logic of his thought overflow the potential boundaries of the couplet to create what are, in effect, fluid verse paragraphs. These are particularly suitable to argufying and putting a point of view:

What shall we think! Can people give away
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenceless to the sword
Of each unbounded arbitrary lord:
And laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If kings unquestion’d can those laws destroy.

They’re still rhyming couplets but the thought, the argument flows through them, so that it no longer feels like a series of stops and starts. Moreover, the way the logic of the argument flows over the cat’s eyes or bumps of each couplet’s end-rhyme creates a complex mental pleasure – the reader processes the cleverness of the rhyme but doesn’t stop at it because the flow of the argument carries you forward. There’s a kind of counterpointing, or two rhythms going on at the same time, which is not unlike musical counterpoint.


Poetry

History

Restoration art

Restoration comedies

The Rover, or The Banished Cavaliers by Aphra Behn (1677)

‘I know not what thou mean’st, but I’ll make one at any Mischief where a Woman’s concerned’
(Willmore, the Rover of the title)

Aphra Behn (1640-89) is generally considered the first professional woman writer in English literature. She wrote poems, essays and prose narratives but in her own day was best known as the author of some 18 plays, indeed she was second only to the poet laureate John Dryden in terms of theatrical productivity. The Rover is by common consent the most polished and entertaining of her plays.

In fact The Rover comes in two parts, each a self-contained five-act Restoration comedy. Part two contains some though not all of the same characters and so is a sequel, though it was never as popular as the original. Both were heavily plagiarised from a similarly two-part, ten-act play, Thomaso, or The Wanderer, written by the Royalist exile and companion of Charles II, Thomas Killigrew. Thomaso was never performed onstage but was published in 1663-4. Behn comprehensively rewrote it, turning its turgid style and long wordy speeches into brisk comic dialogue.

The argument

The Project Gutenberg online edition is prefaced by a prose summary of the plot. Here it is with my additions and comments:

During the exile of Charles II a band of cavaliers, prominent amongst whom are Willmore (the Rover), Belvile, Frederick, and Ned Blunt, find themselves at Naples in carnival time. Belvile, who at a siege at Pamplona (in Spain) has rescued a certain Florinda and her brother Don Pedro, now loves the lady, and the tender feeling is reciprocated. Florinda’s father, however, designs her for the elderly Vincentio, whilst her brother would have her marry his friend Antonio, son to the Viceroy.

Belville, Fred and Blunt greet Willmore who has just arrived by boat in Naples in company of ‘the Prince’ (the implication being the exiled Charles II). Florinda, her sister Hellena (who is intended for the veil i.e. to become a nun), their cousin Valeria, and their duenna Callis surreptitiously visit the carnival, all in masquerade, and there encounter the cavaliers. Florinda flirts with Belvile and arranges to meet him that night at her garden-gate. Willmore is bewitched by the ready wit of Hellena who is pretending to be a gypsy.

Meanwhile a picture of Angelica Bianca, a famous courtesan, is publicly exposed, guarded by bravos. Antonio and Pedro dispute who shall give the 1,000 crowns she demands for her ‘favours’, and draw swords. After a short fray Willmore, who has boldly pulled down the picture, is admitted to the house, and declares his love, together with his complete inability to pay the price she requires. Angelica, none the less, falling in love at first sight, yields to him.

Hellena and Florinda appear in the street below, the latter mocking Hellena for so suddenly and completely falling in love with the man she briefly met earlier (Willmore). Belvile and pals arrive, knock at Angelica’s door and get Willmore sent out to them. Wilmore makes it plain he has slept with Angelica. Hellena, eavesdropping, hears all this from a hiding place and is heart-broken, but when she confronts him Willmore outfaces the situation and resumes his ardent courtship of her, which is detected by the jealous Angelica, who has followed him vizarded.

In the same scene Florinda in disguise had approached and talked to Belvile, trying to seduce him, but found him loyal to the women he’s in love with which, she realises, is her. She gets him to promise to meet her in ‘the garden’ that evening and leaves a pledge with her which he realises, once she’s gone, is a little picture of his beloved.

A comic interlude in which simple honest Essex gentleman Ned Blunt is enticed back to her house by a very willing whore, Lucetta, who lures him up to her bedroom, where she hops into bed and asks him to strip off, which he promptly does. But as he stumbles towards her a) the lights go out b) the bed moves (a piece of comic mechanism) and c) Ned tumbles through a trapdoor down into a sewer – leaving Lucetta and her pimp Philippo to count the gold they find in Blunt’s clothes. The scene cuts to New Blunt emerging from the mouth of the sewer, very smelly and very sorry.

Florinda that night goes to the garden gate to meet Belvile, but encounters Willmore who is drunk and tries to ravish her. Her cries attract Belvile and Fred, who interrupt drunk Willmore, but then immediately her brother, Don Pedro, and the servants. Florinda just has time to tell Belvile to come back and loiter under her bedroom window later, before she escapes back into the house where she pretends to be fast asleep. Don Pedro and servants beat off Willmore et al who run away.

Willmore has to endure the reproaches of Belvile, who is furious with him for assaulting his beloved. They have wandered to the front of Angelica’s house, where they hide as Antonio approaches and makes as about to enter the house. Because he still feels linked to Angelica Willmore staggers forward and attacks Antonio with his sword, wounding him, before reeling offstage. Belvile goes to Antonio‘s aid just as officers run up and arrest him, conveying him by Antonio’s orders to the Viceroy’s palace.

Antonio comes to Belvile in his cell, with his arm in a sling, and they make friends, Antonio asks Belvile to wear a mask (vizard) and impersonate him in a duel he has to fight with Florinda‘s brother, Don Pedro. Florinda intervenes to part them and Don Pedro gallantly assigns his sister to him thinking he is Antonio(Florinda refuses to be bullied but then Belvile pulls up his mask and reveals to her it is him.) But just as things are panning out well, Willmore staggers up and knocks Belvile’s mask off, Don Pedro realises it is he, and drags Florinda away.

Belvile is even more furious with Willmore and when he won’t stop talking, draws his sword and chases him offstage.

Angelica next comes in hot pursuit of Willmore. She accuses him of faithlessness, he gets bored and wants to hasten off to an appointment with the ‘gypsy’. They are interrupted by the ‘gypsy’ – in reality, Hellena, who arrives dressed as a boy. She tells a tale of the Rover’s amour with another dame and so rouses the jealous courtesan to fury, with Willmore intervening and beginning to suspect this young lad is Hellena. These scenes are getting confusing. Willmore makes excuses and leaves Angelica lamenting that all her beauty cannot hold such a treacherous man.

Florinda, meanwhile, who has escaped from her brother, running into an open house to evade detection, finds herself in Ned Blunt’s apartments. Blunt is sitting half-clad in a very angry mood, reflecting on having been stripped and duped by the whore Lucetta. Florinda throws herself on his mercy but he vows to use and abuse her:

Cruel, yes, I will kiss and beat thee all over; kiss, and see thee all over; thou shalt lie with me too, not that I care for the Injoyment, but to let you see I have ta’en deliberated Malice to thee, and will be revenged on one Whore for the Sins of another; I will smile and deceive thee, flatter thee, and beat thee, kiss and swear, and lye to thee, imbrace thee and rob thee, as she did me, fawn on thee, and strip thee stark naked, then hang thee out at my Window by the Heels, with a Paper of scurvey Verses fasten’d to thy Breast, in praise of damnable Women

Enter Fred who begins to believe Florinda‘s protestations, especially when she mentions Belvile and how he will thank them if they are kind to her. Hmm. Blunt‘s determination on revenge is mollified by the present of a diamond ring, but at this moment a servant announces his friends and Don Pedro are arriving, so they lock Florinda away.

Belvile had told him Don Pedro that Blunt was a fool and would be a good source of amusement. Now, despite his protestations, they break down the door to his rooms and, sure enough, all have a good laugh at Blunt’s expense. But he insists he’s going to have the last laugh and take it out on another Italian whore. But when he shows them the diamond ring Florinda gave him, Belvile immediately recognises it as the love token he gave Florinda much earlier in the play. However, the rest of the company are determined to ‘enjoy’ her as much as Blunt, and in fact draw straws in the shape of drawing their swords to find out whose is longest. Ironically, it is Don Pedro‘s who is promptly sent into the room where Florinda is hiding in order to ravish her – his own sister! Florinda comes running out pursued by Don Pedro, but she is in disguise and he doesn’t recognise her.

A servant arrives and tells Don Pedro his sister is not safe at home – as he thought – but has run off dressed as a page. He makes his excuses and leaves. The moment he’s gone Belvile acknowledges Florinda, they leap into each other’s arms, Willmore says, so this is the woman you’ve been pining for all along’, Fred begs her pardon. A boy is sent out to fetch a priest and Florinda and Belvile go into the other room to be married.

They leave Willmore to protect the pass in case anyone arrives to interrupt the ceremony but who arrives is Angelica in disguise. Willmore totally gives himself away by excitedly hoping it is his ‘gypsy’ i.e. Hellena. Infuriated, Angelica puts a pistol to his chest and is about to shoot him dead. She follows him round the stage as he outdoes himself with a stream of justifications of the cynical debaucher’s attitude.

To everyone’s surprise Antonio walks in, still wearing the sling from where Willmore wounded him last night and takes the pistol off Angelica. But when he realises the man she was threatening is his attacker from last night, he himself threatens Willmore. At which moment Don Pedro enters and overhears Angelica and Antonio declaring their love. Antonio! The man he intended to marry his sister, Florinda!

Also Don Pedro is angry because he challenged Antonio to a duel and Antonio sent a deputy, an impersonator in disguise, who turned out to be Belvile, his own rival. Don Pedro is angry with him and say, as soon as his arm has recovered, he’ll challenge him to another duel. He leaves and Pedro says he is so angry with the man whose cause he tried to promote, he is in a mood to give his sister to Belvile.

Funny you should say that, says Willmore – they are in the other room and have just got married. At which point they emerge and Pedro gives Belvile and his sister his heartiest congratulations. They exit and Willmore is about to follow them when he is accosted by Hellena. There follows a really long dialogue of wits, and he finds he is attracted to her wit and intelligence. He discovers he is ready to marry her. In a comic moment he asks if he may know her name.

The rest of the cast re-enter and Pedro is initially furious that his other sister is being ravished away, the one intended for a nunnery but, in another comic moment, bold Hellena asks the cast whether she should throw in her lot with Heaven or with the Captain:

Hellena: Let most Voices carry it, for Heaven or the Captain?
All cry: a Captain, a Captain.
Hellena: Look ye, Sir – ’tis a clear Case.

Enter Ned Blunt looking ludicrous in a badly fitting Spanish outfit, to give everyone a laugh.

Then enter a group of mummers passing by to the masquerade, who are invited in to play music and dance, thus rounding the play out with music and gaiety.

And the very last lines are to Willmore, the rover himself, as he leads Hellena into the adjoining room to be married.

Willmore: Have you no trembling at the near approach [of marriage]?
Hellena: No more than you have in an Engagement or a Tempest.
Willmore: Egad, thou’rt a brave Girl, and I admire thy Love and Courage.

Lead on, no other Dangers they can dread,
Who venture in the Storms o’ th’ Marriage-Bed.

And thus this convoluted series of shenanigans comes to an end. It is obviously designed to amuse a sophisticated London theatre audience, a large part of which would be precisely the kind of amoral aristocrats the play depicts, so they would enjoy seeing their lifestyle depicted on stage – while others would enjoy moralising about them.

The gossip instinct

It struck me the play is a kind of concatenation of gossip in the sense that

  1. the characters on stage spend almost all their time gossiping about each others affairs’
  2. they spend a lot of time pondering and reflecting and – in effect – gossiping about their own affairs
  3. and this complicated spectacle prompts members of the audience, or readers, to gossip about the gossip – to approve or disapprove of Willmore, to opine that Florinda is too hard or too soft etc

You know the magazines you get at supermarket checkouts which are stuffed full of stories about the stars of TV soaps or presenters of Good Morning Britain or Loose Women, the endless supply of tittle tattle about celebrities going out, getting married, getting pregnant, being unfaithful, splitting up with their partners, getting back together with their partners? Well – it’s like them.

The academics who introduce plays and texts like this are paid to write about them in terms of ‘gender representation’ and ‘female agency’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ and Restoration ‘misogyny’ and the handy cover-all term, ‘The Patriarchy’ (all these terms can be found in the Oxford World Classics introduction to The Rover).

I don’t deny that these are real things, are valid ideas, interpretations, and worth exploring – although the solid wall of feminist interpretation laid over everything like carpet felt, does often get very monotonous, monoglot and wearing.

But I’m suggesting something much simpler and more obvious. These plays – Restoration plays – full of theatrical artifice, 18th century language and elaborate games as they may well be – also appeal to the basic human instinct for Gossiping. They cater to the same love of judging and moralising about other people’s (‘ooh that Willmore!’) as the endless celebrity tittle-tattle which fills the Daily Mail.

Comedy

Also, it is easier to moralise and judge than to write about humour. It is notoriously difficult to write about comedy – to convey in a flat essay the thousand and one things which make an audience smile or laugh, from ironic asides, tone of voice, sarcasm, pratfalls, bathos, grotesque characters, comic mistakes, comic business with props, gags with punchlines and so on.

Much easier to grandly state that a narrative ‘subverts’ 18th century ‘gender stereotypes’ – any schoolgirl can write that kind of thing these days, it’s taught at GCSE and A-level and at university: anybody writing like that is just faithfully parroting what their teachers taught them degree level. Much harder to pinpoint just why The Rover is the brightest and funniest of Behn’s plays.

For example, when Hellena points out that aged Don Vincenzio may increase Florinda’s ‘Bags but not her family‘ I take it as a sly dig at his probable impotence, to be said with a knowing leer to the audience to trigger a fnah fnah laugh. Or, in the same speech, Hellena vividly pictures the scene as her young sister is forced, night after night, to accompany the aged Don Vincencio to his bed. After she has performed the disgusting task of undressing him…

That Honour being past, the Giant stretches it self, yawns and sighs a Belch or two as loud as a Musket, throws himself into Bed, and expects you in his foul Sheets, and e’er you can get your self undrest, calls you with a Snore or two – And are not these fine Blessings to a young Lady?

What middle-aged wife would not recognise this unflattering portrait of her husband? It reminds me of the jokes about unromantic age which fill the TV series Last of The Summer Wine

Clichés and conventions

Italy It is set in Italy. The wickedest reprobates and comic plots are always Italian (cf Shakespeare comedies with their endless Antonios). In fact, there are multiple reasons for its foreign locatio:

– The nations of Europe (and of Britain) were freely stereotyped. Italy was thought to have very devious and sophisticated people – suiting both comedies or tragedies that depended on plot devices like deception and treachery

– Italians were thought to be more hot-blooded and passionate than the phlegmatic Brits (a belief which runs through the 18th and 19th centuries, underpins countless novels and continues, in some quarters, up to this day) – thus allowing for a degree of sexual passion which might not be believable in Brits

I like their sober grave way, ’tis a kind of legal authoriz’d Fornication, where the Men are not chid for’t, nor the Women despis’d, as amongst our dull English;

– Italians were popularly known for their violence – always quick to grab a sword or dagger – as in Romeo and Juliet

Yes: ’Tis pretty to see these Italian start, swell, and stab at the Word Cuckold,

– The weather is better in Italy – so the people are more often outside – in gardens, streets and so on, bumping into each other and thus providing the potential for countless complicated comic permutations. It never rains in plays like this as, of course, it regularly rains in England, keeping people trapped moodily indoors.

Blunt: What a Dog was I to stay in dull England so long

– Also there was the simple pleasure that it was a foreign country with an exotic language, food, customs etc there was a sort of mental tourism in seeing plays in Italy

Faith I’m glad to meet you again in a warm Climate, where the kind Sun has its god-like Power still over the Wine and Woman.

Spain Same sort of thing –

Belvile: Remember these are Spaniards, a sort of People that know how to revenge an Affront.

But with the difference that Britain had little or no military or geographical interest in Italy, whereas we were at war with Spain for a good deal of the 16th century and were major rivals for imperial territories, for example in the Caribbean. Behn has the whore Lucetta’s pimp Philippo find gold pieces from ‘Old Queen Bess’s reign in Ned Blunt’s waistband and comment:

We have a Quarrel to her ever since Eighty Eight, and may therefore justify the Theft,

I.e. the character is made to say that the Spanish have had a quarrel with the British since 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, the attempt at an amphibious invasion of England which was designed to overthrow the Protestant queen and impose a Catholic Spanish dictatorship, all blessed by the Pope. The Armada had taken place about 70 years before the play’s production, so the same length of time as separates us from the Second World War, which we still remember and commemorate.

Therefore English writing about Spain often has a more bitter or harder edge, whereas Italy had and still has, fewer negative connotations. So it is a little notable that so many of the actual characters are Spanish. Still, the same hot-blooded, exotic rules apply.

English Also, being set abroad allows some of the characters to ridicule the home audience, the English, which is also humorous.

This is a stranger, I know by his gazing; if he be brisk he’ll venture to follow me; and then, if I understand my Trade, he’s mine: he’s English too, and they say that’s a sort of good natur’d loving People, and have generally so kind an opinion of themselves, that a Woman with any Wit may flatter ’em into any sort of Fool she pleases.

Which might have brought ironic cheers from the London audience.

Young woman struggling to be free A young woman is being forced to marry an old man by her wicked father for the money (Florinda being hustled to marry aging but rich Don Vincentio).

The young couple Whereas the young woman wants to marry a dashing young hero: There is a pair of young lovers – Florinda and Don Belvile.

The confidante The young woman has a comic confidante to provide a running comic commentary on the main action and make cynical asides and jokes. This leaves the heroine free to express only Noble and Dignified sentiments – in this instance the cynical humorous confidante is her sister Hellena.

The two couples In fact, as the play unfolded I realised there are two couples.This, apparently, is a core, stock convention of Restoration comedy –

A particularly appealing feature is the contrast between two pairs of lovers. The ‘gay couple’ are witty and independent, with time to banter and tease their way to choosing a marriage partner. Through them, the complexities of commitment could be explored… The second couple are constant and unexciting. Their path to true love is thwarted by outside forces, usually in the shape of a blocking character – Don Pedro in The Rover… (An Introduction to Restoration Comedy)

Rogue male There is an outstanding, amoral, rakish, predatory male figure – Willmore, the Rover.

Thou know’st I’m no tame Sigher, but a rampant Lion of the Forest.

Haste Things always have to be done in a hurry. This is itself a structural requirement of the theatre where it is difficult to convey the passage of months or years. Instead the action must follow pell-mell. Over and above the difficulty of conveying the passage of time, haste and deadlines also simply create tension, energy, dynamism – sweep the audience up in the action – and, of course, prompt the characters to all kinds of desperate behaviour they might not take. Thus when Don Pedro tells his sister, Florinda, that he wants to organise her marriage to young Antonio we can be confident it will trigger all kinds of desperate behaviour.

Dressing up The masked ball or masquerade or disguise is a key element of comedy from ancient Rome to modern pantomime. The feminist scholars of the play get excited because the masquerade allows characters to ‘subvert the gender roles’ imposed on them by ‘misogynist Restoration society’. But in fact dressing up allows for two really basic elements of comic theatre, namely:

1. Freedom you can get away with saying and doing things in disguise which you wouldn’t think of trying normally:

Will. But why thus disguis’d and muzzl’d?
Belv: Because whatever Extravagances we commit in these Faces, our own may not be oblig’d to answer ’em.

2. Comic misunderstanding – where characters say things to each other which match the outfits and characters they’ve adopted, but are wildly inappropriate to the actual characters we – the audience – know them to be.

3. Serious understanding Having read The Rover carefully it dawns on me that dressing up as someone else is also a way of discovering the real motives and character of the person you have designs on, as in the complex scene where Belvile dresses as Antonio and can sound out Don Pedro’s real character; or where Hellena dresses as a young man in order to assess Willmore‘s relationship with Angelica.

Also – people like dressing up for parties. It makes them feel special excited, in a party mood. Thus characters on stage – which have already been simplified and heightened for the audience’s enjoyment – become twice as simplified and heightened. Comedy squared.

Politics Behn was a devoted Royalist. The play is set in the 1650s and Belvile, Willmore, Frederick and Blunt are all English courtiers in exile from the Roundhead, republican government of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Gentlemen, you may be free, you have been kept so poor with Parliaments and Protectors, that the little Stock you have is not worth preserving—but I thank my Stars, I have more Grace than to forfeit my Estate by Cavaliering.

There are lots of little indications e.g. when Belvile introduces Blunt to Willmore as one of us’.

Belvile: Yet, Sir, my Friends are Gentlemen, and ought to be esteem’d for their Misfortunes, since they have the Glory to suffer with the best of Men and Kings; ’tis true, he’s a Rover of Fortune, yet a Prince aboard his little wooden World.

Class distinction There is an interesting moment when Colonel Belvile gives a satirical portrait of Ned Blunt, one of their party for sure, but an honest country English gentleman who – it is implied – the more urban, worldly Belvile and Willmore despise.

Willmore: Prithee what Humour is he of…?
Belvile: Why, of an English Elder Brother’s Humour, educated in a Nursery, with a Maid to tend him till Fifteen, and lies with his Grand-mother till he’s of Age; one that knows no Pleasure beyond riding to the next Fair, or going up to London with his right Worshipful Father in Parliament-time; wearing gay Clothes, or making honourable Love to his Lady Mother’s Landry-Maid; gets drunk at a Hunting-Match, and ten to one then gives some Proofs of his Prowess—A pox upon him, he’s our Banker, and has all our Cash about him, and if he fail we are all broke.

As so often, the aristocracy are in reality dependent on the honest bourgeoisie – and despise them for it.

Fred: Oh let him alone for that matter, he’s of a damn’d stingy Quality, that will secure our Stock. I know not in what Danger it were indeed, if the Jilt should pretend she’s in love with him, for ’tis a kind believing Coxcomb;

Blunt: No, Gentlemen, you are Wits; I am a dull Country Rogue, I.

Nobody is surprised when honest Ned Blunt is swindled out of his diamond. He even hails from Essex which, right down to this day, 370 years later, is the butt of jokes.

Blunt: ’Tis a rare Girl, and this one night’s enjoyment with her will be worth all the days I ever past in Essex.—

Contemporary references

Moretta: He knows himself of old, I believe those Breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester.

The Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651 was the last battle of the Civil War.

Moretta: Oh Madam, we’re undone, a pox upon that rude Fellow, he’s set on to ruin us: we shall never see good days, till all these fighting poor Rogues are sent to the Gallies.

Consignment to galleys was a punishment.

Frederick: It may be she’ll sell him for Peru, the Rogue’s sturdy and would work well in a Mine;

The Spanish had used slave labour in their South American silver mines for over a century.

Blunt: I had rather be in the Inquisition for Judaism, than in this Doublet and Breeches

Tells us something about the power of the Italian Inquisition, and of its attitude to Jews, in the 1660s.


Related links

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn (1688)

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) is generally considered the first known professional female writer in England. She was a very successful playwright, producing at least 15 plays, mostly Restoration comedies. She was a widely published poet, translator, essayist and writer of prose fictions.

She lived through troubled times – growing up during the civil wars (1637 – 53) she was 9 or so when King Charles was executed in January 1649, lived through the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and was 20 or so when Charles II was restored. There are at least four biographies of Behn, plus numerous introductions to her work. They all agree that she welcomed the return of the Stuart dynasty, was popular with Charles II, and even did some spying for him abroad (on a journey to Antwerp). Back in London she was part of the set of rakish poets and playwrights which included John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, to whom she dedicated a poem.

‘Behn was a lifelong and militant royalist, and her fictions are quite consistent in portraying virtuous royalists and put-upon nobles who are opposed by petty and evil republicans/Parliamentarians.’ (Wikipedia)

Charles II died in 1685 (in Oroonoko he is referred to as ‘his late Majesty, of sacred Memory’) and was succeeded by his brother James II, triggering an uprising by Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, in the Protestant cause.

Monmouth’s rebellion was successfully defeated, but three years later:

  1. James’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, giving birth to a son, who everyone knew was set to be raised a Catholic, with the threat that Britain would become a Catholic country
  2. coincided with James’s foolish decision to prosecute seven Anglican bishops for seditious libel

The combination of these events triggered a rebellion by England’s richest Protestant landowners, who a) expelled James b) invited Prince William of Orange (a state in the Low Countries) – who had a sort of legitimacy because he was  married to James’s (solidly Protestant) daughter, Mary – to come and rule Britain in his place.

This seismic event in British history and all its political and legal consequences, for a long time referred to as The Glorious Revolution, had barely bedded in when Behn died, aged (if her birth date is correct) just 49.

Oroonoko

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave is the longest and most successful of Behn’s prose pieces. It was a bestseller in her lifetime, was quickly turned into a successful stage play and went on to have at least three other stage adaptations and revivals.

Basically, it’s a tragic love story. Oroonoko is a prince of Coramantian, the 17th century name for what later became known as the Gold Coast, and later still became modern-day Ghana. Oroonoko is the grandson of the king of Coromantian, who has an impressive harem of wives. By the age of 17 Oroonoko is a heroic warrior and goes to war under the guardianship of the people’s greatest general, and blossoms into:

one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars: so that he was ador’d as the Wonder of all that World, and the Darling of the Soldiers.

The text has that tone throughout – Oroonoko is depicted as the greatest, noblest, most educated, wisest and wittiest and bravest and manliest man that ever lived.

Oroonoko is available in several OUP and Penguin paperback editions, all of which are introduced by feminist scholars, all of whom make the same point that Behn was an ‘outsider’ in the ‘man’s world’ of literary Restoration England. Thus they all point out the poignancy / structural appropriateness of Behn depicting another type of outsider to the ‘white supremacist, racist, misogynist discourse’ of Restoration England – a black man. One outsider writing about another.

Except that, as I read Oroonoko, it seemed to me Behn makes her black hero less of an outsider than you might expect. In fact he comes over as an epitome of civilisation, conceived very much along European lines:

for his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject: and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civilis’d in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most illustrious Courts.

Not least because Oroonoko has had European tutors and governors:

Some Part of it we may attribute to the Care of a Frenchman of Wit and Learning, who finding it turn to a very good Account to be a sort of Royal Tutor to this young Black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of Apprehension, took a great Pleasure to teach him Morals, Language and Science; and was for it extremely belov’d and valu’d by him. Another Reason was, he lov’d when he came from War, to see all the English Gentlemen that traded thither; and did not only learn their Language, but that of the Spaniard also, with whom he traded afterwards for Slaves.

Thus:

Oroonoko, who was more civiliz’d, according to the European Mode, than any other had been, and took more Delight in the White Nations; and, above all, Men of Parts and Wit.

So Oroonoko is not quite the ‘outsider’ or ‘other’ figure that the politically correct introductions led me to believe.

It’s also striking that Behn deliberately removes from her hero some of the most prominent physical characteristics of people of colour.

His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: His Mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one Grace wanting, that bears the Standard of true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the Aids of Art, which was by pulling it out with a Quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular Care.

He does not have a large nose, or ‘great turn’d lips’, or frizzy Afro hair, but a Roman nose, flat lips, and shoulder-length, straight hair. He sounds more like a native Indian than an African. As educated as a European? Looking more like an Indian than an African? this is not quite the African prince I had expected.

Anyway, back to the love story. In the heat of the battle, the brave old general sees an arrow heading for Oroonoko and throws himself in front of it, dying from his wound. The general had one daughter, Imoinda, so Oroonoko goes to see her to tell her how bravely her father died.

Imoinda is, of course, a stunning beauty. The leading quality of Behn’s mind is exorbitance: everything is the bestest of the best.

This old dead Hero had one only Daughter left of his Race, a Beauty, that to describe her truly, one need say only, she was Female to the noble Male; the beautiful Black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her Person as he, and of delicate Virtues. I have seen a hundred White Men sighing after her, and making a thousand Vows at her Feet, all in vain and unsuccessful. And she was indeed too great for any but a Prince of her own Nation to adore.

And Imoinda’s wonderful appearance is confirmed when Oroonoko actually visits her:

When he came, attended by all the young Soldiers of any Merit, he was infinitely surpris’d at the Beauty of this fair Queen of Night, whose Face and Person were so exceeding all he had ever beheld, that lovely Modesty with which she receiv’d him, that Softness in her Look and Sighs, upon the melancholy Occasion of this Honour that was done by so great a Man as Oroonoko, and a Prince of whom she had heard such admirable Things; the Awfulness wherewith she receiv’d him, and the Sweetness of her Words and Behaviour while he stay’d, gain’d a perfect Conquest over his fierce Heart.

The point of giving these three long quotes is to show how Behn’s prose works – with long sentences which swell with Romantic clichés and stereotypes – the language of Restoration poetry which was devoted to describing a narrow group of stereotyped qualities – Beauty of body and face; Love with its world of sighs and passions; Warrior qualities of sternness and bravery; and the Tragic Mode of grief and tears.

And every Important word is in Capitals.

Slavery

In another reversal of the politically correct interpretation of Oroonoko as a victim of white imperialism, he quite calmly gives the fair Imoinda a gift of slaves which he captured in the recent battle. The casualness with which Behn describes this suggests that slave-taking, selling and giving were part and parcel of the African societies of the time, or at least that Behn thought so:

So that having made his first Compliments, and presented her an hundred and fifty Slaves in Fetters, he told her with his Eyes, that he was not insensible of her Charms; while Imoinda, who wish’d for nothing more than so glorious a Conquest, was pleas’d to believe, she understood that silent Language of new-born Love; and, from that Moment, put on all her Additions to Beauty.

Note how the 150 slaves are mentioned only in passing and don’t merit as much space as the looks of love which the two lead characters exchange.

In fact the text then goes on to make it perfectly plain that Oroonoko is a slave trader in his own right. When an English ship arrives on the coast:

The Master of it had often before been in these Countries, and was very well known to Oroonoko, with whom he had traffick’d for Slaves, and had us’d to do the same with his Predecessors… To this Captain [Oroonoko] sold abundance of his Slaves…

So when Oroonoko is himself made a slave, it is no more than the fate he has dealt out to hundreds of his countrymen. In fact, when he is caught and sold into slavery Oroonoko he will meet many of the blacks he himself sold into slavery in the previous years.

Some of the mechanics of slavery are explained from what is, presumably, first hand experience.

  • how merchants in the West Indies contract with the captains of slave ships to bring back specified numbers of slaves
  • how the slave traders break up the slave into ‘lots’, deliberately mingling men, women and children from different tribes, so that they often speak different languages and dialects, to prevent them conspiring together
  • how the slave owners ignore the slaves’ real names and give them simpler, easier English names (as Oroonoko will be renamed ‘Caesar’, see below)

The narrator

The tale is told in the first person by a woman narrator, made plain in several places, including:

his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame; tho’ I doubt not but it had lived from others Endeavours, if the Dutch, who immediately after his Time took that Country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the World this great Man’s Life, much better than I have done.

The narrator tells us that she lived in Surinam, and spends a couple of pages describing the character of the native inhabitants with whom she and the other white colonists deal and trade. Among these is the description of an elaborate native head-dress the narrator was given and which she later donated to ‘the King’s Theatre’ for a production of The Indian Queen.

Now this was a real historical play which was produced in Behn’s London, so many critics see the story as overt autobiography, linking the narrating voice directly with Behn herself which – along with the vividness of her descriptions of the local climate, flowers and wildlife (armadillos) – persuades some modern scholars that Behn did indeed travel to Surinam and personally witness much of what she describes.

Whereas other modern scholars completely disagree, and point out that Behn could have gathered every scrap of detail she uses in the narrative from current books of exotic travel and description.

You pays your money and you believes whichever version takes your fancy.

The plot

Oroonoka falls in love with Imoinda and they perform a ceremony of troth-making, though not officially getting married.

The king of Coramantia – Oroonoka’s grandfather – hears about Imoinda’s wondrous beauty and also that Oroonoka is wooing her. He has her brought to his palace to join his harem, specifically to join him in the royal bath. Imoinda throws herself on his mercy and begs her innocence. The king ignores her pleas, takes her into his bath and into his bed. However, we are assured quite a few times that he is old and impotent – therefore he may ogle her and caress her but cannot ‘possess’ her. This is to ensure she remains a virgin for Oroonoka.

A word about virginity

In The Vicar of Wakefield, and Pamela and Oroonoko I am fascinated by the intense importance – the moral and emotional and legal and religious importances – that are put on the quality of female virginity, and also by the numerous flowery periphrases which are used to tastefully describe it.

 whether she was robb’d of that Blessing which was only due to his Faith and Love.

I am not yet known to my Husband.

’Twas not enough to appease him, to tell him, his Grandfather was old, and could not that Way injure him

for Imoinda being his lawful Wife by solemn Contract, ’twas he was the injur’d Man,

I believe he omitted saying nothing to this young Maid, that might persuade her to suffer him to seize his own, and take the Rights of Love.

… the Vows she made him, that she remained a spotless Maid till that Night, and that what she did with his Grandfather had robb’d him of no Part of her Virgin-Honour; the Gods, in Mercy and Justice, having reserved that for her plighted Lord, to whom of Right it belonged.

the old King had hitherto not been able to deprive him of those Enjoyments which only belonged to him,

But as it is the greatest Crime in Nature amongst them, to touch a Woman after having been possess’d by a Son, a Father, or a Brother, so now he looked on Imoinda as a polluted thing wholly unfit for his Embrace;

In part, then, Oroonoko joins the vast record of humanity’s complete inability to sensibly organise relationships between the two sexes which we find the human species cast into.

Millennia from now visitors from Mars will leaf through these records in disbelief at the enormous weight of importance which was put on the insertion of a part of the male anatomy into a part of the female anatomy – an event of such vast importance that it inspired murders, suicides, drove people to ruin their own and other’s lives, inspired tribes and entire nations to go to war about it. The Martians will flick through these records and their coy circumlocutions in disbelief at the trouble it caused.

More plot

Oroonoko is struck down with despair at the news his beloved has been taken off by the king. But his own life is in danger if the king thinks he still loves her. So Oroonoko has to feign indifference to Imoinda, even when they are both at court, even when he sees her, at the end of the evening’s entertainment, being led off into the king’s bed-chamber.

Luckily, Oroonoko recruits one of the king’s courtiers, the handsome Aboan, to his cause. This young man chats up one of the older ‘discarded’ mistresses of the king’s harem, Onahal, and persuades her to let him and Oroonoko in a back entrance of the palace one night. Oroonoko goes straight to Imoinda’s chamber, where:

I believe she was not long resisting those Arms where she so longed to be; and having Opportunity, Night, and Silence, Youth, Love, and Desire, he soon prevail’d, and ravished in a Moment what his old Grandfather had been endeavouring for so many Months.

While Aboan has to pay the price of old Onahal’s helping them, namely allowing the old woman to take him to bed. Here you can see the deliberate pairing of the Serious and the Comic, our hero’s coupling with the beautiful heroine paralleled by the essentially comic coupling of May and December in another bedroom nearby. You can see how this is designed to prompt fine sentiments about the former, interspersed with comedy or comic revulsion, at the latter.

Dawn comes too quickly, servants try to enter Imoinda’s chamber, Oroonoko threatens to kill them, calls the chamber the chamber of love, kisses her one last time then makes his escape. The servants report back to the king, confirming all his worst suspicions. Well, now she has been ‘possessed’ by another man, she is not fit for the harem and so the king orders Imoinda (and Onahal, who obviously helped her) to be sold as slaves.

Then he repents (or Behn contrives for him to repent) in such a way as to come round to respecting the couple’s young love. According to the twisted of the day, the king cannot undo Imoinda’s fate, but he can make it ‘respectable’ by declaring he had her executed. That is less shameful than being sold a slave. And so the king sends messengers to Oroonoko telling him he’s had Imoinda executed.

Oroonoko was at the army camp expecting an attack from the enemy. He slumps onto the carpet in suicidal despair. The enemy attacks and is winning and the captains come to beg Oroonoko snap out of it. Eventually he does, declares he will die in battle, storms out of his tent, and leads the army to a famous victory. He captures the enemy leader, Jamoan, single-handed, and comes to respect his nobility and dignity.

You can see how it is less a plot than a succession, a kind of gallery of scenes presenting the highest type of noble figure – kings, princes, generals – displaying the noblest emotions – true love, true grief, valour in battle, chivalry to a defeated opponent.

The weeks and months pass and Oroonoko becomes an accepted figure at the court; he has forgiven the king and the two rub along OK, but he has never overcome his grief at the supposed execution of his true love.

And English ship docks in the port and the captain, a man of culture and education, treats Oroonoko and his followers to a grand feast and tour of the ship – at the climax of which they seize them, throw them in chains and sail away. Oroonoko tries to kill himself, first by beating his head against the floor or walls, then starving himself to death, but the captain and he have a lengthy wordy exchange which results in the Oroonoko being given liberty of the ship on the basis that he will be freed when they reach the next port.

But they’re not. They arrive at Surinam, an English colony. Here Oroonoko is sold off in a lot of seventeen slaves. He throws a parting curse at the captain of the ship and worthlessness of the God he swore his vows by.

Oroonoko is sold to a Cornish man, Trefry, who hears Oroonoko speak and realises he not only speaks English but us a man of ‘quality’. He impresses everyone who meets him. Trefry gives him the slave name Caesar. They travel upriver for days. When they arrive Caesar behaves more like a governor than a slave – many of the other blacks on the plantation were slaves he himself consigned to their condition but, recognising natural Nobility, instead of stoning him, they flock to worship him and prostrate themselves at his feet!

Trefry entertains him at the plantation mansion telling him, among other things about a beautiful young slave woman they’ve christened Clemene, and who everyone is in love with. Trefry takes Caesar to see her and, of course, she is none other than Imoinda! She faints, he runs to catch er, Trefry is delighted this little romance has played out on his plantation. Hidden in all the alarums is the surprising news that Imoinda is only 15 or 16. Or, as Behn puts it, in her operatic baroque style:

Trefry, who was naturally amorous, and delighted to talk of Love as well as any Body, proceeded to tell him, they had the most charming Black that ever was beheld on their Plantation, about fifteen or sixteen Years old, as he guess’d; that for his Part he had done nothing but sigh for her ever since she came; and that all the White Beauties he had seen, never charm’d him so absolutely as this fine Creature had done; and that no Man, of any Nation, ever beheld her, that did not fall in love with her; and that she had all the Slaves perpetually at her Feet; and the whole Country resounded with the Fame of Clemene, for so (said he) we have christen’d her: but she denies us all with such a noble Disdain, that ’tis a Miracle to see, that she who can give such eternal Desires, should herself be all Ice and all Unconcern.

Then again, we know that Oroonoko entered the army and had become a noted captain by the age of seventeen:

as soon as he could bear a Bow in his Hand, and a Quiver at his Back, was sent into the Field, to be train’d up by one of the oldest Generals to War; where, from his natural Inclination to Arms, and the Occasions given him, with the good Conduct of the old General, he became, at the Age of seventeen, one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars:

So it’s a love story between a 17 year-old and a 16 year-old.

At this point the narrator enters the story. She has been introduced to Oroonoko, who has told her the story of  his life to date, corroborated by the French tutor who was captured along with the prince and his courtiers, and brought across the ocean, though cannot be enslaved (because he’s a Christian). She has assured Oroonoko she will petition the governor to get him freed. We also learn that Imoinda’s body is decorated, as is Oroonoko’s:

and tho’ from her being carved in fine Flowers and Birds all over her Body, we took her to be of Quality before, yet when we knew Clemene was Imoinda, we could not enough admire her. I had forgot to tell you, that those who are nobly born of that Country, are so delicately cut and raised all over the Fore-part of the Trunk of their Bodies, that it looks as if it were japan’d, the Works being raised like high Point round the Edges of the Flowers. Some are only carved with a little Flower, or Bird, at the Sides of the Temples, as was Cæsar; and those who are so carved over the Body, resemble our antient Picts that are figur’d in the Chronicles, but these Carvings are more delicate.

‘Carved’? ‘Cut and raised’? Does this mean tattooed, or scarred so as to create patterned ridges of scar tissue?

Oroonoko and Imoinda live – and are accepted by everyone – as man and wife. She becomes pregnant. The couple are always at the narrator’s house, eating, and she teaches them about history and Christianity which, however, Oroonoko doesn’t understand and mocks.

There is a pause in the narrative while the narrator explains that she sailed to Surinam with her father who was meant to become Lieutenant-General of 36 islands ‘beside the continent of Surinam’ but died on the voyage out. Nonetheless, she is put up in the finest house in the colony, Parham House.

It is important to grasp that Orinooko does not live the life of a slave at all – occasionally they go and visit the ‘Negro villages’ where the slaves live. Instead, he lives a life of leisure and diversion with the narrator and other white gentry. In this holiday capacity Oroonoko has several adventures:

  • he’s one of a party with the narrator who are surprised by a massive female tiger which threatens them but Oroonoko kills with one sword stroke
  • he hunts and kills another tiger which has been terrorising the neighbourhood
  • he fishes for the legendary numb-eel and is struck so numb by it he falls into the river and is carried some distance downstream, unconscious, before being rescued

Some kind of war breaks out with the native Indians, who attack white settlements and kill white settlers. The narrator, some others and Oroonoko go on a long journey down the river to visit a village of Indians and we are treated to an extended ethnographic description of their appearance and customs.

They meet some Indians of a different height and style, who tell them they’ve returned from the mountains where gold tumbles down in the streams. Once known this spurs gold fever in the settlers. More than once the narrator laments that the British government (well, Charles II) let the Dutch take over the colony of Surinam as a result of the third of the three brief Dutch wars of the 1660s (under the Treaty of Breda in 1667).

As Imoinda becomes more heavily pregnant, Oroonoko chafes more and more at, not exactly his slavery, because he isn’t used as a slave, but certainly at his lack of freedom. He calls together the Negroes on their free day and inspires, not a rebellion, but an exodus: they pack up all their stuff and leave, planning to cross rivers, mountains and forests and set up their own colony of the free.

They are followed by the governor-general, William Byam, and about 600 men. They catch up with the renegades and there’s a fierce fight, but the rebel blacks are slowly defeated or persuaded to stop fighting by their womenfolk, until only Ceasar and his most loyal lieutenant, Tuscan, are fighting on.

The governor promises them safe passage if they yield, and honourable Trefry goes talk to them and persuades them to surrender. They are all taken back to the plantation where Caesar and Tuscan are suddenly seized, tied to stakes, and whipped till the flesh falls off their bones. Many of the whippers are the very slaves he tried to free and who pretended to worship him. They rub pepper into the wounds and tie him to the ground.

The narrator didn’t witness this. She and the other white women, when they heard Caesar had led the slaves away, all fled to the safety of the river (?) where they were put in charge of the gallant Colonel Martin. When they hear the rebellion is put down they return to their house on the plantation (Parham House) then go to see Caesar in his wretched condition. They have him released, put into a bath to wash away the pepper, and surgeon called to administer healing balm. Caesar thanks them and respects Colonel Martin but says he vows to live solely to take his revenge on Governor Byam.

The Governor calls his council (of white trash, exiles and renegades) who call for Caesar to be hanged. But Trefry nobly points out the council has no authority over his estate (where they’ve brought Caesar to recuperate) and so he lives.

He lives but he vows eternal vengeance on Byam. But then he quavers in his determination, knowing he will not survive the murder and – worse – his beautiful Imoinda will be punished, maybe raped or gang-raped. Therefore (in the twisted logic of high opera) he resolves to kill her first.

He takes her up to a hilltop, explains his plan – to kill Byam, then take the punishment, but doesn’t want to leave her exposed – and she agrees, and amid tears and noble declamations – he stabs her to death!

while Tears trickled down his Cheeks, hers were smiling with Joy she should die by so noble a Hand, and be sent into her own Country (for that’s their Notion of the next World) by him she so tenderly loved, and so truly ador’d in this: For Wives have a Respect for their Husbands equal to what any other People pay a Deity; and when a Man finds any Occasion to quit his Wife, if he love her, she dies by his Hand; if not, he sells her, or suffers some other to kill her. It being thus, you may believe the Deed was soon resolv’d on; and ’tis not to be doubted, but the parting, the eternal Leave-taking of two such Lovers, so greatly born, so sensible, so beautiful, so young, and so fond, must be very moving,

Mind you, the details are extraordinarily gory:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

He waits two days by the body but is then distraught to discover that excess of grief and lack of food have made him weak. When he tries to stand, he staggers. He rests another six days but only becomes weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile the narrator and his friends have become alarmed at the disappearance of Caesar and Imoinda and send out no fewer than hundred servants and slaves to find him. They find him in a clearing thanks to the smell of Imoinda’s rotting corpse.

Good God, why has he murdered his beautiful wife? He explains his plan but is too weak to move. He cuts flesh from his neck, then disembowels himself.

He stabs to the heart the first man who approaches him, but then Tuscan disarms him (be receiving the knife in the arm) and the other catch him and carry him back to Parham House. He is now skin and bone, like a death’s head.

Then one of the governor’s wretched criminal confederates comes and seizes Orookoko, not realising all he wants is to die and be with Imoinda. So when they tie him to the whipping post and announce they are going to kill him, Oroonoko is delighted.

Piece by piece they dismember his living body – cutting off his ‘members’, then his ears and nose and throwing them into the fire. Then hacking off one arm, then the other, at which point he dies. They quarter his body and send the quarters to different plantations to frighten the slaves.

Thus died this great Man, worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime Wit than mine to write his Praise: Yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his glorious Name to survive to all Ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda.

Anti-colonialism

Nowhere does Behn express any explicit statements against slavery: it was too much a part of contemporary society, not just in Europe but in Africa and the colonies, for it to have come to seem monstrously unjust. Its evils and injustice and cruelty is amply described, but without any sense that the trade and institution itself could or should be stopped.

Instead, what Behn focuses on is the unfairness of enslaving a prince, a man of natural Nobility and Culture. The Wikipedia article and Penguin introduction both emphasise that the central pillar of Behn’s beliefs was her devotion to the principle of Monarchy. Nations need kings. Hence her enthusiastic support for Charles II. Once you grasp that this is the central principle of Behn’s worldview, then you understand:

– why she doesn’t criticise slavery, as an institution, but she does criticise the injustice of seizing Oroonoko

– why the issue of keeping one’s word is much more laboured over than slavery; for Behn, keeping one’s promise was the basis of trust, faith and society; her harshest criticism isn’t reserved for slavers as such, but for people like the sea captain who invites Oroonoko and his followers to a feast, then breaks his word to them – who promises to set them free at the next port, but breaks his word again; and for the governor of Surinam, Byam, who promises Oroonoko safe passage after his rebellion, but instead, once he gives himself up, orders his extreme whipping. In Behn’s view, men like that undermine the possibility of a civilised society, which must be based on trust and good faith.

– why the narrator is at such pains to repeated that Surinam lacks a proper governor, a representative of the king who would underpin good government. Instead it has the troth-breaking and treacherous governor Byam, and his treachery is intimately connected to the lack of his monarchical abilities. Without a True King a colony, like a nation, collapses.

– and this principle explains why Oroonoko’s Nobility and natural dignity outshine and shame the squalid brutality of his persecutors. The final scenes in which he continues smoking a pipe while his punishers cut off his members, his ears and nose and arms, is absurd from a ‘realist’ point of view, but an important token of Behn’s fervent belief in Royalism. Oroonoko is a king in the same way that Jesus was a king, full of sanctity and dignity, and beside his natural princely dignity the colonists seem like barbaric animals.

– and finally, it explains the narrator’s repeated disparaging references to the Dutch. The Dutch received the colony of Surinam as part of the Treaty of Breda of 1667 (the British received the settlement of New Amsterdam, which was to grow into New York City) and the narrator laments King Charles’s short-sightedness in giving away such a rich colony. But edge is added to her criticism because the Dutch were republicans and democrats. In Behn’s royalist view, every nation needs a king, and this is why she laments what she sees as the inevitable decline of the colony once it was handed over to democrats who, by definition, have no idea how to run a state.

Feminist scholars and critics have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views. They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Feminism

Behn is a feminist saint but it doesn’t prevent her depiction of the female lead, Imoinda, being the most clichéd and stereotypical imaginable, which will have come over from my plot summary.

On the other hand, the narrating voice, the persona she creates for herself within the text, is interesting, flexible and highly intelligent. She begs the reader’s indulgence for having a merely ‘female pen’, but this comes over as merely one of the polite formalities of the day, like the dedication and the preface and the verse prologue and so on attached to the text.

These conventional disclaimers shouldn’t distract us from her intelligence and skill, and the interest and curiosity she displays about the wildlife and climate of both the Africa of Oroonoko’s youth and the Surinam where the second half is set.

Feminist scholars and critics by the thousands have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views.

They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Is it a novel?

No, would be my answer, it is more like a Restoration play than a novel, and a restoration play – with its stock in trade of princely heroes and only the noblest and most highfalutin’ of emotions – is more like an opera than a modern play.

And towards the end it becomes more like the kind of sensationalist, penny-dreadful tracts hawked around scaffolds when criminals are to be executed, hanged or beheaded, another genre altogether.

One moment struck me as exemplifying the gap between the high-minded rhetoric of the text and the probable realities which underpin it. When Trefry describes the beautiful Clemene whose beauty ravishes everyone, Caesar asks him why he doesn’t just ‘ravish’ her, and Trefry replies:

‘I confess (said Trefry) when I have, against her Will, entertained her with Love so long, as to be transported with my Passion even above Decency, I have been ready to make Use of those Advantages of Strength and Force Nature has given me: But Oh! she disarms me with that Modesty and Weeping, so tender and so moving, that I retire, and thank my Stars she overcame me.’

I think a moment reflecting on this testimony, or text, or bit of discourse, suggests how utterly unlike the real world Behn’s fiction is, how it exists not to depict a ‘reality’ but to showcase the finest sentiments from a succession of noble characters. Indeed:

The Company laugh’d at [Trefry’s] Civility to a Slave, but Cæsar only applauded the Nobleness of his Passion and Nature…

(I wrote this observation before the final passages describing Oroonoko being whipped and peppered, murdering his wife, then wasting away, then being hacked to pieces. These final scenes seem, to me, to belong to a different genre altogether, certainly to a different register, and I wasn’t surprised to read, in the Wikipedia article about Oroonoko, that many of the details of the whipping and dismemberment might have been copied from written accounts of the appalling end of a white settle in Surinam, John Allin, which was described in detail in a contemporary publication.)

Is Oroonoko a novel? Well, it’s a long, connected narrative fiction, which is one definition. And you do get a cumulatively persuasive view of the narrator – the narrator’s tone and intentions and explanations seem assimilable to modern logic and understanding.

But the text itself, the actual story, seems to me too much like a Restoration tragedy, a contrived scaffold for unrealistically high sentiments all the way through – until it collapses in the last pages into its polar opposite, a blood-thirsty account of ‘true life crime passionel‘.

It is undeniably a precursor of the flexible, adult type of narrative which we call ‘the novel’, and yet…


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