The Willing Mistress by Aphra Behn is a playfully suggestive poem about a casual encounter between two lovers in a grove. We are taken through the stages of this brief affair with a lighthearted touch that leaves much to the reader’s imagination. Behn’s aim is not to merely relay all the sordid details to the reader, but to prompt him or her to fill in what she leaves blank about the lovers’ dalliance. Thus, the reader becomes complicit in the encounter, as well. Behn is known for her tingeing her work with erotic elements, and The Willing Mistress is definitely in this vein. The poem is paradoxically both direct and evasive. While its subject is unmistakable, it steers clear of any precise depiction of its events.
The Willing Mistress Analysis
Amyntas led me to a grove,
Where all the trees did shade us;
The use of the name “Amyntas” here is obscure. There are several Macedonian kings and assorted military figures with this name. The name serves primarily to set the poem in ancient Greece, or other nearby Mediterranean locales. “Amyntas” means “defender” and is derived from Greek. Thus, the “Amyntas” of the poem is likely a warrior taking a break from a campaign in order to sport with a lady friend.
The Sun itself, though it had Strove,
It could not have betray’d us:
This verse emphasizes that the pair are completely obscured from view, despite being out in open nature. The grove is so dense that no sunlight penetrates. This makes the erotic nature of their encounter more plausible, as they are assured of not being seen.
The place secur’d from humane Eyes,
No other fear allows,
But when the Winds that gently rise,
Doe Kiss the yielding boughs.
These verses reemphasize the unlikelihood of being seen, yet raise one possibility of detection – the wind could blow and move the tree branches. The last two verses can also be read as a sexual double entendre revealing what is actually going on in the grove – the male partner is the gently rising winds; the female partner, the “yielding boughs.”
Down there we sat upon the Moss,
And did begin to play
A Thousand Amorous Tricks, to pass
The heat of all the day.
The pair are here indulging in foreplay, though Behn does not tell the reader what, exactly, they are doing. The poem is already pushing the bounds of acceptability, though the lack of concrete visuals is in keeping with the overall flirtatious, teasing nature of the poem.
A many kisses he did give:
And I return’d the same
Which made me willing to receive
That which I dare not name.
Again, Behn is flirting with the reader here. She “dares not name” it, but she knows the reader will fill in the blanks. The genius of the poem is in Behn’s inviting the reader to imagine what is taking place in the grove, rather than being outright told, and thereby making the reader complicit in the scandalous act. There is nothing Behn could write which would top what the reader will concoct in his or her own imagination.
His Charming Eyes no Aid requir’d
To tell their softning tale;
On her that was already fir’d,
‘Twas easy to prevaile.
The male partner is communicating non-verbally, with his “Charming Eyes.” The female partner is responsive and needs no further clarification from him. Behn makes it clear that the female partner is fully engaged in the pair’s activities up until now and is aroused. She is not being compelled or forced into what comes next; she is herself desirous of the encounter and not merely a passive object being acted upon by her male lover, regardless of her own wants or needs.
He did but Kiss and Clasp me round,
Whilst those his Thoughts Exprest:
And lay’d me gently on the Ground:
Ah! who can guess the rest?
Despite the lack of verbal communication between the two, the male lover’s “thoughts” are aptly expressed by his actions. The reader is led to the inevitable conclusion, but again Behn resists telling us specifically, and ends the poem wondering who can guess what happens next. Of course, absolutely anyone can guess, and that is the point, as she again tempts the reader to imagine “that which she dare not name.” She has gotten away with raising all kinds of lascivious thoughts in the reader without ever openly stating what the two lovers are doing.
Form and Tone
The poem is written in three stanzas using an alternate rhyme scheme (ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, etc.). The tone is light and playful, which matches the mood of the two characters in the poem, as well as the authoress herself.
The Willing Mistress was published posthumously in a collection of Behn’s poems, titled simply, Poems, in 1697. Behn came of age during the Restoration period of Britain (1660-1689), which included, among other movements, a reaction against Puritanism. Behn was associated with several literary libertines of the period, including Lord Rochester, the quintessential “rake,” whose appetite for riotous living led to his death from venereal disease at age 33. Behn was certainly not alone in her embrace of sexual themes in her work, though as a woman, this was unusual at the time. The character of the Restoration period can almost be described as bipolar, as it encompassed both bawdy theater productions and sexually charged poetry like Behn’s at one end, and highly influential religious tomes such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress at the other. The two poles correspond to either a celebration of, or a reaction against, the restoration of Charles II’s court in England.
About Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn was a British Restoration-era novelist, poet and dramatist, baptized circa December 14, 1640. Behn’s biography is shrouded in obscurity; virtually nothing is known of her first 27 years. While there is much speculation about her life, there is little than can be verified outside of her literary output. She was a spy for King Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, with a code name, “Astrea,” under which she also published many of her writings. She is often regarded as a proto-feminist by contemporary feminists and critics due to the often candid, erotic nature of her writing. She emphasizes female pleasure and autonomy in her work, which was regarded as scandalous in a time period dominated by religious wars. She died on April 16, 1689, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, though notably, not in the Poet’s Corner.