03 February 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/6

Song. On Her Loving Two Equally

How strongly does my passion flow,
Divided equally 'twixt two?
Damon had ne'er subdued my heart,
Had not Alexis took his part;
Nor could Alexis powerful prove,
Without my Damon's aid to gain my love.

When my Alexis present is,
Then I for Damon sigh and mourn;
But when Alexis I do miss,
Damon gains nothing but my scorn.
But if it chance they both are by,
For both alike I languish, sigh, and die.

Cure then, thou mighty winged god,
This restless fever in my blood;
One golden-pointed dart take back:
But which, oh Cupid, wilt thou take?
If Damon's, all my hopes are crossed;
Or that of my Alexis, I am lost.

Aphra Behn

Behn was, among other things, one of the leading dramatists of her place and time (the place being London, and the time being the second half of the seventeenth century, after Charles II, restored to the throne of his executed father, re-opened the theaters that had been shut down by Cromwell and the Puritans). And in this song she swiftly creates a tense dramatic situation. There is little information about any of the three people involved; all we know about Damon and Alexis, this Restoration Jules and Jim, is that they are friends, and helped each other win the speaker's love (so to what extent are these friends also rivals? the singer doesn't say). The emphasis in the song is on her probing and I would say even Proustian portrayal of an individual experience of the ironies and vagaries of love and desire. She would not have loved either of these men without the persuasion of the other one; she does not want to give up either (does this mean they have very different personalities, almost as if you need both men to create a satisfying whole? or are they alike enough so that if you long for one you would naturally long for the other as well?). She desires whoever is absent (clearly absence makes for a stronger mental presence), yet if both are present, though you might expect logically (except of course that logic has nothing to do with longing) that she would long for neither, she actually longs for both. There's an implication that she's physically engaged with both, perhaps in a threesome (I'm basing this on the last line of the second stanza, since in love poetry from the Elizabethans to the eighteenth century "die" is a frequent euphemism for or hint towards "orgasm"). But this is not a long-term solution for her; she's clearly anguished by her inability to choose; she wants her physical desire ("this restless fever in my blood") for one or the other to go away, but nothing is tipping the scales towards either Alexis or Damon. Faced with this unresolvable conflict, she calls like the dramatists of the ancient world on a deus ex machina – in this case, Cupid. Yet the perverse god of love gives no resolution, and no happy ending seems possible.

I took this from Oroonoko and Other Writings by Aphra Behn, in the Oxford World's Classics series.


Unknown said...

This immediately made me think of Design for Living.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Interesting -- I had not made that connection, but I see what you mean. Perhaps my prediction was too dire; maybe they're just going to keep on playing this roundelay until they reach the age when drama is exhausting rather than exciting.