“The Disappointment” – Annotations by William Chen

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Italian, 1696–1770
Apollo Pursuing Daphne, c. 1755/1760
oil on canvas, 68.5 x 87 cm (26 15/16 x 34 1/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection


The Disappointment



ONE Day the Amarous Lisander,

By an impatient Passion sway’d,

Surpris’d fair Cloris, that lov’d Maid, [2]

Who cou’d defend her self no longer ;

All things did with his Love conspire,

The gilded Planet of the Day, [3]

In his gay Chariot, drawn by Fire,

Was now descending to the Sea,

And left no Light to guide the World,

But what from Cloris brighter Eyes was hurl’d.



In alone Thicket, made for Love,

Silent as yielding Maids Consent,

She with a charming Languishment [4]

Permits his force, yet gently strove ?

Her Hands his Bosom softly meet,

But not to put him back design’d,

Rather to draw him on inclin’d,

Whilst he lay trembling at her feet;

Resistance ’tis to late to shew,

She wants the pow’r to say — Ah!what do you do?



Her bright Eyes sweat, and yet Severe,

Where Love and Shame confus’dly strive,

Fresh Vigor to Lisander give :

And whispring softly in his Ear,

She Cry’d — Cease — cease — your vain desire,

Or I’ll call out — What wou’d you do ?

My dearer Honour, ev’n to you,

I cannot — must not give — retire, [5]

Or take that Life whose chiefest part

I gave you with the Conquest of my Heart.



But he as much unus’d to fear,

As he was capable of Love,

The blessed Minutes to improve,

Kisses her Lips, her Neck, her Hair !

Each touch her new Desires alarms !

His burning trembling Hand he prest

Upon her melting Snowy Breast,

While she lay panting in his Arms !

All her unguarded Beauties lie

The Spoils and Trophies of the Enemy. [6]



And now, without Respect or Fear,

He seeks the Objects of his Vows ;

His Love no Modesty allows :

By swift degrees advancing where

His daring Hand that Alter seiz’d,

Where Gods of Love do Sacrifice ;

That awful Throne, that Paradise,

Where Rage is tam’d, and Anger pleas’d ;

That Living Fountain, from whose Trills

The melted Soul in liquid Drops distils.



Her balmy Lips encountring his,

Their Bodies as their Souls are joyn’d, [7]

Where both in Transports were confin’d,

Extend themselves upon the Moss.

Cloris half dead and breathless lay,

Her Eyes appear’d like humid Light,

Such as divides the Day and Night;

Or falling Stars, whose Fires decay ;

And now no signs of Life she shows, [7] cont

But what in short-breath-sighs returns and goes.



He saw how at her length she lay,

He saw her rising Bosom bare,

Her loose thin Robes, through which appear

A Shape design’d for Love and Play;

Abandon’d by her Pride and Shame,

She do’s her softest Sweets dispence,

Offring her Virgin-Innocence

A Victim to Loves Sacred Flame ;

Whilst th’ or’e ravish’d Shepherd lies,

Unable to perform the Sacrifice. [8]



Ready to taste a Thousand Joys,

Thee too transported hapless Swain,

Found the vast Pleasure turn’d to Pain :

Pleasure, which too much Love destroys !

The willing Garments by he laid,

And Heav’n all open to his view ;

Mad to possess, himself he threw

On the defenceless lovely Maid.

But oh ! what envious Gods conspire

To snatch his Pow’r, yet leave him the Desire !



Natures support, without whose Aid

She can no humane Being give,

It self now wants the Art to live,

Faintness it slacken’d Nerves invade :

In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid

To call his fleeting Vigour back,

No Motion ’twill from Motion take,

Excess of Love his Love betray’d ;

In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,

Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands. [9]



In this so Am’rous cruel strife,

Where Love and Fate were too severe,

The poor Lisander in Despair,

Renounc’d his Reason with his Life.

Now all the Brisk and Active Fire

That should the Nobler Part inflame,

Unactive Frigid, Dull became,

And left no Spark for new Desire ;

Not all her Naked Charms cou’d move,

Or calm that Rage that had debauch’d his Love.



Cloris returning from the Trance

Which Love and soft Desire had bred,

Her tim’rous Hand she gently laid,

Or guided by Design or Chance, [10]

Upon that Fabulous Priapus,

That Potent God (as Poets feign.)

But never did young Shepherdess

(Gath’ring of Fern upon the Plain)

More nimbly draw her Fingers back,

Finding beneath the Verdant Leaves a Snake. [11]



Then Cloris her fair Hand withdrew,

Finding that God of her Desires

Disarm’d of all his pow’rful Fires,

And cold as Flow’rs bath’d in the Morning-dew.

Who can the Nymphs Confusion guess ?

The Blood forsook the kinder place,

And strew’d with Blushes all her Face,

Which both Disdain and Shame express ;

And from Lisanders Arms she fled,

Leaving him fainting on the gloomy Bed. [12]



Like Lightning through the Grove she hies,

Or Daphne from the Delphick God ;

No Print upon the Grassie Road

She leaves, t’ instruct pursuing Eyes.

The Wind that wanton’d in her Hair,

And with her ruffled Garments plaid,

Discover’d in the flying Maid

All that the Gods e’re made of Fair.

So Venus, when her Love was Slain,

With fear and haste flew o’re the fatal Plain. [13]



The Nymphs resentments, none but I

Can well imagin, and Condole ;

But none can guess Lisander‘s Soul,

But those who sway’d his Destiny : [14]

His silent Griefs, swell up to Storms,

And not one God, his Fury spares,

He Curst his Birth, his Fate, his Stars,

But more the Shepherdesses Charms ;

Whose soft bewitching influence,

Had Damn’d him to the Hell of Impotence. [15]



1. The Disappointment is within a category of other poems -written almost entirely by men- that examine masculine identity through a commentary on impotence. (Called “imperfect enjoyment poems” source 1 JSTOR) Behn, being a woman, includes much more from the woman’s perspective, allowing the interplay between Cloris’s simultaneous fears and desires and Lysander’s pride to be much more well explored. For example, see [5].
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2. The names “Cloris” and “Lysander” have a lot of literary context to them. Per Ian Lancashire of Representative Poetry Online, Behn uses them to describe a shepherd and shepherdess in other pieces of hers. Lysander is also the name Hermia’s lover in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Behn, at this point in her career a well-known playwright, calls on these literary contexts of her previous work and Shakespeare’s forbidden young lovers which contemporary audiences would have been familiar with. (on Aphra Behn, poetry foundation. This poem was published in 1684, by 1670 Behn’s plays were being produced.)
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3. The gilded Planet of the Day refers to the sun and therefore Apollo, whose chariot settles into the sea as night falls. Cloris, alone with the shepherd Lysander in a field, becomes the only object of attention as the young man is overcome by his lust. Behn may be alluding to the mythological tradition of Apollo/Phoebus in the chariot to personify the sun’s setting; Lysander, lustful and impatient, urges Apollo to draw his chariot faster so that he may be alone at night with Cloris. From Cloris’ perspective, Apollo’s retreat over the horizon could be viewed as the loss of her only support in this desperate situation. The protection of the day disappears with Apollo’s chariot, leaving her alone to resist Lysander’s advances.
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4. The idea of women becoming weak to the advances of a man assists Behn in describing masculinity as a conquest. Behn has actually done this before (per RPO) in “On a Juniper-Tree, cut down to make Busks,” where a different Cloris does not consent but instead languishes, and Philocles takes advantage of it to advance further until he has fully seduced her.
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5. The detailed descriptions of Cloris’s emotions show that she is feeling much more than simple desire, as a male poet like Wilmot may write (The Imperfect Enjoyment). Namely, the combination of love and shame shows the complex dimensions of femininity where she simultaneously loves Lysander and worries about losing her greatest symbol of purity. Lysander, on the other hand, has no holds on his lust (in fact it’s an accomplishment for him to fuck her, see note 6), except that he is unable to perform. Thus, his impotence is doubly shameful when it is considered against the conflicts that Cloris must deal with.
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6. “the spoils and trophies of the enemy.” In describing proper masculine seduction as a conquest, Behn describes frustrations with the restrictions that gender places on sexuality. In her era, it is shameful for a woman to admit desire, so a man must initiate and pry through her social conditioning. This way, the woman’s inhibitions become a man’s enemy and her sex becomes loot and a symbol of success. While Cloris does harbor love and some desire for Lysander, she’s afraid for her honor and Lysander extracts it through rape: something a male author would omit.
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7. The vagina is described as an altar, and a precious possession where the soul seeps out and where lovers may join. In stanza 3, Cloris states that she holds this possession and the honor tied to it so dearly that if Lysander is to have her, he must kill her. In laying his hand on her, he has taken her honor and therefore her life as “no signs of Life she shows” in “sacrifice” to satisfy his lust, while she lays defeated with no breath. Behn wishes to represent as rape what a male poet would have represented as a noble conquest of a lover, and this language is part of what makes it possible.
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8. Here Behn switches from Cloris’s understanding to Lysander’s perspective, directly after he has tarnished her honor. Of course, Lysander sees the defeated and breathless Cloris (in trauma) as consent and invitation (designed for love and play?). Behn criticizes the contemporary image of the languished virgin as a beautiful and seductive sight: Cloris is a “Victim” to the “sacred flame” of love as understood through masculinity. In a statement of how powerfully attached men are to this idea, the shepherd is so overcome by it that his erection fails (and he cannot complete the sacrifice).
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9. Lysander has prematurely ejaculated. His love is in “Excess”, and his “Toils” and “Commands” cannot control his penis (let’s just be upfront about it). “Too much love” has destroyed his pleasure, and he curses the gods that “conspire” it, unable to call back his “vigour” as it fleets away. His penis is the insensible in two ways; it cannot understand that it should wait, and because it’s already ejaculated. It weeps semen.
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10. This is a mockery, again, of the image of the innocent young virgin. The “trance” caused by her “Love” and “soft Desire” is easily interpreted as actually being her unconscious state caused by Lysander’s forceful and traumatic advances. This is especially evident because Behn emphasizes, likely ironically, the term “soft”.
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11. There is religious irony here in how Lysander’s member is described. Per Britannica, Priapus is a Greek god of fertility – a “Potent God”—which has failed miserably at potency. The “Fern” describes pubic hair, alluding to the leaves that cover Adam’s (Lysander’s) genitals. Upon parting said leaves, however, Cloris finds the Serpent. Lysander’s penis has deceived him to desire Cloris and betrays him through failure, it is both the temptation and the forbidden fruit which is only half partaken in (Adam and Eve never get to the Fruit of Life just as Lysander only halfway has sex). Thus, Lysander’s fall from the holiness/power tacked onto his sexuality demonstrates how said distinction is deceptive yet attractive, false, and harmful for men as well.
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12. Behn is again describing the impact of the image of innocence and monogamy on female sexuality. Cloris struggles between her love (and desire?) for Lysander and the massive social consequences of defloration. The blood leaves “the kinder place” for her face, symbolizing a shift between arousal and shame. She feels a contemptuous disdain that Lysander should advance on her and then fail, and shame that she felt aroused/desired it to some degree (the “Alter” was described earlier as a “Living Fountain”). Who can ease her confusion, Behn asks, when she, forced to decide between her own desires and social degradation, assaulted by someone who can only gain from the destruction of her most precious trait, wakes from the assault to find her assaulter impotent?
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13. Behn alludes many times to the Greek tradition of gods controlling the fates of a story’s characters. However, she also declares that Cloris and Lysander themselves are these gods. Lysander is “God of [Cloris’s] desires” and his phallus is “that Fabulous Priapus”. Most blatantly, Cloris is Daphne fleeing from Apollo who, in Greek tradition, was cursed by Eros – a son of Venus—to be helplessly infatuated with Daphne and chased her through a forest. Yet who is Venus in this case? Behn answers that it is Cloris. Thus, Cloris by no intention of her own (in the same manner that Eros’ curse is the fault of Venus) curses Apollo(Lysander) to advance on her, and then must flee like Daphne. By a near-religious structure beyond her control (say, masculine desires), Cloris is punished for a sexuality she does not determine.
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14. Behn can imagine the Nymph’s resentments because she is a woman, but she cannot identify with Lysander’s actions. Those who understand Lysander’s motives are the people who determined them: the male authors and poets responsible for creating this social image which creates sexual strife by encouraging male virility while simultaneously demanding that women repress theirs.
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15. The speaker of the poem (Behn), remains to observe the scene. This is essential; while the previous lovers flee from another, Behn stays and describes their failure. To Behn, the failure is in the genders’ different approaches to sexuality in her era; the fact that it determines the man to be entirely responsible for initiative results in an utter failure of communication. Remember, Cloris specifically states that she would rather die than see her virginity taken. Lysander either ignores this or assumes it a part of some feminine mystique, because he cannot understand the value of a woman’s virginity other than that it makes her attractive. Behn argues through Cloris’s desperate but vain attempts to resist the advances and Lysander’s desperate but vain attempts to finish them that this strife is a result of their gender identities which cannot be ignored. In this ending, the two lovers are tragically separated; one traumatized and confused, one disappointed with rage, and neither with a better understanding of one another. In fact, the rage Lysander now feels will only perpetuate this dynamic later as he curses Cloris and assigns her charms (which he constructs) the blame.
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16. Final note: There are a couple of ways to interpret The Disappointment, and their differences lie in how much one believes Cloris desires Lysander, which also answers the question of who exactly is disappointed here. On one end is a traditional interpretation; that the two are passionate lovers and Cloris’s objections are obligatory utterances said for the purpose of propriety, but Lysander’s impotence disappoints them both. On the other is the interpretation that Cloris is completely objecting; her unfortunate and unavoidable physical arousal are interpreted by Lysander as consent (or some pleasure, which he interprets as consent), and Lysander’s failure to perform disappoints only him and is rather a relief to Cloris.

However, both of these interpretations miss some vital points. If Cloris desires the intercourse, why does she so definitely state that she’d rather die and then lie lifeless when Lysander defiles her? If Cloris does not desire whatsoever, why the shame and confusion at her arousal, and disdain of Lysander’s impotence? When considering the context of The Disappointment’s authorship, the conclusion seems to lie somewhere in the middle.

Behn was among the first female career authors, she would have been all too familiar with the male literary worship of female virginity, purity, and monogamy. She directly identifies herself with Cloris, and puts heavy emphasis on the confusion and shifts in emotion that she feels. The Disappointment is most meaningful when we interpret Cloris as loving Lysander and physically desiring him but restricted by the ruinous and irreversible consequences of losing her virginity imposed by the pastoral/romantic tradition. The same tradition guarantees that Lysander won’t understand this; no matter what Cloris feels, we know that Lysander wants and stands to socially gain from the intercourse. Thus, Lysander’s enraging frustrations of impotence, and Cloris’ confusion on whether to be relieved or dissatisfied. The disappointment is more than a sexual disappointment from either Cloris or Lysander; it’s the speaker’s disappointment in the state of gender and sexuality: a disappointment that we, the readers, should share.
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[a] Lancashire, Ian. “RPO — Aphra Behn : The Disappointment.” Representative Poetry Online, Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries., 9 Sept. 2002, tspace.library.utoronto.ca/html/1807/4350/poem142.html#108.

[b] Zeitz, Lisa M, and Peter Thoms. “Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn’s ‘The Disappointment.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 37, no. 3, 1997, pp. 501–516. Restoration and Eighteenth Century, doi:10.2307/451046.

[c] “Priapus.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Priapus. Accessed 19 Sept. 2018.

[d] “Daphne – Greek Mythology.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Daphne-Greek-mythology. Accessed 19 Sept. 2018.

[e] “Aphra Behn.” Poetry Foundation, edited by Micheal Slosek, Poetry Foundation, 2018, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/aphra-behn. Accessed 19 Sept. 2018.

[f] Bernini, Gian L., and Lisa Khunen. Apollo and Daphne. 2018, Galleria Borghese, Rome. http://www.britannica.com/topic/Daphne-Greek-mythology. Accessed 19 Sept. 2018.