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Revered by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) as a woman "who earned [women] the right to speak their minds," Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was a pioneer and a women's activist before we had a name for it. Adventurous and unapologetic, Behn is England's first professional woman writer. Her cheeky attitude, a strong sense of self, and belief in women's authority in life and over their own sovereignty come through in her poem "On Her Loving Two Equally" (1682).
|Poem||"On Her Loving Two Equally"|
|Written by||Aphra Behn|
|Structure||lyric poem in three six-line stanzas|
|Rhyme scheme||AABBCC DEDEFF GGHHJJ|
|Literary devices||rhetorical question, metaphor, alliteration|
|Meaning||Although the speaker indicates she loves the two men equally, being torn between two lovers means she must regularly choose one over the other and is always in a state of dissatisfaction. The core meaning of the poem is true love and passion means commitment and dedication, which cannot be divided equally.|
A lyric poem is typically a short poem uttered by a single speaker expressing thoughts or emotions.
"On Her Loving Two Equally" by Behn is a lyric poem in three stanzas. In it, the poetic voice is a female. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the majority of English writers were men. A poem from a female's perspective is unique from that time period. The poem is a lyric told from the first-person point of view. A woman, the speaker, expresses that she is conflicted between two men: Damon and Alexis. She feels equal attachment to both and can't resolve the internal dispute.
A stanza is several lines of verse grouped together visually on a page of written text.
The first-person point of view is a narrator who is part of the action, sharing their own perspective. This type of narration uses the first-person pronouns "I," "me," and "we."
Rather, her dilemma is that when she is with one, she longs for the other. And when both are in her presence, she is in pain and unable to be with either one. The speaker uses the final stanza, which begins the turn or poetic shift, to ask the winged Roman god of love, Cupid, to withdraw one of the arrows he has shot into her, and cure her of this "fever" (line 14). However, the poetic voice indicates that either arrow he withdraws, and therefore lover she leaves, will leave her dissatisfied.
The turn, also known as the poetic shift or volta, marks a change in attitude, tone, mood, or thought. It is often indicated by words such as "yet," "but," "or," or "then."
According to Roman myth, Cupid is the child of Mercury and Venus. As the god of love, they often depict him with wings and carrying a bow and arrow. His counterpart in Greek myth is Eros, and in Latin poetry, Amor (which means "love" in Spanish). While the Greek god Eros is often portrayed as a muscular being, the Roman Cupid is a chubby winged angel.
"On Her Loving Two Equally" is an extremely balanced poem in terms of form. Each stanza is six lines long. Behn uses end rhyme throughout her poem. The rhyme scheme in the poem is AABBCC DEDEFF GGHHJJ. However, the end rhyme, when words at the end of a line rhyme with words at the end of another line, consists mostly of near rhyme rather than the typical perfect rhyme most often used during the time Behn produced the poem.
Near rhyme, also known as imperfect rhyme, slant rhyme, or partial rhyme, is when words have similar but not identical consonant and vowel sounds. Examples of this include words like "prove" and "love" and "worm" and "swarm."
Perfect rhyme, also known as true rhyme, is when the consonant and vowel sounds within words are identical. This is very satisfying phonetically. Examples of this include words like "true" and "blew" or "love" and "dove." Both the vowel and consonant sounds are exactly the same, although the spellings don't have to be.
The slant rhyme is often used in childhood nursery rhymes. However, it is not nearly as phonetically satisfying as near rhyme. In implementing slant rhyme, Behn leaves the reader feeling a bit dissatisfied, much like the poetic voice feels with her current romantic relationships.
"On Her Loving Two Equally" is an eloquently written poem that seems to effortlessly communicate the thoughts and emotions of a woman torn between two loves. Her indecision is communicated through the use of literary elements such as rhetorical question, alliteration, diction, and metaphor.
The speaker opens by asking a rhetorical question within the first two lines of the poem.
How strongly does my passion flow,
Divided equally ’twixt two?
A rhetorical question is a question posed to make a point and doesn't require an answer.
The speaker intends the question to express how her love is equally powerful for two different individuals. This equality is expressed first in a balance of language through the use of alliteration.
Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonant sound in a series of words near each other. The same sound is often repeated at the start of the words or within the stressed syllable.
The phrase in line 2, "twixt two", consists of single-syllable words that both begin with the "t" sound. The balanced syllables paired with the punctuating "t" sound reveal an equally-weighted measure of passion she holds for two men. The speaker then explains that her first love interest, Damon, successfully gained her love because Alexis played "his part" (line 4). And Alexis was able to "gain [her] lover" (line 6) because Damon helped. Further showing equality and balance, the speaker states each man's name twice within the first stanza.
The poem's second stanza focuses on the speaker's feelings when she can't be with one of the men she loves. Ironically, it reveals that though her love for them may be balanced, her situation is very unstable. The diction Behn uses in this second stanza reveals the speaker's discontent and emotional volatility.
Diction is a writer's specific words to convey tone, shape mood, or express an attitude toward a subject.
Word such as "sigh" (line 8), "mourn" (line 8), "miss" (line 9), "scorn" (line 10), "languish" (line 11), and "die" (line 11) express a physical and emotional distress. The speaker, although having more, incessantly feels she is missing out. And in the presence of both, she feels as though she is empty.
But if it chance they both are by,
For both alike I languish, sigh, and die.
Twice within this second stanza, Behn uses onomatopoeia to show the speaker as unhappy.
Onomatopoeia is a literary device where words imitate the sound they are describing.
The onomatopoetic use of the word "sigh" in lines 8 and 12 reveals the speaker's emotional distress. Rather than being free to show love and elation toward the men she adores, she is restrained and languishes in emotional turmoil.
Stanza III of the poem marks the poetic shift. The speaker pleads with Cupid to help her from this emotional affliction. The irony of the situation is that in loving both Damon and Alexis equally, she is free to love neither. Behn employs the use of metaphor in lines 13-14 to show the conflict.
A metaphor is a figure of speech where two objects are directly compared, showing one to be the exact same as the other. The comparison does not use the words "like" or "as." A metaphor often uses a literal and concrete object or state to express a more abstract emotion or idea.
Cure then, thou mighty wingéd god,
This restless fever in my blood;
The metaphor comparing the speaker's emotional state to a "fever in [her] blood" shows her physically unwell. The inability to decide which one to love more, and the inability to love either one freely, create a sense of agitation and anxiety.
Behn's allusion to Cupid references Cupid's "gold-pointed dart" (line 15). The implication is that the speaker is not in control of her own emotions and blames Cupid for her actions or infidelity in love. According to myth, the deity Cupid would carry two types of arrows. If an individual were struck with a lead-tipped one, they would feel an immediate aversion and be filled with the need to flee. If Cupid struck an individual with a gold-tipped arrow, they would experience irresistible passion, like our speaker. Again, Behn playfully pokes fun at men who would blame a woman's beauty or use other excuses for their adultery rather than take responsibility for their actions.
Why do you think this shift in thought takes place at the end of the poem?
After her husband's death, Aphra Behn was enlisted by King Charles II to go to the Netherlands and spy on the Dutch enemies. When Behn returned, she was in debt and needed to find a way to make a living. She began writing and for nearly 20 years she lived independently as one of the few female writers of her time.
'On Her Loving Two Equally" by Aphra Behn is a brief but thought-provoking lyric poem. Through her use of diction, metaphor, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and rhetorical question, Behn reveals the irony of the situation. When in love with two people, your passion is subdued and not true. To be truly romantically connected to two individuals equally is not possible.
Behn's poem is a parody of the male-generated literature of the time. She was ahead of her time, writing during a time when only mostly men wrote, working for her own living as opposed to depending on a man, and challenging social expectations. "On Her Loving Two Equally" exposes the socially accepted tendency for men to take on both a wife and mistress during her times while leaving both the women dissatisfied in the relationship. Men typically suffered no consequences for this action, and Behn's poem humorously exposes a woman's perspective being torn between two admirers and serves as a parody of real life. She keeps to the light tone of the poem by adapting a fickle voice for the speaker.
The poem originally appeared in one of Behn's plays, The False Count (1682). It was originally titled "How Strangely Does My Passion Grow." The comedic play, like the poem, attacks society's double standard in accepting and allowing men to take on multiple partners while women were expected to condone the disloyalty and remain devoted.
A parody humorously imitates a person, body of work, or serious matter. It is often for comedic effect but can reveal a truth about the person or situation. For Behn, using the instance of a woman torn between two lovers is a safe way to make a social criticism while revealing the hypocrisy of her times.
The core meaning of the poem is true love and passion means commitment and dedication which can not be divided equally.
"On Her Loving Two Equally" is a lyric poem.
"On Her Loving Two Equally" was written and published in 1682.
Poet and playwright Aphra Behn wrote "On Her Loving Two Equally."
The poem "On Her Loving Two Equally" humorously exposes the socially accepted tendency for men to take on both a wife and mistress during Behn's times while leaving both the women dissatisfied in the relationship. Behn's poem humorously exposes a woman's perspective on being torn between two admirers and serves as a parody of real life.
What Roman deity does the speaker in "On Her Loving Two Equally" ask for help?
Why type of poem is "On Her Loving Two Equally"?
The line "Divided equally ’twixt two?" from the poem "On Her Loving Two Equally" is an example of what literary device?
What is the poem "On Her Loving Two Equally" about?
Behn's poem humorously exposes a woman's perspective in being torn between two admirers.
Which line from the poem best expresses the speaker's feelings about her current situation?
For both alike I languish, sigh, and die.
When was "On Her Loving Two Equally" published?
The poem "On Her Loving Two Equally" was published in 1682.
What is Cupid the god of?
Cupid is the Roman god of love.
Behn uses all of the following literary devices in "On Her Loving Two Equally" except
Why did Behn write "On Her Loving Two Equally"?
Behn wrote "On Her Loving Two Equally" as a humorous poem that exposed the issue of men during her era taking on both a wife and mistress without social repercussions.
What does the speaker in "On Her Loving Two Equally" ask Cupid to do?
The speaker requests Cupid to remove one of the arrows she has been pierced with, so she falls out of love with either Damon or Alexis.
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