De-Gendering Genre: Aphra Behn and the Tradition of English Verse Satire

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Satire has traditionally been a masculine genre, with satirists assuming positions of authority and power deemed appropriate to the male gender, and focusing much of their outrage and ridicule on women. Conventional scholarship on British satire written during the Restoration and eighteenth century assumes that the genre was entirely the provenance of men. Felicity Nussbaum, among others, has argued that the female has been the object, not the subject, of satire since classical times. (1) However, some female writers did participate in the genre, and Aphra Behn's contributions not only show her familiarity with the masculine conventions of satire but also reveal her original contributions to the development of the complex theory and practice of satire that characterizes a major component of eighteenth-century literature in England.

Reading Behn's satires helps us understand the complex nature of eighteenth-century satire, for her works highlight the areas where the genre is under pressure, needing to change. Ralph Cohen observes that we need to look at what changes and what remains in a genre if we are truly to understand its literary history and significance: "literary history ... necessarily involve[s] ideological conflicts since genres as they change nevertheless have some continuous elements." (2) The female satirist, Behn, presents an ideological conflict by virtue of her gender; her very act of satirizing demonstrates the need for the genre to question the satirist's own traditional authority, destabilizing conventional literary, social and political assumptions simultaneously.

Behn's satires on poetry, and particularly on the contemporary male poets she reads, reveal an attitude that integrates the distinctions carved out by writers and critics as disparate as Dryden, Collier, Steele and Pope. As she does in many of her poems of different genres, Behn experiments in her satire with different relationships with masculine power and authority. Without losing satire's essential emphasis on difference, she challenges the assumptions of power in the gendered language of her contemporaries, the poet "Bavius" (Joseph Baber), the unidentified "Alexis," and the poet laureate John Dryden. Rather than attacking the male poets for their gender, as male satirists traditionally attacked women, Behn critiques the social relations between men and women, seeking to expand the poetic arena in areas where male poets have excluded women.

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As we will see in some of Behn's poems, her satire functions to crack open our minds, compel us to sustain disparate meanings simultaneously. But she is not always so subtle. There are moments in her satire when she moves into lampoon, where the speaker's intellectual superiority is announced and then wielded as a club to beat the subject into submission. Behn seldom goes on the attack so overtly, but when she does, she is deadly. In her response poem to the poet Joseph Baber (Bavius), Behn displays her most vituperative lampoon, enriching the male poet's meaning with her female knowledge of linguistic doubleness. Superior, angry, and mocking, the speaker in "To Poet Bavius; Occasion'd By His Satyr He Writ in his Verses to the King, Upon the Queens Being Deliver'd of a Son," (3) turns Baber's words back onto their author to reveal his inept appropriation of the organic metaphor of pregnancy and his deplorable attempts to rhyme and reason. As she highlights Baber's incompetence in sexual and poetic matters, Behn demonstrates his analogous lack of authority in politics, and stands to correct Bavius's errors by modeling her own expertise in issues of femininity, poetry, and policy.

Joseph Baber's instigating poem may have been motivated in part by Behn's earlier poem "A Congratulatory Poem of her Most Sacred Majesty, on the Universal Hopes of All Loyal Persons for a Prince of Wales," in which Behn presents the possibility of a male Roman Catholic heir with hope and faith. …