In Wilmots power the woman stays weak and never takes charge. There are many underlying issues that that are uncovered in the treatment of gender roles within the society in which these poems were written.
Men are expected to have a voracious appetite for sex. This appetite for sex is equated with power and power is the key defining feature of male identity. Gender roles and structures of oppression are clear in Wilmots poem. Behm tears them down on a number of levels in her work. Thus, Behm lashes out against oppression against women, which was the norm in her society. The woman in Wilmots poem is the object of desire. She displays the perfect response to male advances. She is at first hesitant and reluctant, but later gives in to his advances. In this way, she acts in the manner of a proper lady. The women are not supposed to be promiscuous. To simple give in to his advances would not be the actions of a proper lady. The proper lady must first resist before giving in to his advances. The forward control exhibited by the woman in Behms poem would be considered to be lewd undesirable because of her outward style of sexual advances towards the male.
Another aspect of the impotence in these two poems is the suggestion of the time from that is imposed on the condition. In “The Imperfect Enjoyment” we suspect that the condition is temporary. It will be restored at some time in the future, as indicated by line 24, “Than fire to ashes could past flames restore.” In “The Disappointment” the imagery suggests that the condition is permanent and enjoyment will never be restored the power will never be restored and the mans impotence is a permanent condition. This suggests that the mans power will be gone forever, ushering in a new age of womans power and the beginning of echoes of he womans suffrage movement that would not reach its culmination until several hundred years later.
Society at the time promoted the idea that the woman had to remain virtuous all the time. However, the man was expected to be sexually active, as a symbol of his power and prestige. This resulted in a double jeopardy for women. They were not supposed to actively enjoy sex, but they were expected to passively accept it. Behms poem lashes out at this double standard and attempts to set a new tone for male/female interactions by portraying the strong women figure who is in control over the weaker male figure. The two poems examined in this research study are excellent examples of gender roles in their respective affect on the lives of men and women at the time of their writing.
Profanity and Culture
Wilmots use of profanity was apparently meant to shock the reader, but how it was received by the contemporary reader is not known. By todays standards he poem is harsh and crude. The direct use of profane language and the references to body parts is a male perspective. It would be allowable for a male writer of the time, but it would have been scandalous for a woman to use that type of language. Woman were supposed to be the gentile gender.
They were expected to be more refined in their nature and to use such language would have been considered to be only reserved for those of lower status. The softened style of Behm further supports that this poem was written by a woman.
The poems of Wilmot and Behm provide distinctive contextual cultural clues as to the gender societal station of the characters in the poems. The crude, masculine nature of “The Imperfect Enjoyment” provides a glimpse into the world of the late 17th century male. “The Disappointment” provides a non-traditional viewpoint of the female in the same society. Behms work contrasts to the portrayal of the female in Wilmots work. The actions portrayed by the woman in Behms work do not meet the expectations that are set down in Wilmots work concerning the proper conduct and attitude of the woman.
The poems of Wilmot and Behm provide oppositional views of the role of men and women in 17th century society. Wilmots work presents the traditional viewpoint and accepted societal norms of the time. Behms work reflects a shift in attitude that would not come to fruition until later in the future. However, her work echoes discontent with traditional gender roles and the manner in which women were treated in society. It marks the beginning of a desire for change and a desire to break from the traditional roles that had developed. Behms work was revolutionary and expressed what would be considered radical thought for the time.
When one begins to examine the work of these two authors, certain elements of the society in which they lived begin to clearly emerge. One of the key elements that can be derived from their poetry is the effect of class and gender roles. If one examine the role that sex plays in the poetry, one can gain a sense of how the power structures worked involving the subordination of women. In Wilmots poem, he admitted that he had many lovers in the past who were little more than a way to satisfy his physical needs. However, he had no emotional connection to them. Behm treats the males in her poem much the same way. When it become apparent that he will not be able to please him, she loses interest and shows no emotional interest beyond sex.
A study of the works of Behm and Wilmot supports the thesis that one can gain an understanding of gender roles and class structure in late 17th century society. One can get an intimate sense of both the traditional roles of men and women and of the changes that would become apparent in later years. Wilmots poem presents a more traditional picture of male and female roles, while Behms works provides a role reversal of traditional gender roles. The subjugation of women is clear in both poems. It is apparent in Wilmots treatment of women and in Behms desire to escape the rules that bind women in that culture through her breaking of the rules.
Behm, Aphra. The Disappointment. Retrieved April 26, 2010 from http://www.web-
Wilmot, John. The Imperfect Enjoyment. Retrieved April 26, 2010 from http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/imperfect.html.