Craig R. Patton
17 November 2011
“What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,” Remarked the Willing Mistress
Having lived four hundred years apart, Aphra Behn and Edna St. Vincent Millay, two prolific writers of their day, lived parallel lives and were not afraid to explore and write about the sexual exploitations between men and women. Two examples of this are Behn’s “The Willing
Mistress,” a discussion of an illicit rendezvous, and Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why,” a reminisce of past lovers; both poems are explicit and unapologetic about the sexual exploits of women. The two writers have a similar theme, message, and imagery to convey the sexual interactions between men and women while in the throes of passion or in remembrance of passions past. While some may assume these women wrote about this subject as a rebellion against the restraints placed upon women or women’s writings of a sexual nature, this may not have been the case. Given the sexual exploits these writers experienced in their own lives, these poems may very well be a direct result of their liaisons and sexual exploration between the writers and their lovers.
Aphra Behn lived in mid-to-late 1600’s. After becoming an adult she was a writer, a spy for King Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and an actress of the stage. Her tales of sexual exploits seem to mirror her own experiences. Even though she was married to Johan
Behn, she still took on lovers of both sexes; it is these exploits that may have served as her creative muse for her works. Similarly, Edna St. Vincent Millay lived from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. After becoming an adult, Millay became a professional writer, and while she did not
Patton 2 work as a spy as Behn, she did live through several wars during her lifetime. Millay was known for having several lovers of both sexes, and, after her marriage to Eugen Jan Boissevain, she continued to engage her lovers. As with Behn, these exploits may have served as her muse for her writings. Additionally, both women were criticized for the unapologetic and explicit portrayals of women engaging in sexual exploits. Behn's work was attacked as immoral by many of her contemporaries. Similarly, Millay’s critics belittled her writings towards sexual discourse and did not favor populist and feminist writings. Their society believed women did not enjoy sex; therefore, any suggestion to the contrary was considered absurd and taboo. During Behn’s time, her society believed that any pleasure derived from sex was sinful. Likewise, in Millay’s age, sex was discouraged in behavior and thoughts. These women attempted to open the collective minds of their society of the sexual freedom of women while creating a literary work of art that their society could understand and enjoy.
Behn wrote “The Willing Mistress” in 1673 when she was thirty-three years old and in the prime of her life. The characters appear to imply the youthfulness of age as they sneak off away from the prying eyes of society to engage in their sexual desires with one another; one is not left to guess at the nature of the female protagonist. As the title implies, the female protagonist is the mistress to Amyntas and a willing participate: “His charming eyes no aid required / To tell their softening tale” (17, 18). The entire poem implies a forbidden love, one in which the two lovers must find “The place secured from human eyes” (5) and describes the playfulness of the lovers as they begin to consummate their love: “And laid me gently on the ground / Ah who can guess the rest?” (23, 24).
Much like Behn, Millay had a great deal of lovers of both sexes during her life. What is most interesting is, unlike the character of her poem, Millay was twenty-eight years old when she
Patton 3 wrote “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why” in 1920. Her poem implies an older woman, perhaps a