Behn's Only Complete Volume of Verse

Behn, Aphra (1640-89)

Poems upon Several Occasions with a Voyage to the Island of Love. By Mrs. A. Behn.

London: Printed by R. Tonson and J. Tonson, at Gray 1684


Octavo: 17.6 x 11.5 cm. A8, (b)8, B-K8, L1; B-I8 (L1 bound last)

FIRST EDITION of Aphra Behn’s first published collection of poems and the sole 17th century publication devoted exclusively to her poetry (a number of Behn’s poems appeared alongside those of her contemporaries in various miscellanies.) This is the sole edition; the 1697 “edition” cited in Wing is in fact a re-issue of the remaining sheets of the 1684 edition with a cancel title page (see Case 184B and O’Donnell 18.1b). In her bibliography, O’Donnell mentions an engraved portrait of the poetess known in only eight extant copies (although it should be noted that one in the Huntington copy has been “supplied.”) The last copy with a portrait to appear on the market or at auction was in William Salloch’s catalogue 388 in 1983.

A fine, tall copy, bound in contemporary 17th century speckled calf, with expert cosmetic repairs to the spine and corners. The text is in excellent condition. Provenance: bookplate of John Wallop, First Earl of Portsmouth and First Viscount Lymington (1690-1762.)

The poems of the celebrated Aphra Behn, with nine prefatory poems in praise of Behn and her writings, including one by Thomas Creech and an anonymous poem sometimes attributed to Dryden. Behn, best known for her contributions to Restoration drama, was the first professional woman writer to produce a substantial body of work in English. The "Poems" is the only 17th c. volume dedicated solely to Behn's poetry. Of the forty-five poems by Behn in the collection, three had been previously published in the 1680 edition of Rochester's poems, where they were mistakenly attributed to the Earl. Fittingly, the 1684 "Poems" includes elegies written on the death of Rochester.

The book was published at a time when Behn's career as a playwright was at a low point and her sources of income had dried up. "Given Behn's poverty at this time, it is notable that a letter from her to Jacob Tonson, the publisher of the volume (who also wrote one of the dedicatory poems in the collection), has survived, in which she pleads for the value of her poetry ('I shou'd really have thought 'em worth thirty pound'), and begs for at least an extra five: 'good deare Mr. Tonson, let it be five pounds more… I have been without getting so long that I am just upon the poynt of breaking, especially since a body has no credit at the Playhouse as we used to have, fifty or sixty deep.'

“In her own period Behn was held to be a considerable author, famous as a playwright, propagandist poet and panegyrist, novelist, and translator. Through her literary life she was writing verses, though these were published in her own volumes primarily in the mid 1680s when she clearly needed money from projects outside the theatre. The most important collection of her poetry is the volume entitled ‘Poems upon Several Occasions with a Voyage to the Island of Love’ (London: Tonson, 1684)… All the poems are either the work of Behn herself or poems that she has translated… Her main mode is the courtly pastoral lyric in its baroque Restoration form, written by women such as Katherine Philips and men such as Sir Charles Sedley and John Sheffield, who describes it in his ‘Essay on Poetry’ (1682) as a song with ‘expression easy, and the fancy high’, formally perfect and informal in style… Frequently she catches the air of spontaneity of the best informal occasional verse, its blend of feeling and detachment. Some of Behn’s verses seem to have been primarily for coterie circulation, such as ‘Our Cabal’; some may have been part of literary games and competitions, such as ‘The Disappointment’ or ‘Rebellion’s Antidote’; some may have been written to pay or create a literary debt like the poems to Thomas Creech and Edward Howard. Others were aimed at commercial publication, such as the paraphrases of Ovid, Aesop, Cowley and Tallemant.”(Todd, “The Secret Life of Aphra Behn”, pp. xxxix-xl)

O’Donnell “Aphra Behn, an Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources” A18.1a; Wing B1757; Term Catalog 2, 73 (Easter 1684) Case “A Bibliography of English Poetical Miscellanies” 1521-1750), 184b