Gender Ambiguity in Aphra Behn’s “To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman”

February 10, 2010 at 10:19 pm (Uncategorized)

The narrator in Aphra Behn’s “To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman” begins the poem with a consideration of which “title” is most appropriate for addressing Clarinda (line 1). She deliberates, “Fair lovely maid, or if that title be / Too weak, too feminine for nobler thee, / Permit a name that more approaches truth: / And let me call thee, lovely charming youth” (1-6, emphasis added). In this excerpt, the narrator employs language that is subtly gendered, fostering a sense of ambiguity regarding Clarinda’s anatomy that subsequently opens the poem to differing empirical interpretations. To begin, the narrator opens with “[f]air lovely maid” but immediately challenges the language as insufficient to describe someone as “noble” as Clarinda. If the initial address, specifically “maid,” differs from Clarinda’s subjectivity because she is “nobler” than “maid,” what does the narrator mean by the word noble? Although this adjective commonly denotes its primary definition of “distinguished,” the narrator specifies that Clarinda’s nobleness varies from the idea of “maid” because a maid is “too feminine” in comparison; additionally, this primary definition of noble is gender neutral (“Noble” I). Therefore, the narrator must be engaging a less obvious interpretation of the word.

As early as 1398 AD, noble as an adjective also described something that was “of a part of the body; important; spec. essential to life” (“Noble” II.7.c). If one applies this “bodily” definition, then Clarinda cannot be called a maid because some crucial, life-sustaining “part of [her] body” is not as female as that corresponding part in a maid. Does this mean that Clarinda’s feminine exterior conceals some hidden masculine anatomy?

Before drawing any conclusions regarding Clarinda’s anatomy, one might look more closely at all factors in the equation. If “maid” is “too feminine” in relation to “noble,” where noble indicates something that is bodily and life-sustaining, is there enough evidence to conclude that the “something” is necessarily a body part and not, instead, a bodily act? Looking more narrowly at the word maid, contemporary society commonly attributes this title to a “young (unmarried) woman” (“Maid” I.2.a). While this definition was certainly valid at the time the poem was composed, another definition also existed. A more primary definition of maid in the OED indicates that the noun also refers to “[a] man without experience of sexual intercourse,” and this male definition was employed as early as 1300 AD (“Maid” I.1.b). This alternate reading of the term maid consequently proposes an alternate interpretation of the essential bodily element that makes Clarinda “too feminine” in relation to the “maid” (now, male virgin).

Perhaps, rather than possessing a male body part, Clarinda actually partakes in the conceptually masculine act of sexual promiscuity. Such an interpretation would corroborate with the other differentiator between “maid” and “noble”—that is—the narrator’s observation that “maid” is also “too weak” in comparison to Clarinda. This sort of subtle implication would position Clarinda, the woman, as stronger than a male virgin because of her sexuality. In so doing, the narrator might undermine the concept that sexual agency lies exclusively within (without and through) the phallus. The “nobler,” bodily, and life-sustaining part of Clarinda could alternatively be read as her possession of not a phallus but a libido.

Works Cited
“Maid.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 3 Nov. 2008

“Nobel.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Oxford UP. 3 Nov. 2008

“To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman.” Aphra Behn: Oroonoko and Other Writings. Ed. Paul Salzman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. 262.



  1. jroarty said,


    In the opening couplet, the speaker is setting up an opposition between “weak” and “feminine” on the one hand, and “nobler” on the other (line 2). He or she (the reader should not assume that the speaker is either Behn or even necessarily female) can not refer to Clarinda as a “maid” because this word is too weak and feminine (1); therefore, by contrasting nobility with weakness and femininity, the speaker seems to be gendering the word noble as male: weak femininity versus strong masculinity. Finally, the speaker settles on “youth,” a gender-neutral term which is able to encompass Clarinda’s feminine and masculine qualities (4). It is never made clear, however, what constitutes Clarinda’s female and male sides: the poem suggests that Clarinda is, in some way, hermaphroditic, but that hermaphrodism could be either literal/physical or figurative/spiritual. In The History of Sexuality V.1, Foucault writes that (I paraphrase) homosexuality came to be conceived of as a kind of hermaphrodism of the spirit, a soul which is both male and female, in a way that transcends the mere physicality of the body; while Behn is writing prior to the conception of homosexuality which Foucault describes, he could very well be describing Clarinda (or, for that matter, the poem’s speaker, who is also mysteriously androgynous). The speaker acknowledges having made love to Clarinda in the poem’s title; if the speaker is female (the expectation of which Behn is obviously playing with), then the perception of Clarinda as partially male could reflect a perception of lesbian or bisexual women (in the behavioral sense, the other sense is considered anachronistic) as partially male in spirit, a perception that could be either cultural or specific to the speaker.

    The title describes Clarinda as imagined more than woman; I think that that word (imagined) is key to the question of Clarinda’s physical gender. The speaker perceives Clarinda as intersexed, but (as I described in the preceding paragraph) that doesn’t necessarily mean that Clarinda is literally hermaphroditic. You mentioned the double meaning of the word maid, as meaning both a female and a male virgin; I don’t know how current the latter meaning was at the time, but given Behn’s propensity for playing with double-meanings, it’s quite possible she intended a blurring/confusion between female and male in her use of that word, as a way of blurring the perception of Clarinda’s gender in the eyes of the speaker and reader. It’s almost too obvious to interpret the poem as being about an actual hermaphrodite: the poem hits the reader over the head with it in such a heavy-handed way (images of snakes in the grass, references to Hermes and Aphrodite), that the reader has to take a step back and assume that the poem is just too obvious to be about what it seems to be so obviously about.

    Also, Behn uses the name Alexis to refer to Clarinda’s male side (“Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis joined”) (19); in Virgil’s Eclogues, a male shepherd named Corydon falls in love with a boy named Alexis. I don’t know if Behn was alluding to this or not, and it’s really beyond the scope of this particular blog, but I thought I’d mention it.

    Work Cited

    Behn, Aphra. “To The Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love To Me, Imagined More Than Woman.” Oroonoko and Other Writings. 1994. Ed. Paul Salzman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 262. Print.

  2. Sanju said,

    When did `To the Fair Clorinda’ published?

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