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