Linguistic Study of On Her Loving Two Equally by Aphra Behn

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In this article, we will be exploring the meaning of the poem On Her Loving Two Equally written by Aphra Behn through the linguistic study. The poem is interestingly interpreted in terms of phonetic structure, morphological pattern, semantic structure, use of punctuation, meter, rhyme, lexical patterns, and use of archaic language.

On Her Loving Two Equally

There are so many ways of studying a text and linguistics is one of them. This poem, ‘On Her Loving Two Equally’ by Aphra Behn, also can be interpreted linguistically. While reading this poem, I feel that its meaning can be taken on the basis of its phonetic structure, morphological pattern, semantic structure, use of punctuation, meter, rhyme, lexical patterns, and use of archaic language. And these all support that this poem is all about the persona’s dilemmatic situation for selecting one of her two lovers: Damon and Alexis.

The poem-On Her Loving Two Equally is organized into three 6-line rhyming stanzas. In the first stanza, the persona is talking about her passion for both of her lovers; Damon and Alexis due to their fair behavior to her. The second stanza describes her confusion. She scorns to the present one due to her longing for the absence one. And the third stanza is all about her request to Cupid for taking one away to him but if he takes Damon her all hopes will go with him and if he takes Alexis she herself forgets her existence in this world. And it carries the confusion as the title suggests indirectly. The dominant consonant sounds in the first stanza are;

  1. The voiced plosive /d/ – heavier percussive sound
  2. The voiced nasal /n/- fuller continuous passion
  3. The voiced lateral /l/ – heavier emergence of feeling
  4. The voiceless plosive /p/, /t/, /k/ – soft percussive sound
  5. The voiceless fricative /s/ – soft hissing sound

The way that these sounds are distributed across the lines of the stanza helps to suggest the flow of the passion of the persona. The plosive enacts her vigorous feelings for her lovers. And the fricative is suggestive of the sound made by her disturbed passion which goes at the same time to her lovers. The soft voiceless quality of most of the sounds like /l/, /t/, /k/, /s/ contributes to the emotional atmosphere of the poem- her passion flow, freedom of her heart from Damon, helpful behavior between Damon and Alexis. In line one; the persona describes her equal love for them. Here, she introduces the voiceless fricative /s/- a soft friction sound in order to show her acceptance to both of them with a little dilemma and followed by the voiced lateral /l/ to show the heavy flow of her passion to one another. Her feeling is continuous to both of them which is also supported by the use of the voiced nasal /n/ sound. The voiced plosive /d/ sound shows her heavy or determined passion for both of them which strikes her heavily.

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Similarly, the dominant consonant sounds in the second stanza are;

  1. The voiced nasals /n/, /m/ – heavy continuous sound
  2. The voiceless fricative /s/ – soft friction and hissing sound
  3. The voiced lateral /l/ – heavy flowing sound
  4. The voiceless plosive /k/- soft percussive sound
  5. The voiced plosive /d/ – heavy percussive sound

In this stanza, these sounds across the lines of the stanza help to suggest the persona’s dilemmatic mentality for her lovers. When she meets one, she longs for another. The voiced nasal sounds /n/ and /m/ suggest her continuous flow of passion for both of them. Another sound, voiced lateral /l/ suggests her heavy desire for both of them. But it is disturbed which is shown by the use of the voiceless plosive /k/ and the voiceless fricatives /s/ sounds. Here /k/ suggests a cautious and muted hindrance in-flow of her passion and /s/ suggests the same- friction in her passion as it does not go easily to both of them at the same time. These sounds indicate that she likes both of them as well as her confusion on whom to select.

In the same way, the dominant consonant sounds in the third stanza are;

  1. The voiceless plosives /t/, /k/ – soft percussive sound
  2. The voiced plosive /d/ – heavy striking
  3. The voiceless fricative /s/ – soft hissing sound
  4. The voiced nasal /n/ – heavy continuous sound
  5. The voiced lateral /l/ – heavy flowing sound

This stanza is all about her lack of selection as well as her equal love for both of them. She calls Cupid to take one away but also shows the danger to take anyone away. The use of the voiced lateral /l/ indicates her heavy flowing passion for both of them and it is further emphasized by the use of the voiced nasal /n/. But this flow is stopped which is shown by the use of the voiceless fricative /s/ and the voiceless plosives /t/ and /k/. Again more disturbance in heavy flow is depicted by the use of the voiced plosive /d/. The voiced lateral /l/ shows the heavy flow of her passion for both of them, in ‘lost’ is followed by the voiceless fricative /s/ which demonstrates her feeling but flow her feeling is disturbed which is shown by using the voiceless plosive /d/. This heavy flow of her passion and obstruction in that flow shows her dilemmatic condition. Overall, dominant sounds of this poem are /d/, /n/, /l/, /t/ and /s/ which show her love for both of them as well as her dilemmatic situation in choosing one.

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On Her Loving Two Equally also can be interpreted on the basis of its morphological structure. The poet uses more neutral morphemes than the positive and negative ones. The dominant presence of neutral morphemes shows the neutrality of the persona as well as her inner condition of being confused in selecting one of them: Damon or Alexis. In other words, her neutrality shows her dilemmatic mentality otherwise she should have been presented with more positive or negative morphemes. The sentences like; “equally ‘twixt two”, “O Cupid, wilt thou take?”, “If Damon’s all my hopes are crost or that of my Alexis, I am lost” show her inability to choose one of them. And it shows her dilemmatic situation.

In the same manner, there are two lovers and her passion flows for both of them equally. The verb ‘flows’ is marked as a verb by the present tense marker ‘s’ so as a reader I know that this poem is all about her present condition due to her two lovers. In the same way, I can say how her passion flows- ‘equally’- because the word carries the adverb marker ‘ly.’ Further, she wants to choose one of them but cannot do it due to her dilemmatic situation of whom to choose and whom to reject.

Similarly, there are more bound morphemes than free ones. The reason behind using more bound morphemes is to show her equal passion for both of her lovers. And it also indicates her lack of judgmental power; she should select one but her passion flows equally for both of them as well as her dependence upon her lovers than herself. Overall, the morphological interpretation of this poem shows her dilemmatic mentality in selecting one of them.

Throughout this piece of literature can be seen as a specific lexical cluster containing such words as ‘heart’, ‘love’, ‘passion’, ‘flow’, ‘blood’, and ‘Cupid’ working to conjure up a strong image in the reader’s mind. This collection of words appears to link to the natural world; ‘flow’, evoking an image of a river and ‘blood’, a vital part of the human body reminding the reader of the naturalness of love and emotions. The particular image of ‘Cupid’ acts as a metaphor for the speaker’s own decision on which lover to choose and relates to the traditional views on love as this Roman god is brought into the picture.

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On Her Loving Two Equally is set out visually and rhythmically in a song-like format further signified by the indication in the title; ‘Song’. Each of the three stanzas is of equal length and meter, the first five lines of each stanza working in iambic tetrameter followed by the final line of iambic pentameter. Perhaps this steady lyrical rhythm represents the steady heartbeat of the speaker emphasized by the masculine single rhyme scheme, thus linking to the theme of love presented throughout the poem. Supporting this idea is that as the poem draws to a climax in the third stanza, the natural flow of the final lines are broken up by punctuation more often than elsewhere in the ‘song’ and an exclamation of ‘But which, O Cupid, wilt thou take?’ possibly conveying the increasing intensity of feelings of the speaker and confusion in her heart, showing how deeply the situation affects her.

The rhyme scheme differs in the middle stanza from the first and final as the pattern changes from aabbcc to ababcc. As the final syllable in each line is stressed it creates a greater impact and more resounding effect encouraging the awareness of the seriousness of the poem. Behn uses mainly imperfect rhyme; ‘god’, ‘blood’ and even eye Pararhyme; ‘prove’, ‘love’. The poet could be using these fairly unsatisfying techniques to signify the complexity and irregularity of emotions and deep feelings, the chaos of love. The lack of perfect rhyme also maybe represents her indecisiveness about which lover to choose and the unorganized thoughts in her mind.

Language is a key feature in the ‘song’ and many types are used for dramatic effect. The archaic language used; ‘wilt thou’, ‘twixt’, create a sense of tradition and importance enhancing the significance of the poem’s meaning and gravity of ‘love’. Behn also occasionally uses onomatopoeia in the poem such as the repeated word ‘sigh’ to enable the reader to obtain a clearer insight into the speaker’s mind and create a sharper picture through the detail of sound. The ‘fever’ in her ‘blood’ is personified and becomes ‘restless’. This emphasizes the torturous quality of her feelings and enhances the physical passion she feels in the situation.

Overall, I have interpreted the poem-On Her Loving Two Equally on the basis of its phonetic structure, morphological pattern, semantic structure, use of punctuation, meter, rhyme, lexical patterns, and use of archaic language. These all create the meaning of this poem that the persona is in a dilemma in choosing one of her two lovers. She wants to accept one but loves them equally and this situation makes her dilemmatic.

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