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To Gods for fear, Devotion was design’d,
And Safety made us bow to Majesty;
Poets by Nature Aw and Charm the Mind,
Are born not made by dull Religion or Necessity.

Aphra Behn, ‘To Mr. Creech (under the Name of Daphnis) on his Excellent Translation of Lucretius’ in Poems Upon Several Occasions: with A Voyage to the Island of Love (1684)

Aphra Behn was a playwright, poet, novelist, and translator; the first professional woman writer and one of the most successful dramatists of her era. Criticised during her lifetime, and long after her death, for her supposed lewdness and lack of femininity, she has come to be recognised as a trailblazer and freethinker, who expressed a feminist sensibility long before the word itself was coined. Behn’s poems and plays demonstrated an unapologetic sensuality, as well as a scepticism of revealed religion. In a poem addressed to the translator of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Behn gloried in the opening up of ancient philosophy through translation (not least for women), and celebrated the power of reason. Behn’s biographer, humanist writer and activist Maureen Duffy, described her religious position as being ‘as rational as a pre-Freudian age could allow’: ‘unsuperstitious and not at all guilt-ridden’. In this, Behn’s life and work offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of an explicitly humanist philosophy, as well as depicting that process of inspiration, discovery, and the passing on of ideas which underpin humanity itself, and the humanist approach.

On her death in 1689, Aphra Behn was buried – perhaps surprisingly – in Westminster Abbey, although not in Poets’ Corner. The black marble stone was engraved with the words: 

Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality.

Suspected of atheism in her lifetime due to her assertion that death was followed by an ‘eternal night’, this simple inscription acknowledging Behn’s talents as well as her mortality seems fitting. It was of Behn’s grave and enduring influence that Virginia Woolf would write:

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalousIy but rather appropriately in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she… who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1935)

With Behn, Woolf wrote, ‘begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes’. In this, Behn represented another cornerstone of the humanist tradition, freedom of expression, and her grave a reminder of a battle still being fought by humanists around the world.

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