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John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
with a monkey.
I will confess I had not heard of Rochester until I got well into my University career. In retrospect, I find this rather surprising, as I am quite sure teaching Rochester in high school would do away with poetry's unfair reputation of being boring in one fell swoop. I am not sure whether his absence is due to embarrassment on the teachers' part or a fear of irate parents accusing them of corrupting their young.

Rochester himself is said to have been corrupted at Oxford (which he started at 12 and left at 14 with an MA and a number of new and exciting interests). He belongs to the box labelled Restoration literature, and I think I should probably get into some particulars on that score before I go on.

There is a tendency, I think, to see the 20th century as a steady breaking away from the repression of the past. It starts around the fin de siècle, one might imagine, and moves via the Edwardians through the 20s, and then storms towards the finish line of total freedom from the 60s onwards. And before that, in this narrative of steady progression, the Victorians were repressed, only to be outdone by the people before them, and the people before them until you get back to the Middle Ages, when everyone wore chastity belts and prayed all the time in order to completely suppress their sinful flesh.

The error will of course be immediately apparent to anyone who has read around a bit in Medieval literature (Chaucer's ``Miller's Tale'', while arguably tending towards Renaissance, cannot be construed as terribly pious, for example). But there is another period that makes even Chaucer look pale and unassertive: the Restoration.

The Restoration of what, you say?

Charles I (1625-1649)

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)
Those of you who have read Dumas will remember (possibly with a somewhat skewed impression of the virtue of the king) that Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland got his head cut off in 1649 after a prolonged civil war.

The man who won the war was Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the puritan, parliamentarian forces, the New Model Army. He set about repressing the general decadence of public theatres (heaven forbid), getting rid of bishops and making sure nobody worked on Sundays.

Once the king was gone, however, the many, varied factions turned on each other. Cromwell held them in tolerable order, but once he died his rather less imposing son was left with no money to pay an impossibly large standing army and no real ability to control the country. And so the Scots solved it all (or rather, General Monk did) by taking a stroll down to London and helping the remains of the royalist faction call Charles Stuart back from exile. To make things simple they decided that he had been king all along.

Charles II (1630-1685)

This is the Restoration. But the term is usually used to cover the following couple of decades. It is a period of reaction to the puritan repression. One of Charles II's first acts was to open new theatres, and this time with women on the stage (to properly drive the matter home, I suppose), and the whole period (except the obvious undercurrent of now repressed puritan writing) is characterised by a licentiousness and vitality that seems to me (not an expert on the period, by any means; only fascinated by it) to be both a celebration of the return and a deliberate kick in the direction of the now vanquished former victors. I suppose it is a classic illustration of the pendulum effect in history.

One of the expressions of this tendency is the movement generally described as ``Libertinism''. It is characterised by a tendency towards freethinkery and an emphasis on corporeality as central to life, not something to be thrown away based on the dictates of religion. If you want to read Libertine poetry (apart from Rochester) Lovelace's Love Made in the First Age. To Chloris might entertain you.

Rochester's Satyr against Reason and Mankind (rather too long to quote here, but well worth the read) is of a rather different style, but together they give a fairly good idea of what Libertinism consists of: in one, a dream of a First Age where all love (in a very carnal sense) is free and (more importantly) free of guilt (and, apparently, women are like food), coupled with a sort of grim knowledge that this vision is unattainable, all with a sort of ironic self-reflection and archness directed at their own position; in the other, a rejection of the human attempt to set itself up as something above the animal, preferring the animal guilelessness to what it sees as hypocritic human virtue:

For hunger or for love they fight or tear,
Whilst wretched man is still in arms for fear.
For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid,
By fear to fear successively betrayed[.]

These lines ought to give some clue as to what makes Rochester something other than simply a vulgar man who hurls obscenities at people. He has perfect form, or as close as makes no difference. If he is obscene, you know he has taken time to carefully hone the obscenity, and as a result, prudish as I am, I cannot fault him for it. But I am getting ahead of myself (oh, dear).

Rochester's life is about as shocking as his writing.

His father was one of the close supporters of Charles in exile, and so his Cavalier credentials were in order. With the exception of occasional trips to Paris, he himself grew up with his mother at home, however: a woman with distinct puritan leanings, for what I understand. I suppose that is what kept him innocent until the age of 12. He became one of the central characters of the Restoration court, however, with the exceptions of the periods he spent in exile (from court, if not the country) or locked up in the Tower as punishment for some infraction or other. One of these exiles followed his (supposedly mistakenly) giving the following poem to the king:

Satyr on Charles II

In th' isle of Britain, long since famous grown
For breeding the best cunts in Christendom,
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition moves to get renown
Like the French fool, that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown.
Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.

Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th' other,
And make him little wiser than his brother.
Poor Prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.
'Tis sure the sauciest prick that e'er did swive,
The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.
Though safety, law, religion, life lay on 't,
'Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

To Carwell, the most dear of all his dears,
The best relief of his declining years,
Oft he bewails his fortune, and her fate:
To love so well, and be beloved so late.
For though in her he settles well his tarse,
Yet his dull, graceless bollocks hang an arse.
This you'd believe, had I but time to tell ye
The pains it costs to poor, laborious Nelly,
Whilst she employs hands, fingers, mouth, and thighs,
Ere she can raise the member she enjoys.
All monarchs I hate, and the thrones they sit on,
From the hector of France to the cully of Britain.

Another absence, this time in the Tower, followed his having kidnapped Elizabeth Mallet (an heiress the king wanted him to marry) -- they later got married.

There are so many stories, I do not know whether to believe half of them. He allegedly spent some time masquerading as a fertility doctor (treating ``barren'' women -- supposedly with some success), had a multitude of lovers of both genders and spent five years continuously drunk. Unsurprisingly, he died young (of some sort of mix of syphilis, gonorrhoea and alcoholism). I am rather saddened by the stories that he found God and repented on his death bed, but I suppose there is comfort in the idea that he was probably quite mad at that point and did not know what he was doing.

Anyway. One final poem. I always make sure I teach this to my students, and it is not all about making them blush:

The Imperfect Enjoyment

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms;
Both equally inspired with eager fire,
Melting through kindness, flaming in desire.
With arms, legs, lips close clinging to embrace,
She clips me to her breast, and sucks me to her face.
Her nimble tongue, Love's lesser lightening, played
Within my mouth, and to my thoughts conveyed
Swift orders that I should prepare to throw
The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.
My fluttering soul, sprung with the painted kiss,
Hangs hovering o'er her balmy brinks of bliss.
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o'er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done't:
Her hand, her foot, her very look's a cunt.

Smiling, she chides in a kind murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o'er
My panting bosom, "Is there then no more?"
She cries. "All this to love and rapture's due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?"

But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive,
To show my wished obedience vainly strive:
I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive.
Eager desires confound my first intent,
Succeeding shame does more success prevent,
And rage at last confirms me impotent.
Ev'n her fair hand, which might bid heat return
To frozen age, and make cold hermits burn,
Applied to my dead cinder, warms no more
Than fire to ashes could past flames restore.
Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.
This dart of love, whose piercing point, oft tried,
With virgin blood ten thousand maids have dyed;
Which nature still directed with such art
That it through every cunt reached every heart —
Stiffly resolved, 'twould carelessly invade
Woman or man, nor aught its fury stayed:
Where'er it pierced, a cunt it found or made —
Now languid lies in this unhappy hour,
Shrunk up and sapless like a withered flower.

Thou treacherous, base deserter of my flame,
False to my passion, fatal to my fame,
Through what mistaken magic dost thou prove
So true to lewdness, so untrue to love?
What oyster-cinder-beggar-common whore
Didst thou e'er fail in all thy life before?
When vice, disease, and scandal lead the way,
With what officious haste dost thou obey!
Like a rude, roaring hector in the streets
Who scuffles, cuffs, and justles all he meets,
But if his king or country claim his aid,
The rakehell villain shrinks and hides his head;
Ev'n so thy brutal valour is displayed,
Breaks every stew, does each small whore invade,
But when great Love the onset does command,
Base recreant to thy prince, thou dar'st not stand.
Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most,
Through all the town a common fucking-post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt
As hogs do rub themselves on gates and grunt,
May'st thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,
Or in consuming weepings waste away;
May strangury and stone thy days attend;
May'st thou ne'er piss, who did refuse to spend
When all my joys did on false thee depend.

And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

Read it properly (by which I mean, don't just glance over it and giggle because it says "cunt" and is about premature ejaculation, although I will admit both points are essential to the poem).

I like the mock heroic in this poem, with its talk of "Love's lesser lightening", not to mention the "Swift orders that I should prepare to throw / The all-dissolving thunderbolt below". It is the ultimate indication of the Libertine mockery of its own Grand Vision. The inherent failure of the project can hardly be put it more explicit terms: pleasure as it should be is denied, cannot be achieved, despite the grand words on its splendidness.

That is not the be all, end all (why keep Macbeth out of it?) of the poem of course: it is also about that "duty to pleasure", which is the Libertine mantra. The speaker cursing himself (or part of himself, anyway) to the horrors of various types of venereal disease and other horrors of the age* for failing to provide said pleasure (this is actually quite interesting from a feminist perspective as well: quite often these types of poets (yes, Lovelace, I am looking at you) do not really pay much attention to the women except as something to be enjoyed -- on par with a type of delicious foodstuff, say; but Rochester, in this poem at any rate, shows an awareness of the idea of female sexuality which is quite refreshing). Although, well, one cannot help feel that ten thousand pricks might be overdoing it a bit.

There is some interesting stuff about Love in there as well -- as the saboteur of the moment, in fact. I am not quite sure what to make of that. It is a distinct virtue, I suppose (tied to honour and the fight for king and country), and so I cannot see how one could argue that Libertinism rejects the idea of Love, or reduces it to Lust alone -- certainly not here: the tenor is all wrong. But Love is most definitely to blame for the failure; although it might be the cause of the laudable attention to the debt of pleasure as well.

But what I really want you to do is read this out loud. Possibly not around your grandmothers (if they know English), but skimming through it (I firmly believe, no pun &c.) will take away from you the glory that is Rochester's alliterations: they are "equally inspired with eager fire", with arms, legs, lips close clinging to embrace". I already mentioned "Love's lesser lightening", but not, I think, the "balmy brinks of bliss". You get the idea. It carries you off and has its wicked way with you.

As for "cunt" and "fuck" and "prick", which I know will have caught your attention (this is why I want it taught in high school -- they will learn poems by heart just to have the excuse to say these words and claim the alibi of Literature; and hopefully, in so doing, the meter and the rhyme and the lovely alliteration will creep in the back way to their subconscious and affect their attitude to other poets later on -- it is my evil plan. It is probably also one of the main reasons why it is not currently taught in high school), I hope you notice how they are not derogatory here. Rochester's use of them draws on Anglo-Saxon, rustic words that came to be rude words; but he does not employ them as such. I will not pretend there is no (probable) intention to shock, but they are more a rejection of euphemism than anything else. And somehow my inner prude does not object.

Finally (because I have to end at some point), I do not want you to carry off the idea that this is a product of a biographical moment. Well, I mean, he drank a lot, and we will probably never know; but this is a poem in a long, long tradition of other poems. The earliest example I have come across is from Ovid's Amores (3.7, to be exact), but there is also another (actually at one point attributed to Rochester) by Aphra Behn, called "The Disappointment", and there are others as well.

To cap this all off, leaving you to discover the rest of Rochester on your own, I want to make one final observation. It concerns the picture right at the top of this article. In fact, let me provide you with a larger one:

I know nothing of the circumstances of the painting. I don't often admit to being ignorant, but there it is. But if literature is removed from intention as it is written, surely the same is true of painting. I therefore venture the following reading: the laurel wreath, which Rochester is holding over the head of his monkey, is associate with the idea of the poet laureate. Now, the first one of these was Petrarch (during the Italian Renaissance), but Charles II made John Dryden the first official English poet laureate.

Now to the point: I cannot decide whether to read the painting as a kick towards Dryden (my monkey can do what you do) or as something along the lines of Baudelaire's Perte d'Aureole (way, way before it's time -- can you have a reaction to the Romantics before the Romantics show up? -- well, if anyone can do it, it is Rochester, I think). But I'm a greater fan of the Dryden theory.

*Those among you who have read Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver will have a very vivid image of the horrors of the stone.
Tim likes this


Camilla,  15.03.11 00:55

Come to think of it, the crowning of the monkey could also be seen in reference to the "Satyr against Reason and Mankind", I suppose: the animal's ability to embrace its body, rather than a pure absorption of conventions found in books. But considering the extent of Rochester's assimilation of Classical poetry, I am not sure what to think. Possibly, I should go to bed now.
Tor,  15.03.11 10:15

I tend to think that if something is hundreds of years old, then it is automatically Literature™, and that makes it acceptable to be vulgar. Also, I imagine quite a bit of work went into that last poem, and I feel it's also acceptable to be vulgar if you thought long and hard about it, i.e. that you're not being vulgar just because you don't know how to be anything else. I suppose it's sort of like the claim that cursing reduces your vocabulary, which is obviously not strictly true, as cursing gives you access to more words that not cursing, but if all you do is curse, then you do have a fairly limited vocabulary. Or something.
Camilla,  15.03.11 11:24

I wonder whether Rochester may not have studied under John Wilkins (one of the founders of the Royal Society) while at Oxford (they are both connected to Wadham College). Wilkins, incidentally, was Cromwell's brother-in-law.

It should also be noted that while Rochester was a clever cookie, I doubt his MA at the age of 14 is quite the achievement it sounds like. Probably more of a token degree (as it was awarded just after the Restoration (I think), at a time when Oxford wasn't really the place to be for the sons of courtiers anymore). I should read up on this, I suppose. Once this pesky PhD is done.
Camilla,  15.03.11 15:33

perhaps this is a good illustration of the difference between vulgarity and obscenity: Rochester manages the latter without falling into the former?

I did learn about Rochester in school, although this was from my maverick English teacher who was always in trouble with the headmaster for doing things like... well, teaching Rochester (and A Clockwork Orange, when the film was still banned). So it probably isn't indicative of a trend of freethought in British private schools (as if).

Did you notice he got the name "Corinna" from Amores 3.7?

It's a shame the film about his life, The Libertine, was rubbish, despite starring Johnny Depp. Although I did like his speech at the end.

All in all, hear hear! I greatly enjoyed this well-written article, &c.
Camilla,  17.03.11 09:35

I applaud your English teacher.

There are other similarities with Amores 3.7 as well. For example,

Add shame to it: the shame itself, of it, hurt me:
that was the secondary cause of my failure.

Succeeding shame does more success prevent


But still my sex lay there prematurely dead,
shamefully, limper than a rose picked yesterday

Now languid lies in this unhappy hour,
Shrunk up and sapless like a withered flower.

There are others as well, I am sure. But Corinna is definitely one of them.

Okay, I am going to bypass all the poetry and ask:
Why kidnap the woman your king wants you to marry anyway? It seems like a positive waste of energy, and a very inefficient way of going about doing your duty to pleasure.

I do agree that Rochester was most uncommon. I disagree that he treads the line between obscenity and vulgarity. Surely The Imperfect Enjoyment, with its frankness, its truth, it desire to be true to pleasure for the elevation of LOVE, ought not to be called obscene. Frank, torrid, explicit - but from our point of view, not at all obscene.

Of course, Satyr is quite obscene. And deliciously vulgar. But that is what Satyrs - whether on the page or dancing around with Pan - do. They take joy in the obscene, the vulgar, by refining it through the heat of truth.

Or something I am very tired and very impressed.
Camilla,  07.04.11 23:51

I think applying rationality in an attempt to make sense of Rochester's actions is futile. But perhaps he figured he would eventually get forgiven since this was considered a suitable match after all. And simply marrying her would be trite and boring. So he takes the middle ground, as only Rochester can.
Roh,  07.04.11 23:54

Camilla: I love the fact that he has a monkey
Roh: I bet he spanked it
Camilla: wait.
Roh: hahahah
Camilla: is monkey some sort of innuendo?

ALSO John Wilmot is a wussy-sounding name.