Doomed to Sincerity

Germaine Greer

  • The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester edited by Harold Love
    Oxford, 712 pp, £95.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 19 818367 4

For his half-niece Anne Wharton, writing immediately after his death in 1680 at the age of 33, the poet Rochester was the guide who would have led her ‘right in wisdom’s way’:

He civilised the rude and taught the young,
Made fools grow wise, such artful music hung
Upon his useful, kind, instructing tongue.

Rochester’s modern editors and biographers are well aware of Wharton’s elegy, but they are not interested in the personage it describes. As the ward of Rochester’s mother, Wharton was brought up in the same house as the poet and, though she was twelve years younger, knew Rochester rather better than we or any other of the commentators on his life may be said to have done. In the months that followed his death she was to see her uncle become vastly famous, not as Marvell’s ‘best satirist and in the right vein’ or Shaftesbury’s ‘worthy’, but as a rake of the most rapacious and an infidel of blackest dye, rescued on his deathbed from certain damnation by the man she would come to know for an unprincipled humbug, Gilbert Burnet. She must have known that the role Burnet cast for himself in Some Passages in the Life and Death of the Earl of Rochester was a lie; Rochester’s steward wrote to Sir Ralph Verney that Rochester was wonderfully altered and preparing himself for death with admirable patience and piety weeks before Burnet showed up at his bedside, hot to capitalise on the sad end of a courtier, to the decided advantage of the Old Cause and his own career.

Some Passages in the Life and Death of the Earl of Rochester was an instant best-seller, together with its companion volume, the clandestinely printed Poems on several occasions by the Right Honourable, the E. of R——, in which, of 61 poems, only about half are likely to have been written by Rochester. The anonymous publishers were as aware of their own dishonesty as Burnet must have been, because different attributions for some of the poems they published as by Rochester can be found in their copy-text, a manuscript now in the Beinecke Library at Yale. As Rochester’s most recent editor, Harold Love, points out, ‘the very earliest collections, in manuscript and print, were directed at connoisseurs of the pornographic and the profane’; it was Rochester’s fate to have stick to him all the pornographic and profane verse that emanated from the court of Charles II. Abstruse pornography has always had a special appeal for scholars, or rather did have, as long as they were unmated males living a collegiate existence. Most scholars are still loth to give up their frigged-out version of Rochester.

Eleven years after Rochester’s death, Jacob Tonson exerted himself to bring out an authorised edition which contained 39 poems, all of which are probably authentic. Some of them, however, have been pruned, the texts of others have been drawn from the 1680 edition, while other poems published repeatedly in manuscript as by Rochester do not appear, probably because they were obscene, scurrilous or reflected too closely on identifiable persons, which would have invited suppression of the entire publication. The Rochester of Poems 1691 is a far more appealing character than the libertine of 1680. The publishers of 1680 did not print the wonderful lyric that begins

Absent from thee I languish still –
Then ask me not when I return.
The straying fool ’twill plainly kill
To wish all day, all night to mourn.

or another beginning:

An age in her embraces passed
 Would seem a winter’s day,
Where life and light with envious haste
 Are torn and snatched away.

It is usually assumed that Jacob Tonson, himself a poet, compiled Poems 1691, but he could not have found those lyrics in manuscript circulation, for no manuscripts are known. Someone must have given him copies of the poems never published in manuscript that appear in this edition for the first time, but who?

By 1691 Rochester’s wife and son were dead. Any of his three clever daughters might have concerned herself with her father’s reputation but a more likely source for the bowdlerised Rochester canon of Poems 1691 is the poet’s redoubtable mother, Anne, Dowager Countess of Rochester, who was still alive and kicking against the by now universally accepted version of her son as a vicious drunken lecher and author of any and all of the most revolting lampoons of his time. Evidence for this suggestion is not abundant but it exists; in the Public Record Office, lost for many generations in a collection of medical receipts, are two copies of the best known poem associated with Rochester, ‘Upon Nothing’. One is written in the hand of his steward, John Cary, the other in a scribal hand. The second has been meticulously corrected from the first by Lady Rochester, who does not however correct the ascription of three stanzas of the poem to ‘Dux Bucks’ and three more to ‘Fleetwood Shepherd’. Harold Love did not know of these important manuscripts, and seems not to have recognised Lady Rochester’s hand in the British Library manuscript that he chose as his copy-text for ‘Lucina’s Rape’, Rochester’s adaptation of Fletcher’s Valentinian, which she has carefully corrected, restoring the sense of the original, and in which she has (in the spirit of the selection of Rochester’s works for 1691) strenuously elided the scene in which the King makes love to his catamite. The Rochester of 1691 may not have been the whole poet, but then neither was the Rochester of 1680. The compiler of Poems 1691 restored to the poet his emotional intelligence, his sensitivity and his seriousness.

The new poems that appeared in Poems 1691 are easier to reconcile than most of the content of Poems 1680 with the ten fragments that survive in Rochester’s holograph among the Portland manuscripts at Nottingham University. Scribbled on the torn-off tails of letters, we find not the sneering of a rejected suitor, but the frustration of a man who could not love where he would:

Could I but make my wishes insolent
And force some image of a false content!
But they, like me, bashful and humble grown,
Hover at distance about beauty’s throne.
There worship and admire, and then they die,
Daring no more lay hold of her than I.
Reason to worth bears a submissive spirit,
But fools can be familiar with merit.
Who but that blund’ring blockhead Phaeton
Could e’er have thought to drive about the sun?
Just such another durst make love to you,
Whom not ambition led but dullness drew.
No amorous thought could his dull heart incline,
But he would have a passion for ’twas fine;
That, a new suit, and what he next must say,
Runs in his idle head the livelong day.
Hard-hearted saint, since ’tis your will to be
So unrelenting pitiless to me,
Regardless of a love so many years
Preserved ’twixt ling’ring hopes and awful fears.
(Such fears in lovers’ breasts high value claims,
And such expiring martyrs feel in flames.)
My hopes yourself contrived with cruel care
Through gentle smiles to lead me to despair.
’Tis some relief in my extreme distress,
My rival is below your power to bless.

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