In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Wadham and GomorrahConrad Russell
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 
edited by Keith Walker.
Blackwell, 319 pp., £35, September 1984, 0 631 12573 6
Show More
Show More

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, one of the original ‘amorous sons of Wadham’, perhaps took part in writing an obscene farce called Sodom. Dr Walker drily observes that ‘to assert this twenty years ago would have damaged Rochester’s reputation as much as to deny it today.’ We are certainly more able than many of our predecessors to accept that this poetry was of some importance for its age. If we look at the claim of an anonymous poet that ‘one man reads Milton, forty Rochester,’ we are no longer tempted to dismiss it out of hand. We are perhaps more in danger of accepting it without adequate empirical investigation. We also have an advantage over the publishers of, for example, the 1691 text in that we are able to print Rochester’s text in the full flower of its bawdiness. Dr Walker has abundantly proved his contention that the 1691 edition is ‘an avowedly castrated text’: most of the passages which give Rochester a distinctively different flavour from other poets are missing from it.

It is not for a mere historian to comment in detail on Dr Walker’s editorial labours with the text, but from an amateur point of view, they look distinctively impressive. Dr Walker has collated manuscript texts in 20 repositories, and it is a pleasure to a former Yalie to welcome a work which makes good use of the manuscripts in the Osborn Collection in the Beinecke Library at Yale. In an age which often hesitated on the knife-edge between plagiarism and parody literary echoes were frequent, and Walker has devoted great effort to tracking down echoes of Donne, Herbert, Quarles, Marvell, Horace, Ovid and others. Occasionally, a historian may wish he had considered other, less literary, sources: we may wonder, for example, whether the image of the river overflowing its banks in ‘The Advice’ owes anything to Strafford’s defence to Article Four of his impeachment, a source which would surely have been known to Rochester.

A historian may make a bigger contribution by asking what Rochester tells us about the world in which he lived, the England which had survived the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Protectorate and the Restoration. This is a tricky question, since, to a post-Freudian reader, his character and outlook may appear to owe far more to the fact that he had an absentee father than to any more general circumstances. However, this is in a sense a false antithesis: his father, Commissary Wilmot, the man who leaked the Army Plot on the floor of the House of Commons, was an active Royalist commander in the Civil War. His absence abroad from John’s birth in 1647 onwards was precisely because of the Civil War. We should perhaps ask how far it was a general phenomenon that a generation of Royalist gentry grew up, because of the war, with absentee fathers. The scale of this phenomenon, no doubt, was not vast, but the people affected by it are likely to have been precisely those whose fathers were closest to the exiled Charles II, and who were therefore most likely to be catapulted to social prominence after 1660. Moreover, no amount of explaining Rochester’s personal circumstances will explain why he appears to have spoken to the condition of many of his contemporaries.

It is perhaps fair to see a post-war mood, not only in Rochester’s claim that ‘with war I’ve nought to do,’ but also in his remorseless determination to mock every single one of the shibboleths for which his elders had fought: Milton, in fact, might have described the whole of Rochester’s work as an exercise in ‘want of well pronouncing shibboleth’. Rochester, perhaps, would have agreed with Lord Peter Wimsey (another post-war figure) that ‘a principle has no claim to be called a principle until it’s killed someone.’ In the end, Rochester may have become a prisoner of his own disbeliefs. Much of what he wrote may appear to have no discernible purpose except the desire to shock – as with his repeated stress on the devotion of many (named) court ladies to ‘Signior Dildo’. There is surely little beyond the desire to shock in the description of St James’s Park:

Whence rowes of mandrakes tall did rise
Whose lewd topps fuckt the very skies.

Only in his sentiments about the Irish was he a faithful son of the previous generation:

Nature hath plac’d these wretches beneath scorn,
They can’t be call’d so vile, as they are borne.

Rochester is more interesting when he is not merely aiming to shock, but directing his satire at an identifiable target. Religion and the clergy are of course an easy target to aim at, and here it is interesting how little anti-Puritan satire there is: perhaps he thought the target too easy, and better left to those like Dryden who had to live down an upbringing in a Puritan family. The satire on the clergy, ‘who hunt good livings, but abhor good lives’ is conventional enough, but he reaches a little further when he claims that

These call themselves ambassadors of Heav’n,
And sawcily pretend commissions giv’n,
But should an Indian king, whose small command
Seldome extends beyond ten miles of land,
Send forth such wretched tools in an ambassage
He’d find but small effects of such a message.

There is a more deliberate mocking of the Cavaliers of his father’s generation in the ‘Verses Put into a Lady’s Prayer Book’:

Fling this useless book away,
And presume no more to pray ...
Let pity first appear, then love,
That we by easie steps may rise
Through all the joys on earth, to those above.

Here, concealed under a conventional male piece of special pleading, is the hint of a rival creed. Beyond this point, even Rochester’s satirical courage appears to have grown faint, for his most far-reaching reflections on religion are virtuously concealed in a translation from Seneca:

After death, nothing is, and nothing death,
The utmost limit of a gaspe of breath;
Let the ambitious zealot lay aside
His hopes of Heav’n, (whose faith is but his pride) ...
For Hell, and the foule fiend that rules
Gods everlasting fiery jayles
(Devis’d by rogues, dreaded by fooles)
With his grim griezley dogg, that keepes the doore,
Are senselesse storyes, idle tales,
Dreames, whimseys, and noe more.

Here, as in some of the fascinating remarks about ‘reason, an ignis fatuus, in the mind’, we can hear the voice of Hobbes’s young contemporary. Like Hobbes, he saw that appeals to ‘right reason’ were no more than sources of perpetual dispute, and, unlike Hobbes, he preferred something not guilty of ‘leaving light of nature, sense behind’.

He has little patience with ‘huffing honour’, which appeared to him to be maintained ‘against kind nature’. No doubt, for Rochester, honour usually appeared in the somewhat specialised meaning of ‘the reason why she says no’, and in ‘Woman’s Honour’ he would have us believe that his remarks are not meant to apply to men’s. Yet in ‘A Satyr’ he described how man was

By fear, to fear, successively betray’d.
Base fear, the source whence his best passion came,
His boasted honor, and his dear bought fame.
That lust of power, to which he’s such a slave,
And for the which alone he dares be brave.

These are the lines which Prince Rupert would not have found congenial. Add to this Rochester’s claim that

I hate all monarchs, and the thrones they sit on,
From the Hector of France to the Culley of Britaine,

and there was not much left for him to mock. His respect for Charles II appears to be grounded only on the belief that ‘his sceptter and his prick are of a length.’

Take all this away, and what was left? The answer appears to be simply a cult of sensual pleasure, a belief that ‘the present moment’s all my lott,’ and a conviction, reminiscent of Ian Fleming, that ‘there’s something genrous in meer lust’. Lust, he thought, was:

That cordiall dropp Heav’n in our cup has throwne,
To make the nauseous draught of life goe downe.

There is no need to doubt the energy of Rochester’s ‘swiving’, and yet, though it produced a large amount of good poetry, it has not produced great poetry: there is nothing here to be remembered beside Donne’s ‘To his Mistress on Going to Bed’. Perhaps the only poem which is sufficiently from the heart to approach the level of great poetry is ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’. Rochester’s misfortune was that he was a man who loved sex but did not like women: indeed, it seems that he sometimes tried men instead, simply for the sake of variety. The description of himself as

Through all the town, a common fucking post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt,
As hogs on gates do rub themselves, and grunt,

has a bitterness which may be explained by its position at the end of ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’. Yet his picture of women asking ‘who are the men most worne of late?’ does not carry the same excuse. One of the threads which run through all his poetry is the true rake’s fear of being unable to satisfy women’s sexual appetites. It is this fear, one may suspect, which is behind the exhortation to his mistress to ‘live up to thy mighty mind, and be the mistress of mankind’. Like many of his contemporaries, he aimed his sharpest shafts of this kind at the Duchess of Cleveland. He may not have been the author of the poem which brought against her the startlingly American charge that she lived ‘as if she sinn’d for exercise’ – Barbara Castlemaine’s work-out, so to speak – but the poem must represent Rochester’s sentiments. It is not then surprising that the only rival he truly feared was the one who keeps recurring in his verse, often with startling irrelevance, the truly inexhaustible Signior Dildo. Did Rochester believe that anything he could do, Signior Dildo could do better? And surely no man who liked women could have written the lines in ‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’:

So a proud bitch does lead about
Of humble currs the amorous rout
Who most obsequiously do hunt
The savory scent of salt swoln cunt ...
Had she pick’d out to rub her arse on
Some stiff prick’t clown or well hung parson,
Each jobb of whose spermatique sluce
Had fill’d her cunt with wholesome juice,
I the proceeding should have praisd,
In hope she had quench’d a fire I rais’d.

This deserves the description, which Rochester might not have disowned, of ‘punk poetry’.

He once told his mistress that ‘did you love your pleasures less, you were not fitt for me.’ With his dislike of constancy, he had also no room for trust: it is hard to see how the man with so much contempt for his father’s notions of honour could have found room for it:

Nymph, I cannot: ’tis too true,
Change has greater charms than you.
Be, by my example, wise,
Faith, to pleasure, sacrifice.

With these things missing, it is not surprising if Rochester’s poetry sometimes leaves us, and perhaps him as well, with a certain sense of emptiness. There is a Samson-like sense of nowhere to go at the end of one of his love-songs:

Then let our flaming hearts be joyned
While in that sacred fire,
Ere thou prove false, or I unkind,
Together both expire.

His dialogue with the postboy, probably written four years before his death at the age of 33, is either a remarkably tough piece of self-mockery, or else suggests that his success in casting off the beliefs in which he was brought up was much less than he had once believed:

Pox on it why do I speak of these poor things?
I have blasphemed my God and libelld Kings;
The readyest way to Hell come quick:
BOY:                      nere stirr
The readiest way my Lords by Rochester.

Rochester had dedicated his life to the pursuit of pleasure. Did the pursuit of pleasure ever end in its capture?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.