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The Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 
edited by Keith Walker.
Blackwell, 319 pp., £35, September 1984, 0 631 12573 6
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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?

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