Reason, Love and Life

Christopher Hill

  • The Letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester edited by Jeremy Treglown
    Blackwell, 275 pp, £21.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 631 12831 X

Rochester is one of the most exciting and paradoxical of English poets. Sexually ambivalent, a notorious member of the gang of young roués at the court of Charles II, he nevertheless managed to write a few poignant and haunting poems which suggest that his public notoriety concealed a sensibility reacting to the intellectual crisis of the later 17th century.

All my past life is mine no more;
  The Flying hours are gone.
Like transitory dreams given o’er
Whose images are kept in store
 By memory alone.

Whatever is to come is not:
 How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot,
And that, as fast as it is got,
 Phyllis, is wholly thine.

Mr Treglown shows the dependence of this poem on Hobbes’s ideas; it is not the sort of thing the average seducer wastes his time on.

Dying, almost certainly of VD, at the age of 33, Rochester – extravagant to the last – was spectacularly converted to Christianity by Gilbert Burnet. He thus became a moral story for all rakes and a mystery for later critics. Professor Pinto suggested that Rochester was trying to escape from ‘a world which had been suddenly transformed by the scientists into a vast machine governed by mathematical laws, where God had become a remote first cause and man an insignificant “reas’ning Engine” ’; he was trying to escape from ‘the Cartesian-Newtonian world picture, a civilised city of good taste, common sense and reason’. Apart from the fact that Rochester died before there was a Newtonian world picture, I think it is more complicated than that. Brought up by a pious widowed mother, Rochester had been an undergraduate at Wadham, the most advanced Oxford college of his day. He was settling accounts with the Puritanism of the 1650s in which he grew up, and indeed with Christianity.

In the conversations with Rochester which Burnet records, the poet attacked the sacred character of the Bible. He thought that all came by nature, questioned the existence of eternal punishment in hell, rejected monogamy as an unreasonable imposition on the freedom of mankind. He complained to Burnet of ‘the jugglings of priests’. ‘Why must a man tell me that I cannot be saved unless I believe things against my reason, and then I must pay him for telling me them?’ Perhaps a year earlier Rochester had written – ostensibly translating Seneca:

  For Hell and the foul fiend that rules
  God’s everlasting fiery jails
  (Devised by rogues, dreaded by fools),
With his grim, grisly dog that keeps the door,
  Are senseless stories, idle tales,
   Dreams, whimsies, and no more.

And before that, in ‘A Satyr against Reason and Mankind’, he had declared:

Our sphere of action is life’s happiness,
And he who thinks beyond, thinks like an ass.

If God was omnipotent, Rochester asked Burnet, why did he permit evil? The stories of the creation and the Fall could not be believed ‘unless they were parables’.

So inside Rochester the exhibitionist rake was a mind grappling seriously with intellectual problems left over after the ferment of discussion during the 1640s and 50s. He was an aristocrat in a world where bourgeois values were increasingly dominant. The official Church of England was surreptitiously taking over many of the doctrines of discredited Puritanism (sabbatarianism, the all-importance of preaching, ‘the Protestant ethic’). The scientists of the newly-founded Royal Society, determined to cover up their Interregnum origins and clear themselves of imputations of atheism, spent a great deal of time and energy arguing that science demonstrated the existence of God. Rochester clearly wished to épater the bourgeoisie. But in order to do so he not only played the reckless, irresponsible aristocrat but also drew on the serious ideas of political and religious radicals during the revolutionary decades, and of the hardly less disreputable Hobbes. Rochester started translating Lucretius, though – typically – he does not seem to have got beyond the first fifty lines. His senior contemporary Lucy Hutchinson translated all six books, which she then suppressed. What was it in the great Epicurean that fascinated both the lecherous peer and the very Puritan wife of a regicide?

A complete edition of Rochester’s letters thus arouses expectations. Will they reveal a unified personality behind the turbulent rake and the agonised poet? Will they help us to make sense of the courtier and friend of Charles II who wrote savage republican verse?

All monarchs I hate, and the thrones they sit on,
From the hector of France to the cully of Britain.

What they will not do is to fulfil hopes perhaps raised by the word ‘unexpurgated’ in the publishers’ blurb. There are some four-letter words, but the correspondence is far less erotic than the poems.

The volume under review, it must be admitted, does not give the hoped-for insight into the human being behind the masks. This is in no sense the fault of Mr Treglown, whose editing is impeccable and whose Introduction is a short masterpiece. I suspect, indeed, that he shares some of my disappointment with what the letters reveal about Rochester. Mr Treglown refers to the poet’s violence, ‘apparent throughout his adult life, whether in his duelling, in the hectoring tone of a few of his letters both to his wife and to Elizabeth Barry, or in the domineering machismo of poems like “The Advice” or “Phyllis, be gentler, I advise”, and his sexual satires’. ‘Machismo’ is the appropriately damning word. Treglown warns against ‘a modern tendency to generalise sentimentally about his relations with his wife’, and indeed when Rochester’s letters to his wife and his mistress are printed side by side, together with his wife’s letters to him, it is difficult to retain illusions about the relationship.

Nor can we be sentimental about his love affairs. The longest and strongest seems to have been that with Elizabeth Barry, which lasted for two or more years from 1675. But when she bore him a daughter, the fact had to be reported to Rochester by his friend Henry Savile, who added: ‘I doubt she does not lie in in much state, for a friend and protectress of hers in the Mall was much lamenting her poverty very lately, not without some gentle reflexions on your lordship’s want either of generosity or of bowels toward a lady who had not refused you the full enjoyment of all her charms.’ That is the seamy side of the philosophy of living only in the present, so beautifully expressed in ‘Love and Life’:

Then talk not of inconstancy,
  False hearts, and broken vows;
If I, by miracle, can be
This livelong minute true to thee,
  ’Tis all that heaven allows.

‘Upon his Leaving his Mistress’, written apparently after his affair with Mrs Barry was over, puts the point rather differently:

’Tis not that I am weary grown
Of being yours, and yours alone;
But with what face can I incline,
To damn you to be only mine?
  You, whom some kinder power did fashion,
  By merit and by inclination,
  The joy at least of one whole nation.

Mr Treglown is robustly sceptical about the famous death-bed conversion. ‘Clearly his almost unendurable last illness drove him out of his mind for considerable periods of time, he was under intense pressure to repent and to be seen to do so, and any decision he reached was not only influenced by these circumstances but reported to the outside world in a determinedly cosmetic way.’ It is clear from letters which Mr Treglown prints that Rochester’s mother dominated the last weeks of his life: hers was the ‘stage-management’ (Mr Treglown’s word) of the ‘conversion’ which she was determined to bring about. She admitted that William Fanshaw and other friends thought Rochester mad, but she reported firmly on what he thought in his lucid moments when they were absent. Mr Treglown quotes with effect a letter from the great Marquis of Halifax to Burnet, exactly a month after Rochester’s death, when Burnet had clearly been commissioned to write up the conversion: ‘It is not possible for you to write on a subject that requireth more care ... Let me beg of you to be exactly careful in it, and to file it over oftener than you have ever done anything that hath come from you.’

Burnet was an up-and-coming, not to say pushing, Scottish episcopalian, only four years older than Rochester. He was hardly likely to ignore such advice from a marquis, reinforcing the insistent demands of the family. He wrote a brilliant account of the poet’s last days, in which the authenticity of his conversion was firmly proclaimed. It comes as rather a shock to learn that Burnet delayed for three weeks before responding to the call to the dying earl’s bedside, that he stayed only four days and left two days before Rochester died – without saying goodbye to him.

Mr Treglown is deflationary, too, about Rochester’s intellectual milieu. ‘No letter to Rochester from any of his friends survives in which any poem of his is referred to, except in relation to the scandalous content of lampoons attributed to him.’ ‘Rochester’s own letters never allude to his writing.’ There is no literary criticism in the letters comparable to that in ‘An Allusion to Horace’. ‘Some modern scholars have tended to overestimate his first-hand knowledge of many philosophical works, and it is clear that his ideas were often picked up second-hand from contemporary sources.’ But ‘the indebtedness of his work to Hobbes is unmistakable,’ and we might add to Descartes too. Rochester quotes Boyle, in no very flattering context, and echoes Paradise Lost en passant in a way that assumes that his correspondent will recognise the allusion. Mr Treglown emphasises, illuminatingly, Rochester’s frequent Biblical phraseology, often used ironically, and often quoted via the Book of Common Prayer. Mr Treglown makes the interesting point that Rochester echoes the pre-1662 prayer book, ignoring alterations made in that year. This suggests not only that his religious education ceased in his teens, but also that in the 1650s the Book of Common Prayer was used at least in the churches to which his mother took him, although it was officially prohibited.

In the last 18 months of his life Rochester had a correspondence with Charles Blount the deist, on whom Mr Treglown is perhaps a little severe. Only Blount’s letters survive, and they do seem rather long-winded. But I suspect that Rochester turned to him as a repository of the radical critique of Christianity. Blount reproduces many of the heresies publicised during the Interregnum: God is in matter, the soul is not immortal, religious changes derive from temporal interests. Such arguments would help Rochester to resist the religious orthodoxy which was being pressed on him. We find him echoing Blount in one of his letters to his friend Henry Savile. The argument of Burnet’s which Rochester found most convincing was that libertinism set a bad social example. He agreed to stop attacking Christianity, Burnet tells us, even before he was convinced of its truth – if he ever was.

The letters suggest that behind the court rake there was the court rake. Mr Treglown writes sharply of ‘the clever, self-destructive group’ of ‘court wits’: ‘even their negligence was calculated, their private life ostentatious.’ Drinking and copulation are major themes of Rochester’s private correspondence, as of his public image. His advice to Nell Gwyn (conveyed through Henry Savile) on how to handle the King was ‘with hand, body, head, heart and all the faculties you have, contribute to his pleasure all you can and comply with his desires throughout.’ It is interesting to compare this with ‘A Satyr on Charles II’:

His sceptre and his prick are of a length
And she may sway the one who plays with th’other.

Riotous behaviour like smashing up the King’s sundial may perhaps be regarded as undergraduate fun. But such frolics could lead on occasion to murder, whether in a duel or in resisting the local minions of law and order. In neither case was there the danger of a peer suffering any worse consequence than temporary exile from court. Things were different if you were a poet of lesser rank. Rochester may or may not have been responsible for the cudgelling of Dryden in 1679: Mr Treglown’s verdict is ‘not proven’. But three years earlier Rochester had suggested to Henry Savile, no doubt playfully, that such punishment might be appropriate.

After this edition of the letters it will be hard indeed for sentimentalists to paint an attractive picture of Rochester. Whether or not he was ‘converted’ at a time when he knew what he was doing, the unctuousness of his last two letters, to Burnet and to Thomas Pierce, another death-bed visitant, suggest that he was a badly frightened man. His Hobbist libertinism seems to have been pretty shallow.

Yet the poetry remains. Here, too, Mr Treglown is an admirable interpreter. ‘The emotional complexity of some of his lyrics is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or of Donne, though in their ironic simplicity of surface they are closer to his near-contemporary, Marvell. And if he is the last important Metaphysical poet, his satires give him a good claim as one of the first of the Augustans.’ That could hardly be better put. ‘A Satyr against Reason and Mankind’ remains a great poem. ‘All men would be cowards if they durst,’ he writes. And:

But thoughts are given for action’s government;
When action ceases, thought’s impertinent.

For Rochester at his unforgettable best, there is ‘the misguided follower’ of reason, who

Stumbling from thought to thought, falls headlong down
Into doubt’s boundless sea, where, like to drown,
Books bear him up awhile, and make him try
To swim with bladders of philosophy;
In hopes still to o’ertake th’escaping light,
The vapour dances in his dazzling sight
Till, spent, it leaves him to eternal night.
Then old age and experience, hand in hand,
Lead him to death, and make him understand,
After a search so painful and so long,
That all his life he has been in the wrong.

It is no good feeling morally superior to a man who could write like that.