Lucky Moments

Robert Bernard Martin

  • Spirit of Wit: Reconsiderations of Rochester edited by Jeremy Treglown
    Blackwell, 208 pp, £14.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 631 12897 2

For three centuries Rochester has been in and out of the pantheon of English poetry, but today we can see more clearly that the romantic image of the lyrical libertine who underwent a spectacular deathbed conversion has obscured a major poetic talent. Not that the old picture was wrong, but it was partial. The trouble has been that it is hard to fit his philosophical and religious beliefs, poetic practice and dissolute life into a whole. His death in 1680 seemed so aptly emblematic of the lack of cohesion in his character that it has claimed undue attention. The most notorious rake of his age spent the last few months of life in discussion of Christian doctrine. A poet who could not have been more urban in outlook lay dying in the depths of Oxfordshire; he had once said that he could behave only in the country, and that when he got as far as Brentford on his return to town, ‘the devill entred into him and never left him till he came into the country again.’ He had been surrounded by whores, ladies of the Court, and fellow rakes, but now his wife, children, his mother and her chaplain were by his bed. He was in the country, it is true, but there is an extra irony in the fact that instead of dying in the calm of his own family house a few miles away, he lay in the lodge of Woodstock Park, the scene of his sylvan debauchery, a kind of urbs in rure.

What further confuses us in searching for the real Rochester is the recollection that he loved disguises and successfully passed himself off as tinker and as physician. The fact about his identity that seems hardest to understand is that none of his intellectual disguises was totally false: each represented an aspect of his nature. His life was made up of paradox that subsumed apparent contraries, and the point is as valid in criticism as in biography.

The essays in this collection come from the tercentenary conference in 1980 in Rochester’s old college, Wadham, Oxford. Since the contributors are all university teachers or have been, it is not surprising to find so many of them trying to place him firmly in the tradition of English poetry. Their calm reading of his gamier poems, and the absence of those long dashes that used to make him seem too mealy-mouthed to write what he meant, indicate roughly the date of the essays, but otherwise, apart from occasional phrases such as ‘sexual politics’ or ‘subtext’, there is remarkably little reflection of contemporary social or critical thinking. Structuralism and its successors might never have happened. The volume, however, is none the worse for employing well-tried methods that help us take a fresh look at Rochester.

Although there has been no attempt to impose a false unity upon the contributions, there is a noticeable emphasis on Rochester’s satires, to the detriment of consideration of the lyrics on which his reputation used to rest. David Trotter, for instance, shows how the concomitants of satire – wit, swearing, the language of abuse – all became identified for the Latitudinarians with enmity to Reason. Pat Rogers compares ‘An Allusion to Horace’ to its Latin source and provides a series of enlightening close readings of the text. Concentration on the satires may prove in the long run to be misleading, but it is useful in establishing Rochester’s breadth of allusion and subject.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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