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.

Part of the process of ‘placing’ Rochester is the exposure of his philosophical origins. It is clear that Hobbes influenced him, but there is danger in assuming that the poems are mere versified Hobbes, and equally in believing that Rochester studied his writings intensively rather than casually absorbing what was part of current intellectual fashion. We adopt philosophies that fit our own personalities and we are converted by our own preconceptions; seldom are we won by the sheer logic of others.

Rochester, as Sarah Wintle observes, ‘was not a particularly learned poet, but he was highly intelligent and able to seize upon and use the philosophical and conceptual commonplaces of his time and traditions.’ More than that risks overstatement. All the same, it is undeniable that there are certain highly identifiable aspects of his outlook and method. In these essays there is general attention to paradox as a mode of thought in the poetry, and to opportunism as a form of behaviour that becomes assimilated into the subject and manner of his poems.

In a well-argued investigation of ‘The Sense of Nothing’, Barbara Everett tackles the central paradoxical situation of Rochester’s equilibrist act, balancing in his poetry with infinite elegance over the void that underlies existence. Her most important evidence is ‘Upon Nothing’, a terrifyingly laconic presentation of the idea that the universe was created from nothing, and hence that all deriving from nothing is ultimately reducible to Nothing. As she points out, Rochester is more relevantly ‘philosophical’ when he is writing playful poetry than when he is setting out his beliefs straightforwardly. But always behind the playfulness is nullity, which is typically made overt in the puncturing of the sleek surface at the ends of his poems. The argument of this essay is not easy at best, and the style makes the reader feel even more hard-pressed than the content demands.

The investigation into the paradoxical nature of the poetry is urbanely continued by John Wilders, who takes issue with L.C. Knights’s depreciating distinction between the Metaphysical poets and those of the Restoration, as the difference between a poetic inquiry into the complex, contradictory nature of man and the simpler, Hobbist, empiricist view of him as merely physical or mechanical. As Wilders shows, the difference is actually one of manner, not perception. At first Rochester followed the tradition of Marvell and Suckling in writing dialogues or question-and-answer poems, then with more maturity he submerged the dialogue in the hermetic contrast between suave tone and the complexity of thought underlying it.

Both this essay and Barbara Everett’s make one aware that the poetic surface acts as a discreetly stretched bond to hold Rochester’s anguished awareness from flying apart. Wilders’s cool statement sums up one of the most impressive aspects of his poetry: ‘The combination of lyrical tone and tortured sense produces an effect quite different from that of Suckling or Herrick. Rochester’s is the voice of a man grown so familiar with his own self-destructiveness that it causes him no surprise. The very unstrained quality of his style makes his honesty the more chilling.’

The contribution by the editor of the volume begins with a consideration of the difficulty in distinguishing Rochester’s poems from those of his contemporaries who shared manner and attitude with him. In his exigent edition of the poems David Vieth includes fewer than a third of those the Restoration and the 18th century attributed to Rochester. Their over-enthusiastic identification was surely not the result of an intention to deceive by shifting inferior works onto his shoulders, for it is a natural fact, almost a scientific law, that in attribution, as in magnetism, the lesser tends to accrue to the greater.

The need to understand that Court poets have a great deal in common makes it tempting to concentrate on their generic likeness rather than to see what is distinctive in Rochester, but the increasing awareness of the past few decades that others in his group shared Rochester’s preconceptions has ‘coincided with a heightening of his own reputation, and a growing sense of his individuality’. It is this knot that the essay attempts to loosen. The major individuating trait that Jeremy Treglown isolates is Rochester’s contempt for the show of toil or effort, and he neatly demonstrates that the same passion for the appearance of ease is what Rochester sought in manners, friendship, sex, erudition and negligent reference, as well as in versification and structure in the poems. Although there is no facile statement of upper-class disdain of labour, an aristocratic scorn of sweat is inherent in nearly everything Rochester wrote. He shared this desire for the look of easy opportunism with others, but the extent to which it informed both life and works was his own.

Opportunism, Treglown says, is a ‘key to all of Rochester’s verse, connecting his sexual attitudes with his headlong narratives, arguments and impromptus’. It was thus particularly fitting for him to write of ‘the lucky moment’ when sexual conquest is made easy, even inevitable, by the fortunate and unpredictable conjunction of opportunity and desire in partners who might at other times be incompatible. Conversely, its opposite, the moment when effort seeks to replace spontaneity, is responsible for the numerous examples of impotence in the poetry, perhaps most notably in ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’. Indeed, after reading this essay one finds it almost too easy to see all the examples of sexual impotence, with their implication of self-defeating exertion, as unannounced metaphors for failed poetic endeavour.

Rochester’s belief in opportunism is also the starting-point of Raman Selden’s plotting of the course of Rochester’s erratic attitude to Shadwell. For example, the charges of insipidity that he makes in ‘Timon’ scarcely prepare the reader for his reluctant admiration of Shadwell’s ease as expressed in ‘An Allusion to Horace’:

Shadwell’s unfinished works do yet impart
Great proofs of force of nature, none of art:
With just, bold strokes he dashes here and there,
Showing great mastery, with little care,
And scorns to varnish his good touches o’er
To make the fools and women praise ’em more.

Selden goes beyond Shadwell’s mere carelessness, however commendable its naturalness and lack or labour, to show that Rochester elsewhere implies something like admiration for his more deliberate effects. In ‘Tunbridge Wells’ Rochester echoes the dramatist’s Epsom Wells, in both situation and character, in closer detail than has been noticed previously.

Selden finds the allusions ‘a tribute to Shadwell’s naturalistic vigour’, and ‘without claiming that Rochester admired Shadwell’s characters, one can at least say that he found them memorable, and assumed them to be sufficiently well-known to his readers to be used as typical low-life gallants.’ This illuminating essay goes far to explain the occasional and unlikely literary affinity between ‘an aristocratic court wit and a bourgeois moralist’, and makes it seem more than an uncomfortable alliance against Dryden.

In his study of the effect of Court life on Rochester’s outlook and poetry, Basil Greenslade indicates how necessary another kind of opportunism was to a young ‘nobleman with a modest estate and fortune, mainly through marriage and royal bounty’, who had neither influence nor interest and had to live by his wits. Consistent principle, Greenslade implies, was something the young courtier could scarcely afford. ‘When in a letter he mentions his “politics”, there is a strong suspicion that he is merely alluding to his view of current court intrigues rather than to what might be taken for “affairs of state”.’ As a result, the political satires spring less from abstract belief than from the tension between his own ambition and his disdain of both careerism and the hypocritical interlocking of financial and political interest in his rivals.

Although I should have thought that misanthropy was nearer the mark than misogyny, Peter Porter twice mentions Rochester’s ‘male chauvinism’, which today may be only the knee-jerk reaction of any masculine critic, automatically kicked out to protect himself by anticipation from the very charge he levels. Rochester’s flaunted licentiousness and perhaps his bisexuality may invite the belief that he used women badly and thought worse of them. It is, however, the women writers here who question the imputation. Barbara Everett writes of ‘By all love’s soft, yet mighty powers’ that in spite of its being addressed to a ‘Fair nasty nymph’, the poem ‘voices no animus’ at all against women (I think it highly unlikely that the poet had any)’, but she does not pursue the parenthetical judgment.

A considerably more qualified consideration is made in ‘Libertinism and Sexual Politics’. Despite the title, which seems to promise a fairly conventional look at the position of women, with more emphasis on the second part of the title than the first, Sarah Wintle is concerned with politics in the sense that the 17th century recognised, and the libertinism she is most interested in is feminine, not masculine. In Rochester’s libertinism she finds that one possible corollary is the acceptance of equal rights to sexual freedom for women. This goes hand-in-hand with intellectual scepticism and the questioning of social customs and religious beliefs. Yet this accommodation ‘to an ethic of promiscuity and pleasure for both sexes’ in Rochester frequently runs head-on into a more conservative view of freedom. It is the collision between these two attitudes that Sarah Wintle believes animates much of Rochester’s most interesting poetry. In ‘A Ramble in St James Park’, the assumption by women of the privileges of libertinism leads ‘the disgusted poet’ (not necessarily Rochester himself, the context suggests) to see their behaviour as a threat to the social fabric. His final position may take us back to the more familiar one that women are denied equal freedom in a masculine world, but the argument leading there is closely stated and subtle. It would be helpful all through the essay if a clearer distinction were maintained between the attitudes of Rochester and the voices of the narrators of the various poems, since they are not always identical.

The treatment in this essay of ‘A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover’ probably overemphasises the calculation and self-consciousness of the speaker, who becomes a formidable manifestation of the Lucretian Venus, perhaps too reminiscent of Swinburne’s booted female companions in St John’s Wood. The young lady may have a subcutaneous potential of that sort, but I doubt that the contrary experience of readers for three centuries that the poem is ‘comically tender’ is to be shrugged off so easily.

In a group of specialised contributions the only one to take a long-distance look at Rochester is by Peter Porter. My sole serious reservation about the book concerns the place of his essay in the middle of the volume. Since it glances at the majority of issues considered so closely and admirably elsewhere, it would have provided a fine coda to a group of provocative discussions, in themselves so disparate as to raise once more the ghost of Rochester’s multiplicity.