Doomed to Sincerity

Germaine Greer

  • The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester edited by Harold Love
    Oxford, 712 pp, £95.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 19 818367 4

For his half-niece Anne Wharton, writing immediately after his death in 1680 at the age of 33, the poet Rochester was the guide who would have led her ‘right in wisdom’s way’:

He civilised the rude and taught the young,
Made fools grow wise, such artful music hung
Upon his useful, kind, instructing tongue.

Rochester’s modern editors and biographers are well aware of Wharton’s elegy, but they are not interested in the personage it describes. As the ward of Rochester’s mother, Wharton was brought up in the same house as the poet and, though she was twelve years younger, knew Rochester rather better than we or any other of the commentators on his life may be said to have done. In the months that followed his death she was to see her uncle become vastly famous, not as Marvell’s ‘best satirist and in the right vein’ or Shaftesbury’s ‘worthy’, but as a rake of the most rapacious and an infidel of blackest dye, rescued on his deathbed from certain damnation by the man she would come to know for an unprincipled humbug, Gilbert Burnet. She must have known that the role Burnet cast for himself in Some Passages in the Life and Death of the Earl of Rochester was a lie; Rochester’s steward wrote to Sir Ralph Verney that Rochester was wonderfully altered and preparing himself for death with admirable patience and piety weeks before Burnet showed up at his bedside, hot to capitalise on the sad end of a courtier, to the decided advantage of the Old Cause and his own career.

Some Passages in the Life and Death of the Earl of Rochester was an instant best-seller, together with its companion volume, the clandestinely printed Poems on several occasions by the Right Honourable, the E. of R——, in which, of 61 poems, only about half are likely to have been written by Rochester. The anonymous publishers were as aware of their own dishonesty as Burnet must have been, because different attributions for some of the poems they published as by Rochester can be found in their copy-text, a manuscript now in the Beinecke Library at Yale. As Rochester’s most recent editor, Harold Love, points out, ‘the very earliest collections, in manuscript and print, were directed at connoisseurs of the pornographic and the profane’; it was Rochester’s fate to have stick to him all the pornographic and profane verse that emanated from the court of Charles II. Abstruse pornography has always had a special appeal for scholars, or rather did have, as long as they were unmated males living a collegiate existence. Most scholars are still loth to give up their frigged-out version of Rochester.

Eleven years after Rochester’s death, Jacob Tonson exerted himself to bring out an authorised edition which contained 39 poems, all of which are probably authentic. Some of them, however, have been pruned, the texts of others have been drawn from the 1680 edition, while other poems published repeatedly in manuscript as by Rochester do not appear, probably because they were obscene, scurrilous or reflected too closely on identifiable persons, which would have invited suppression of the entire publication. The Rochester of Poems 1691 is a far more appealing character than the libertine of 1680. The publishers of 1680 did not print the wonderful lyric that begins

Absent from thee I languish still –
Then ask me not when I return.
The straying fool ’twill plainly kill
To wish all day, all night to mourn.

or another beginning:

An age in her embraces passed
 Would seem a winter’s day,
Where life and light with envious haste
 Are torn and snatched away.

It is usually assumed that Jacob Tonson, himself a poet, compiled Poems 1691, but he could not have found those lyrics in manuscript circulation, for no manuscripts are known. Someone must have given him copies of the poems never published in manuscript that appear in this edition for the first time, but who?

By 1691 Rochester’s wife and son were dead. Any of his three clever daughters might have concerned herself with her father’s reputation but a more likely source for the bowdlerised Rochester canon of Poems 1691 is the poet’s redoubtable mother, Anne, Dowager Countess of Rochester, who was still alive and kicking against the by now universally accepted version of her son as a vicious drunken lecher and author of any and all of the most revolting lampoons of his time. Evidence for this suggestion is not abundant but it exists; in the Public Record Office, lost for many generations in a collection of medical receipts, are two copies of the best known poem associated with Rochester, ‘Upon Nothing’. One is written in the hand of his steward, John Cary, the other in a scribal hand. The second has been meticulously corrected from the first by Lady Rochester, who does not however correct the ascription of three stanzas of the poem to ‘Dux Bucks’ and three more to ‘Fleetwood Shepherd’. Harold Love did not know of these important manuscripts, and seems not to have recognised Lady Rochester’s hand in the British Library manuscript that he chose as his copy-text for ‘Lucina’s Rape’, Rochester’s adaptation of Fletcher’s Valentinian, which she has carefully corrected, restoring the sense of the original, and in which she has (in the spirit of the selection of Rochester’s works for 1691) strenuously elided the scene in which the King makes love to his catamite. The Rochester of 1691 may not have been the whole poet, but then neither was the Rochester of 1680. The compiler of Poems 1691 restored to the poet his emotional intelligence, his sensitivity and his seriousness.

The new poems that appeared in Poems 1691 are easier to reconcile than most of the content of Poems 1680 with the ten fragments that survive in Rochester’s holograph among the Portland manuscripts at Nottingham University. Scribbled on the torn-off tails of letters, we find not the sneering of a rejected suitor, but the frustration of a man who could not love where he would:

Could I but make my wishes insolent
And force some image of a false content!
But they, like me, bashful and humble grown,
Hover at distance about beauty’s throne.
There worship and admire, and then they die,
Daring no more lay hold of her than I.
Reason to worth bears a submissive spirit,
But fools can be familiar with merit.
Who but that blund’ring blockhead Phaeton
Could e’er have thought to drive about the sun?
Just such another durst make love to you,
Whom not ambition led but dullness drew.
No amorous thought could his dull heart incline,
But he would have a passion for ’twas fine;
That, a new suit, and what he next must say,
Runs in his idle head the livelong day.
Hard-hearted saint, since ’tis your will to be
So unrelenting pitiless to me,
Regardless of a love so many years
Preserved ’twixt ling’ring hopes and awful fears.
(Such fears in lovers’ breasts high value claims,
And such expiring martyrs feel in flames.)
My hopes yourself contrived with cruel care
Through gentle smiles to lead me to despair.
’Tis some relief in my extreme distress,
My rival is below your power to bless.

Like Lady Rochester I value this oddly intense but tremulous character and certainly don’t want such complexity scarfed over by tenth-rate vituperation like this:

At night conveyed to a well-ordered bed,
The ready cuckold gets a maidenhead,
Which is a toy made by astringent aid.
(Cunt washed with alum makes a whore a maid.)
Wanting that art, she clings her thighs so fast,
Having spent thrice, she lets him in at last.
Often she claps the unacquainted chick,
And draws his reins through his snotty prick.

And on and on, blah-di-blah. Any one of hundreds of Rochester’s contemporaries could crank out these bilious couplets, which actually appear in a prologue written for the version of Sodom chosen by Love for his new edition. Seventeenth-century prologues were seldom if ever written by the authors of the play-texts; admirers of Rochester need to be told up front that the likelihood that Rochester penned this one is virtually nil.

Love is well aware of the probability of multiple authorship but he is slow to share this awareness with his readers, printing accretive poems next to individual works in the same style and under the same rubrics. The setting out of the textual notes, no bigger than grains of sand silting across page after page, discourages even the specialist trying to get her bearings. Selection of texts to collate is capricious; no attempt is made for example to collate the 1691 printing of Valentinian with the manuscript sources and the version printed in 1685 and, what is more frustrating, no explanation is given for the decision, if indeed there was one.

Sodom, a grotesque burlesque in which obscenity is the medium rather than the message, functions as a farcical postlude to and commentary on Rochester’s dead serious Valentinian. It probably contains Rochester’s work but is equally probably not the work of Rochester alone. Purely because of its obscenity Sodom has had a disproportionately lively publishing career in both manuscript and print. Frank Ellis, one of the distinguished editors of the invaluable Yale Poems on Affairs of State, who prepared the current Penguin edition of Rochester, cannot bring himself even to mention Sodom, let alone to explain his reasons for excluding it from his edition. Paddy Lyons, who edited Rochester for Everyman Classics, selects the garbled Vienna version for reasons unexplained. Harold Love includes Sodom in his critical edition of Rochester even though he does not think that Rochester wrote it. Overall Ellis, Lyons and Love agree on little, choosing to print different selections of texts and in different versions. Curiously, the scholars responsible for the first serious attempts to establish a Rochesterian canon have interested themselves solely in his poems, which will never be securely attributed, and ignored work which is clearly and irrefutably by Rochester.

The first serious scholarly attempt to produce a definitive edition of Rochester’s poems was made by Vivian de Sola Pinto for Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1953. In 1968 David Vieth produced an edition of 76 poems plus eight more listed as ‘Possibly by Rochester’; 75 of his attributions and usually his choices of copy-text were accepted by Keith Walker for his edition for Blackwell’s in 1984; to the 75 Walker added six new attributions. Frank Ellis rejects one poem accepted by both Vieth and Walker as by Rochester, together with five of Walker’s six additions to the canon and then adds nine new attributions of his own. Paddy Lyons printed 103 poems as echt Rochester, accepting all but one of the 84 poems printed by Vieth, rejecting three of Walker’s six and eight of Ellis’s nine additions to the canon while proposing 14 new additions of his own, none of which does Rochester much credit. If the hope was that Harold Love’s 12 years’ work would result in a standard edition it has been denied, but for good reasons.

Love knows, none better, that Rochester cannot be proved to have composed a single verse, not even the verses that have survived in his holograph. Therefore he makes no attempt to establish a canon, or even, often, to establish a definitive text. Though his edition has to be clearly labelled The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and is divided into 335 pages of ‘Rochester’s Writings’ and 374 pages of ‘Critical Apparatus’, the confident title ‘Rochester’s Writings’ is revealed as a misnomer as soon as the reader encounters the first sub-heading, ‘Poems probably by Rochester’, which is followed by ‘Alexander Bendo’s brochure’, and ‘Writings for the theatre’ before branching off into ‘Lost works’, ‘Disputed works’ and ‘Appendix Roffensis’. The resulting format is chaotic; unnecessary rubrics such as ‘Love dialogues’, ‘Love elegies’, ‘Love lyrics’, ‘Libertine lyrics and shorter satires’, indicating genres that actually overlap, appear at the head of meaningless clusters of two or three poems. Juvenilia is printed after mature works. What is even more misleading is that, under the rubric ‘Poems probably by Rochester’, appear works that are certainly not by Rochester, because they are known to be by other people, by Elizabeth Rochester, Sir George Etherege, Sir Carr Scroope and John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave. Well-known poems turn up under the rubric ‘Writings for the theatre’ even when no evidence of a theatrical intent can be adduced; thus the fragment in Rochester’s holograph beginning ‘She yields, she yields; pale envy said “Amen” ’ is listed as a work for the stage on no better evidence than its mysterious title ‘Sab: Lost’. Where alternative versions exist, representing different lines of descent from a possibly authentic original or more than one state of an authentic original, Love prints the parallel versions, providing, for example, four versions of ‘In the Isle of Britain’ of which the first is very much the best poem, presenting all of them as ‘Poems probably by Rochester’. What Love’s 12 years’ work needed was brilliant editing; the truth seems to be that Oxford University Press in its present disarray was incapable of deploying any editing skills whatsoever.

Nowhere does Love state categorically that any text represents something Rochester actually composed, not even in the case of the ten holograph poems, works never associated with any other poet and to be found only in the holograph, with two exceptions, variant forms of poems that were published anonymously in Rochester’s lifetime and neither acknowledged nor repudiated by him. Both were printed in A New Collection of the Choicest Songs in 1676; the shorter also appears in a different form in a collection called Examen Poeticum in 1693, a form supposed by Vieth to represent a separate authorial tradition. We might assume that the papers in which the holograph versions appear were lost to Rochester who then had to continue working on the verses from his own memorial reconstruction, but it is risky to infer that he is necessarily the sole author of compositions of so bibulous a character. We have only to consider the present day tradition of rugby songs like ‘Eskimo Nell’ or ‘The Good Ship Venus’, in which half-remembered and mis-remembered versions will be intoned together with interpolations and new stanzas composed for the occasion, to understand what could be going on when Rochester writes out a version of the song ‘How happy perfect Cloris and how free’ and emends it as he goes. He counsels the fictive ‘Cloris’ – for certainly no real lady was ever meant to hear the song – thus:

Let us (since witt instructs us how)
  Raise pleasure to the topp
If Rivall bottle you’l allow
  Ile suffer rivall fopp ...

You never thinke it worth your care
  How empty or how dull
The heads of your admirers are
  So that ther backs purse be full

All this you freely may confess
  Yett wee’l not disagree
For did you love your pleasures less
  You were not fitt for mee

Whilst I my passion to pursue
  Am whole nights taking in
The juice of lusty lusty juice of grapes take you
  The juice of Lusty Men –

The version published in 1676 is very different, as is the version published in 1680. Rochester may have been wholly responsible for all the versions but conflation of earlier and later contributions by the poet with those of his drinking companions seems as likely. We know that Rochester had no objection to collaboration because he contributed a scene to a play by Sir Robert Howard, a scene which, if the play had ever been finished or played, would almost certainly not have been acknowledged, and he put more effort into a collaboration with the long-dead poet John Fletcher than into anything else he ever did. In ‘Lucina’s Rape’, Rochester’s rifacimento of Fletcher’s Valentinian, hundreds of Fletcher’s lines appear unaltered. The Fletcher original is concerned with the struggles of a loyal subject cuckolded by his king to reconcile his duty to the monarch with his duty to himself and to his raped wife, who has died of shame. Rochester deliberately leaves whole scenes of his original unaltered, while writing in material that locates the action in Whitehall and equates the king’s remorseless priapism with absolutism, as one would expect of the man who could write that Charles II was the king whose ‘sceptre and his prick were of a length’. The intention of leaving recognisable Fletcher in his updated text was to remind the King of the days when ‘Shakespeare, Jonson, Fletcher ruled the stage’ and the whole history of the struggle against creeping absolutism. For his part, Charles, the monarch ‘who never said a foolish thing’, was quite capable of perceiving the contrast between Rochester’s Augustan couplets and Fletcher’s dramatic blank verse.

‘Poems probably by Rochester’ ought to have been divided into ‘Poems probably by Rochester’ and ‘Poems in which Rochester had a hand’ but Love does not go so far. He is laudably more interested in reintegrating Rochester with his context than earlier editors have been, but the results are anything but reader-friendly. The poem usually called ‘A Satire against Reason and Mankind’, for example, is printed in a version that begins with a burlesque prose address ‘To the Reader’ which can be found in the Hartwell manuscript of c. 1679, followed by the poem in its earliest version from a different Bodleian manuscript. As the whole item is given no separate title beyond ‘To the Reader’, that reader is momentarily lost. Love’s bald assertion that he ‘can see no reason for the prose section not being a genuine late work by Rochester’ does not cancel the reader’s failure to see any reason for its being by Rochester either. The underlying assumption, that Rochester was personally involved in the printings of his satires, seems to me untenable.

No attribution is more common in late 17th-century manuscripts than the ascription to Rochester. His name was clearly supremely bankable; anything written in what was considered to be his way was attributed to him, who would have had difficulty disowning it even if he had been alive. If Rochester wrote ‘Timon’ (as is thought) he had this to say about an expert who swore that he knew his style and would not allow him to disown his own work:

Choked with his flattery I no answer make,
But silent leave him to his dear mistake,
Which he by this has spread o’er the whole town
And me, with an officious lie, undone.

The writer of ‘Timon’, more correctly, the persona of the writer of ‘Timon’, clearly did not want to have every libel in circulation fathered on him, and was well aware that there were discerning readers who would despise him if they believed that such stuff was his. If Rochester shared these sentiments it is odd that he did nothing to protect himself or his reputation, but then neither did his friends and known collaborators, George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, and Charles Sackville, sixth Earl of Dorset. Both were poets of no mean order; both left nothing but scattered papers and, in Buckingham’s case as in Rochester’s, some play scripts. The attributions ‘Buckingham’ and ‘Dorset’ crop up often in the surviving manuscripts; Buckingham was published in 1704 in much the same way as Rochester in 1680, as a rag-bag of work good, bad and indifferent, very little of which had anything at all to do with Buckingham. The editor of Miscellaneous Works, written by his Grace George late Duke of Buckingham (1704) is supposed to be the facetious Tom Brown, who would not scruple to fake what he could not find and to plump out his two volumes by work that he knew to be by other hands; the publisher was ‘honest’ Sam Briscoe who had been unable to afford standards of any kind since going spectacularly bust in 1698 and lived by cobbling together re-issues of in-authentic works by dead celebrities. One of the dead celebrities whose work he continued to ‘discover’ many years after their deaths was Tom Brown, who died in June 1704 and was probably in no state to edit anything in the months preceding. The work was probably done by Pope’s ‘venal quill’, Briscoe’s chief collaborator Charles Gildon. Dorset’s work was not collected until 1707, when Edmund Curll began to tack putative Dorset on to his for from scrupulous combined editions of the works of Rochester and Roscommon.

Harold Love, or rather his female collaborator Meredith Sherlock, who is not acknowledged as co-editor on the titlepage as she should be, lists 185 manuscripts containing work attributed to Rochester. The sheer range of manuscript witnesses provides scope for readers to invent their own Rochester, and their own Rochester canon. Some think that all misogynist poems praising boys as sexual partners in preference to women must be by Rochester; others that all poems graphically describing the miseries of whoring are his, as if he were himself the maimed debauchee constantly bearing witness to his own decayed condition; others that his defining characteristic is hungover sourness or soul-deep disgust. It takes a brave soul to maintain that Rochester is none of his personae, that his whoremonger is no more himself than the platonic lady, that the rejected lover of St James’s Park may be less he than the brash woman poet Artemiza. Even when the genres in which he chose to write are understood, readers will persist in trying to find the man in his poetry. Rochester cannot translate, imitate or allude; his Ovidian love elegies cannot be simply that. His Corinna is not allowed to be Ovid’s Corinna updated and repositioned. Unlike Ovid, Rochester is doomed to be in some sense sincere. Small wonder then that the constructed Rochesters keep coming unstuck, as the poetry is mined for clues to the biography of a man assumed to be fascinating because he was vicious, while the historic record is left largely uninvestigated, even by people who claim to be writing biographies. For Lord Rochester’s Monkey, Graham Greene began by collecting documentary evidence and ended many years later by writing Rochester into his own scenario of sin and redemption. Later biographers have investigated even less and over-interpreted even more.

The man, John Wilmot, scion of the Wiltshire St Johns and the Oxfordshire Wilmots, who inherited the title of Earl of Rochester only six years after its first creation in 1652, cannot but have left a virtually uninterrupted paper trail. His education is known; his property dealings and court cases await investigation. His career as a courtier and politician can be traced through the calendars of treasury books and the journals of the House of Lords; he is mentioned, though hardly often enough for someone considered now to have been so conspicuous, in the correspondence of his kinsmen and contemporaries. The papers of the Verney family, held at Claydon House, have not yet been thoroughly searched, even though Sir Ralph Verney is known to have acted as a trustee for Rochester and his mother and her wards, and to have been in daily contact with his steward, John Cary, based at Woodstock. The lacunae in Rochester scholarship affect not only biographers; for example, the Claydon Papers can provide firm dates for poems associated with Rochester and could provide firm support for some of his editors’ speculations. Nothing in the documentary as distinct from the literary record suggests that Rochester was an unusually wicked lord; there is much to suggest that he was never strong, always accident-prone, ill from adolescence, desperately poor, bedevilled by debt and thwarted expectations. His political allegiance is not what is usually assumed; his poverty forced him to capitalise on his one asset, the King’s debt of gratitude to his father, by playing the courtier, but his principles were those of the country gentry, who were jealous guardians of the rights of Parliament. The King did not bother to pay his stipend as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and preferment never came; even the grant of the Rangership of Woodstock was bungled.

The escapades noted by Rochester’s contemporaries are not wild excesses of drinking, whoring and buggery, but quarrelling. The violent confrontations in which from early 1669 he was regularly involved are usually nowadays considered to be mere drunken aggression, though often they stretched into a string of altercations, witnessed by people who should have intervened to abort a challenge if either of the antagonists was thought to be drunk. Elaborators of the theory of Rochester’s alcoholism appear not to realise that it was a serious offence against protocol to be drunk in the presence of any member of the royal family. When the King drank his courtiers had to stay sober enough to see His paralytic Majesty safely abed. The possibility that Rochester’s outbursts stemmed from a genuine sense of grievance has never been systematically investigated; some of his altercations had to do with his wife’s besmirched reputation, others with his futile struggles to get control of her property away from her trustees, who were plundering the estate, others to do with rivalry for the preferment he so desperately needed and the sabotage of his efforts, others with the administrative mess that surrounded the grant of the keepership of Woodstock, and most ultimately with questions of political loyalty and commitment.

Rochester is also assumed to have been a distinguished cocksman, who cut a swathe through the population of maids of honour, ladies in waiting, royal concubines, actresses, streetwalkers, pages, valets and children but again evidence from the contemporary record is lacking. Even the attempted abduction of his wife-to-be in May 1665 was set up by his mother and blown by 18-year-old Rochester. The marriage was eventually clapped up in January 1667 without the knowledge, let alone the consent, of the lady’s trustees. Once married he gave his wife more children in less time than most men of his rank would have done, at the risk of being considered uxorious by other courtiers, who took all the opportunities offered by the licentious Court, where the tone was set by Rochester’s sexually avid kinswoman, the Countess of Castlemaine, who was never involved with him. Restoration Court burlesques describe all their butts in terms of their sexual proclivities and inadequacies but Rochester seems never to have attracted their attention, in stark contrast to his exact contemporary, the Earl of Mulgrave, whose depredations were legendary. (Mulgrave’s attentions had been so vividly appreciated by Castlemaine that she secured him admission to the Order of the Garter.) Lubricious and obviously novelised detail about Rochester’s masquerades and sexcapades comes principally from two sources dating from long after the poet’s death, the memoirs of Anthony Hamilton, Comte de Grammont, and a spurious letter purporting to have been written by St Evremond. To these must be added the activities of the letter forgers of the 1690s. Until better evidence is available about the letters published by Sam Briscoe in 1697 they should be assumed to be forgeries or at least taken cum grano salis. Briscoe, aware that the authenticity of the letters would be questioned, told his readers that they could inspect the originals at his shop but he had no shop at the time and no one has ever claimed to have seen them. Before the man Rochester can be understood, the mass of spurious biography must be stripped away; then, like his text, he can be reintegrated in his intellectual milieu and with his ilk. The Rochester we inherited owed not a little to post-Byronian formulae; the millennial generation is ready for a Post-Modern Rochester.

Pressure to produce a standard edition of Rochester is the inevitable outcome of entrenched belief in a stable literary canon. When Kim Scott-Walwyn asked Harold Love to edit Rochester for the OET series, he knew that she was asking the impossible. The result could undermine the very concept of ‘classic’ text. There is a wonderful irony in the fact that the more work is done on Rochester, the more violently the stereotypical figure deconstructs. Love is much to be admired for his determination to keep Rochester enmeshed and obscured in parallelisms and inconsistencies, resolutely questioning the very idea of authority, though I should have preferred that he more often kept in mind the possibility that Rochester wrote parts of poems rather than whole poems. For the reader struggling to track the text through Love’s eclectic conflations and his quixotic attachment to accidentals, this edition cannot replace Keith Walker’s clear and rigorous presentation, especially as Love’s edition is offered at a price that only libraries can afford. What I should like to see is an affordable popular edition with a modernised text, based on Love’s formidable expertise and familiarity with the manuscript publishing history, that takes on the challenge of describing the ramifications of Rochesteroid and Rochesterish. The person to do it might well be Meredith Sherlock.