John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: A Restorative from the Restoration

John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, stands out because of his double-barreled reputation: he was a savage satirist, and a serious rakehell.  His short life of thirty-three years (1647-1680) was packed with excitement and energy, so much so that he was well known outside of literary circles.  People were aware of his wild escapades, his military daring, his duels, his street brawling and drinking and wenching, quite apart from the no-holds-barred attacks in verse that he launched against his opponents and enemies, and even against his King.  Rochester was dangerous with his pen, his poniard, and his penis.

For these reasons Rochester has been generally loathedand scrupulously ignoredby a certain strain of critic and reader.  The Puritan scum of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, with their psalm- singing piety, saw him as an abomination.  Whigs hated his noble station and his royalist loyalties.  Tight-assed Victorian scholars wouldn’t go near him, and the feminist bitches who run academia today want all of us to forget that he ever wrote or existed.

Of course, some of this animus is due to the pornographic nature of a few of his poemsthough by today’s debased standards they could hardly be called anything worse than “naughty.”  As late as 1964 two of Rochester’s poems could not be included in Vivian De Sola Pinto’s excellent edition put out by The Muses Library (“owing to the risk of prosecution in this country under the existing law,” as the editor apologizes in his preface).  Well, those anti-obscenity laws are no longer on the books.  But the censorious mentality behind them is alive and well in the political correctness, feminism, and snowflake-pandering that is still widespread in mainstream elite orthodoxy.  Bad-mouth a slut today, as Rochester did, and you’ll find yourself on some #MeToo list.

The wildness of Rochester has to be understood within the context of Restoration England.  From the execution of King Charles I in 1649 until the return of his son Charles II to the throne in 1660, England was a dim dictatorship under the religiously fanatical and genocidal Oliver Cromwell. The populace was crushed by an asphyxiating weight of Low-Church Protestant rectitude.  The theaters were closed, precious ecclesiastical art was vandalized, secular celebrations curtailed, obnoxious divines preached four-hour sermons (which all were legally required to attend), Christmas and holidays were officially suppressed, and a pretentious, whining, holier-than-thou Do-Goodery infected the land like a plague.  All types of fun, merriment, and amusement were suspect, and persons showing any loyalty to or longing for an older, freer England were either killed or marginalized.  Commonwealth England was somewhat like China during Mao’s cultural revolution, except that things were run by Calvinist psychopaths in Geneva bands.  It’s no wonder that Labourite crackpots like Jeremy Corbyn look back on Cromwell’s Commonwealth as their ancestral Eden.

The restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 was like a sudden explosion of springtime.  There was an across-the-board clearance of Puritan fanatics from power in both church and state.  People could talk again, breathe again, get drunk again, and not waste their Sundays listening to some parson bloviate endlessly about total depravity.  You didn’t have to give your children stupid Biblical names like Jonah, Abigail, Ezekiel, Ananias, or Hepzibah.  You could screw a tavern wench without going in fear of the stocks.  All of a sudden moral tyranny was gone, and there was a re-emergence of the natural urge towards wine, women, and song.

Quite understandably, some people went overboard.  I suppose the Earl of Rochester could be numbered among them, though his reputation as a scapegrace probably owes more to exaggeration than to his actual behavior.  In any case, Restoration England was a joyful and rollicking place: boisterous, sexy, uninhibited, loud, and fiercely committed to putting the adjective “merry” in front of the country’s name once more.

Rochester’s father fought on the royalist side in the English Civil War, and in fact saved the young King Charles II from capture and likely death after the battle of Worcester in 1651.  The King and his family never forgot this service, and it partially accounts for the many royal acts of forgiveness and indulgence that his son enjoyed during the Restoration period.  No matter how outrageous his offenses, the young poet always seemed to get off lightly.  And some of those offenses were more than trivial.

The most outrageous of Rochester’s acts occurred in 1665, when he was eighteen and a favorite at court.  He became enamored of Elizabeth Malet, a wealthy and beautiful heiress from Somersetshire.  Her family rejected Rochester’s suit, largely because of his unsavory reputation as a wild and unpredictable rake.  So one night Rochester abducted the girl and had her carried off by armed men.  Elizabeth’s enraged relatives petitioned the King for redress, and she was rescued some days later.  Rochester was sent to the Tower of London for his misdemeanor, but the King soon pardoned his favorite.  Curiously enough, the young lady voluntarily married Rochester a year later, and they had a happy and affectionate union for the rest of their lives, despite this inauspicious start.  Of course Rochester continued his carousing and sexual debauchery, which he clearly thought not incompatible with his devotion to his wife and their four children.

It should be remembered that Rochester was not merely a poet and courtier, but also a military man, and one who served his country with noted distinction.  He fought bravely in the naval assault at Bergen Harbor, against the Dutch fleet; and also at the very bloody Four Days’ Battle in the English channel, where he volunteered for extremely hazardous duty.  Rochester was under heavy enemy fire in these and other actions, all of which involved steep losses for the English.  The King rewarded him handsomely for his valiant service, and Rochester was never in want of money for the rest of his life.  He could indulge himself.

Let’s jump right into Rochester’s satires.  He wrote plenty, so there is a wide range of possible choices.  One of my favorites is “My Lord All-Pride,” a thirty-line salvo of violent imprecation against a hated enemy, John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave.  The poem (in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets) is magnificent in its sheer over-the-top contempt, but I’ll only quote the first part:

Bursting with Pride, the loath’d Impostume swells,
Prick him, he sheds his Venom strait, and smells;
But ’tis so lewd a Scribler, that he writes,
With as much force to Nature, as he fights.
Hardned in Shame, ’tis such a baffled Fop,
That ev’ry School-boy whips him like a Top:
And with his Arme, and Head, his Brain’s so weak,
That his starved fancy, is compell’d to take,
Among the Excrements of others wit,
To make a stinking Meal of what they shit.
So Swine, for nasty Meat, to Dunghil run
And toss their gruntling Snowts up when they’ve done.

The poem goes on to denigrate Sheffield’s appearance, comportment, bad breath, pretentious conceit, cowardice, and lack of friends.  This kind of flamethrower attack is typical of Rochester’s satiric style, which takes no prisoners.  Consider this small sample from “On Poet Ninny,” directed against some poetic rival of mediocre talent:

Crusht by that just contempt his Follys bring
On his craz’d Head, the Vermin fain wou’d sting,
Bu never Satyr, did so softly bite,
Or gentle George himself, more gently write.
Born to no other, but thy own disgrace,
Thou art a thing so wretched, and so base,

Thou canst not ev’n offend, but with thy Face.
And dost at once a sad example prove,
Of harmless malice, and of hopeless love.

Rochester went after many targets in his satires: fops, court ladies, playwrights and other poets, King Charles and his foibles, “Pimps, Parasites, Buffoones” (to use his own words), and even himself in his “The Maim’d Debauchee,” wherein he describes his own sexual impotence and alcoholic befuddlement after too many years of riotous living.  But he is especially noted for his “A Satyr against Mankind,” a masterpiece of misanthropic cynicism of over two hundred lines.  I can only quote the beginning:

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange prodigious Creatures, Man)
A Spirit free, to choose for my own share,
What case of Flesh, and Blood, I pleas’d to weare,
I’d be a Dog, a Monkey, or a Bear,
Or any thing but that vain Animal,
Who is so proud of being rational.
The senses are too gross, and he’ll contrive
A Sixth, to contradict the other Five;
And before certain instinct, will preferr
Reason, which Fifty times for one does err.
Reason, an Ignis fatuus, in the Mind,
Which leaving light of Nature, sense behind;
Pathless and dang’rous wandring ways it takes,
Through errors, Fenny-Boggs, and thorny Brakes;
Whilst the misguided follower, climbs with pain,
Mountains of Whimseys, heap’d in his own Brain:
Stumbling from thought to thought, falls head-long down,
Into doubts boundless Sea, where like to drown,
Books bear him up a while, and makes him try
To swim with Bladders of philosophy;
In hopes still t’oretake th’ escaping light,
The Vapor dances in his dazzl’d 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.                                                                                                                            
Huddled in dirt, the reas’ning Engine lyes, 
Who was so proud, so witty, and so wise.

 

Included in Rochester’s satires (though it is more of a philosophical meditation) is the strange “Upon Nothing,” a curious piece on the nature of non-existence and nullity. It is composed of seventeen monorhyme triplets, the first two in iambic fives, followed by an alexandrine.  Rochester, who had studied both at Oxford and on the continent, was acutely aware of the deep intellectual tangle that had been produced by the rise of Protestantism and new trends in philosophy; and he was seriously troubled by both religious doubts and epistemological skepticism.  “Upon Nothing” is a kind of absurdist attempt to make sport of the entire question of  existence itself.  I can quote only the first seven triplets:

Nothing!  thou Elder Brother ev’n to Shade,
Thou hadst a Being ere the World was made,
And (well fixt) art alone, of ending not afraid.

Ere time and place were, time and place were not,
When Primitive Nothing something strait begot,
Then all proceeded from the great united—What?

Something, the Gen’ral Attribute of all,
Sever’d from thee, its sole Original,
Into thy boundless self must undistinguish’d fall.

Yet something did thy mighty Pow’r command,
And from thy fruitful emptiness’s hand,
Snatch’d Men, Beasts, Birds, Fire, Water, Air and Land.

Matter, the wicked’st off-spring of thy Race,
By Form assisted, flew from thy Embrace,
And Rebel Light obscur’d thy reverend dusky Face.

With Form, and Matter, Time and Place did  joyn ,
Body, thy Foe, with these did Leagues combine,
To spoil thy peaceful Realm, and ruine all thy Line.

But turn-Coat Time assists the Foe in vain,
And, brib’d by thee, destroys their short-liv’d Reign,
And to thy hungry Womb drives back thy Slaves again.

 

This proto-nihilism is of a piece with the poet’s skepticism, hard cynicism, and cavalier tendency towards a self-destructive assertiveness and hedonism.  Towards the close of his life Rochester developed  a sense of piety and religious devotion, but he wrote no poetry in that vein.  His most characteristic work (beside the satires) is his poetry addressed to women, which is always frank, open, and unsparing in its honesty.  Consider “To a Lady, in a Letter,” which puts together a woman’s sexual infidelity and her lover’s drunkenness as tit-for-tat vices that must be mutually endured.  Here’s most of the poem:

 

Such perfect Bliss, fair Cloris, we
In our Enjoyment prove:
’Tis pity restless Jealousie
Should mingle with our Love.

Let us, since Wit has taught us how,
Raise Pleasure to the Top:
You Rival Bottle must allow,
I’ll suffer Rival Fop.

Think not in this that I design
A Treason ’gainst Love’s Charms,
When following the God of Wine,
I leave my Cloris’ Arms.

Since you have that, for all your haste,
At which I’ll ne’er repine,
Its Pleasure can repeat as fast,
As I the Joys of Wine.

There’s not a brisk insipid Spark,
That flutters in the Town;
But with your wanton Eyes you mark
Him out to be your own.
 

Nor do you think it worth your care,
How empty, and how dull,
The Heads of your Admirers are,
So that their Veins be full.

 

There’s a rough-hewn directness here that is missing from most earlier sixteenth-century love poetry.  Rochester is saying “Damn it, womansleep with whomever you please, and I’ll drink as much as I please.  We’re both free.”  The poem’s exhilarating license is a perfect vignette of  Restoration England, where heavy drinking, open lust, and plain speaking were the order of the day.

Plain speaking is what we get in his “Pindarick,” a devastating attack on the Duchess of Cleveland, a notoriously promiscuous nymphomaniac of the time.  Rochester compares her to Messalina, Julia, and Lais (three sexually scandalous females of the ancient world), and dismisses all three as inadequate rivals to the Duchess’s insatiable lust.  The poem is too intricate to quote here, but I urge readers to find it and peruse its unusual meter, and hearty violence.

Another thing to be savored in Rochester is his command of syntax in lengthy verse discourse.  Many poets are lost when they attempt to express a detailed argument or exposition in formal verse, especially in rhymed couplets.  They tend to write end-stopped lines, or self-contained couplets, because they cannot accommodate the flow of their thought to the demands of the rhyme scheme.  Rochester at his best never has this problem, as can be seen in the first twenty lines of “The Discovery,” addressed to an unresponsive lady:

Caelia, that faithful Servant you disown,
Would in Obedience keep his love his own:
But bright Ideas, such as you inspire,
We can no more conceal, than not admire.
My Heart at home in my own Breast did dwell,
Like humble Hermit in a Peaceful Cell:
Unknown and undisturb’d it rested there,
Stranger alike to Hope and to Despair.
Now Love with a tumultuous Train invades
The Sacred Quiet of those Hallow’d Shades:
His fatal Flames shine out to ev’ry Eye,
Like blazing Commets in a Winter Skie.
How can my Passion merit your Offence,
That challenges so little Recompense:
For I am one, born only to admire;
Too humble e’er to hope, scarce to desire.
A Thing, whose Bliss depends upon your Will;
Who would be proud you’d deign to use him ill.
Then give me leave to glory in my Chain,
My fruitless Sighs, and my unpitied Pain.

There are only six independent sentences in those twenty lines, and enjambment keeps the discursive flow steady and regular.  It can be read as smoothly as prose, and yet is metrically and phonetically perfect.

But let’s turn now to the poems that have enraged and baffled prudish editors for so long.  The first is “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”one hundred and sixty-five lines of blue language and hard-core description of a notorious prostitution stroll in Westminster, near Buckingham Palace. The description segues into an attack on a woman who was a previous lover of Rochester, but who is now discovered as a common whore at work in the park. The poem is angry, roughly composed, and probably based on a real experience.  Here’s the beginning:

Much wine had pass’d, with grave discourse
Of who Fucks who, and who does worse
Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear,
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness Reliev’d by Lechery,
Went out into Saint James’s Park
To coole my head and fire my heart.
But tho’ Saint James has th’ honor on’t,
’Tis consecrate to Prick and Cunt.
There, by a most incestuous Birth,
Strange woods spring from the Teeming Earth;
For they Relate how heretofore,
When auncient Pict began to whore,
Deluded of his Assignation
(Jylting it seems was then in fashion),
Poor pensive Lover, in this place
Would frigg upon his Mother’s face
Whence Rowes of Mandrakes tall did rise
Whose lewd Tops Fuckt the very skies.

On and on it goes, in magnificent obscenity, describing all of the copulatory arcana of sexual activity in the park at night, and ending with Rochester’s savage curse upon his former girlfriend, whom he has discovered there arranging a ménage à quatre with three loathsome characters.  The language used in “A Ramble…” is unquestionably coarse, but nonetheless appropriate for the subject matter being treated.  In fact, it is perfectly in keeping with the required poetic decorum for a composition dealing with whores, intercourse, bodily fluids, and no-nonsense commercial sex.

The second infamous piece is “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” an account of an unintended premature ejaculation and the speaker’s inability (despite the help of his female partner) to arouse his limp member to a new erection.  It is a more polished composition than “A Ramble…” since it is self-mocking and humorous.  Let’s look at the perfectly constructed opening:

Naked she lay, claspt in my longing Arms,
I fill’d with Love, and she all over Charms,
Both equally inspir’d with eager fire,
Melting through kindness, flaming in desire;
With Arms, Legs, Lips, close clinging to embrace,
She clips me to her Breast, and sucks me to her Face.

Notice the alexandrine of line six, which is a perfect variation to the pentameter here, and which emphasizes the sexual intensity of the poem’s start with the monosyllables “clips,” “Breast,” “sucks,” and “Face.”  The text continues:

The nimble Tongue (Love’s lesser Lightning) plaid
Within my Mouth, and to my thoughts convey’d
Swift Orders, that I should prepare to throw
The All-dissolving Thunderbolt below.
My flutt’ring Soul, sprung with the pointed Kiss,
Hangs hov’ring o’er her Balmy Lips of Bliss.
But whilst her busie hand, wou’d guide that part,
Which shou’d convey my Soul up to her Heart,
In Liquid Raptures, I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into Sperm, and spend at every Pore.

In other words, the lady’s tongue-kiss and her hand on his penis cause Rochester to spend immediately, before he can effect penetration.  The description is perfect, and certainly not obsceneunless one is of the puritanical school which holds that any sexual subject is “offensive” to readers, and not fit for the ears of stupid little coed snowflakes.  The poem goes on to recount Rochester’s deep embarrassment and frustration at his inability to perform the act of intercourse:

A touch from any part of her had done’t;
Her hand, her Foot, her very Look’s a Cunt.
Smiling, she Chides in a kind murm’ring Noise,
And from her Body wipes the Clammy Joys;
When with a Thousand Kisses, wand’ring o’er
My panting breast, and is there then no more?
She cries.  All this to Love and rapture’s due;
Must we not pay a Debt to Pleasure too?
But I the most forlorn, lost Man alive,
To shew my wisht Obedience vainly strive,
I sigh alas! and Kiss, but cannot Swive.

The remainder of the poem is a magnificent accusation of his penis for its failure, and a wonderful account of its past heroics with every kind of maiden, lady, courtesan, cheap street whore, and rent-boy.  It ends with a humorous condemnation of the penis: 

May’st thou to rav’nous Chancres, be a prey,
Or in consuming Weepings waste away.
May Stranguaries, and Stone, thy Days attend;
May’st thou ne’er Piss, who didst refuse to spend.

“Chancres” refers to syphilis, and “Weepings” to gonorrhea.  “Stranguaries” are stoppages in the flow of urine, and “Stone” refers to kidney stonesall terrible afflictions for the male member.  The poem wraps up with the hope that his girlfriend will find better satisfaction from “Ten   Thousand abler Pricks.”  “The Imperfect Enjoyment” is a veritable tour de force of sexual composition, and not pornographic in any legitimate sense of that word.  It is quite different from “A Ramble in St. James’s Park,” a poem which is consciously violent, vulgar, and vicious in its barely contained fury.

Why is Rochester so hated?  Why is he ignored?  His poetry is of a very high order, and he is a major star in the seventeenth-century’s literary firmament.  Part of the answer lies in the persistence, right up to now, of the same censorious puritanical attitudes of those Low-Church Protestant fanatics of the Commonwealth.  The objections to Rochester are no longer religiousthe Low-Church Protestants have lost their religious commitments and morphed (as Camille Paglia long ago pointed out) into the Enlightenment left-liberals of our elitist establishment.  Today the hatred of Rochester is rooted in their new obsessions: gender feminism, across-the-board anti-male bigotry, rage against sexual freedom, and a generalized resentment of anyone who can be happy without foaming at the mouth about the environment, sexism, Black Lives Matter, and diversityand who isn’t a Social Justice Warrior possessed by anti-Trump hysteria.

That’s why his poetry is a restorative.  Rochester is from a sane worldan England that had only just recently broken the back of fanaticism, and restored human freedom to its people.  Reading and enjoying his long-suppressed work istoday, right nowa revolutionary and salutary act.  Don’t let any lying left-liberal tell you otherwise.

 

 

 

 

 

 





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Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.