The reputation of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, as a poet has suffered from the overly dramatic legends about his life. Whatever past judgments have been made of his work seem unfairly colored by a considerable amount of untruthful scandal. Although modern biographers tend to rehabilitate such men completely and to give less perfidious definitions to the term “libertine,” there is little to be gained here by denying the truth of his professed hedonism and his actual debauchery. Unwilling to allow his biography to overwhelm his work, two contemporary critics, Vieth and Dustin Griffin, have affirmed the undeniable wit and power of his verses. Appreciation of the value of the early satires, the songs, and “A Satire Against Mankind” develops from first agreeing that Rochester is a product of his own time. Although this work, particularly the late satires, was influential for the Augustans and even shared some of their values, one should view Rochester’s poems as mirroring the Restoration milieu socially, intellectually, and stylistically.
The major themes of Rochester’s poetry derive from his evaluation of love, friendship, and courtly life. In each of these areas, he weighs humanity’s promise for achieving the ideal against his predilection for evil and folly. As a skeptic, he is not under the mystical spell of religion; his poems reveal a man in search of certainties in the face of an awareness that such serenity is, for him, remote and unrealizable.
As literature of the Restoration, the poems reveal aristocratic attitudes of the past under severe stress from the philosophies of the Enlightenment. Rochester’s knowledge of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke allows him to suspend an automatic acceptance of traditional value systems and instead to question, analyze, and debate issues concerning the human condition.
Griffin, in Satires Against Man: The Poems of Rochester (1973), finds that one constant motif of his work was a rational humanist morality. Rather than trusting society or religion to establish laws for the restraint of man, Rochester depends on pleasure and pain and on following “nature” as the way to govern conduct. His tendency toward skepticism causes him to doubt whether morals can guide humans to right conduct; in typical Restoration fashion, Rochester insists upon the immediacy of experience both with regard to sensual desires and in more abstract concerns: belief, conduct, and literary convention. Immediacy suggests security, a safe haven from the “ugly cheat” of life. If traditional moral and religious restraints are held in contempt, as they were at court, Rochester has only to rely on sensual contentment. Inevitably, his poems reflect his dissatisfaction with such experience; in fact, his constant theme is the disproportion between human desires and the means for satisfying them. While remaining a sensualist, he never reflects satisfaction in the poetry, because he never loses sight of the ultimate futility of the human condition. His poetry describes the suffering, anger, frustration, and failure of humanity, and does so with energy and clarity. In failing to achieve security, Rochester’s analysis also reveals the zest of humans’ restless, acquisitive, and competitive nature, while affirming the poet’s admiration of personal goodness, of freedom from pretension and greed.
During Rochester’s lifetime, his lyrics, songs, lampoons, and satires were circulated in manuscript copies among the court of Charles II. A few of his writings were printed as broadsides or in miscellanies; his great “A Satire Against Mankind” was printed as a folio broadside in 1675. The textual issue of whether a reliable contemporary edition of his poetry exists is a complicated one. In the late summer of 1680, a book professing to be the Poems on Several Occasions by the Right Honourable the E. of R. was published under the ostensible imprint of a nonexistent Antwerp printer. In an effort to capitalize on his name and popular reputation as a wild courtier, sixty-one poems were offered, of which many were pornographic and more than a third were not even written by Rochester. Nevertheless, the book was extremely popular and numerous editions were produced to satisfy public demand. In his book Attribution in Restoration Poetry: A Study of Rochester’s “Poems” of 1680 (1963), Vieth explains that the earliest of these editions was based on a responsible manuscript miscellany copy text, and that despite the shortcomings of Poems on Several Occasions, it is the most important edition of Rochester published prior to the twentieth century. Since 1926, many editors have struggled with the Rochester text. The difficulties arose over an unusually problematical canon, the varying authority of texts from which the poems came down to readers, and the obscene nature of some of the genuine poems. In 1968, the definitive critical edition was published: Vieth’s The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. In solving the aforementioned difficulties, Vieth found seventy-five authentic poems, eight other poems possibly written by Rochester, and nearly two hundred spurious poems.
“A Song: My dear Mistress has a heart”
Rochester’s poems fall into four chronological categories: prentice work (1665-1671), early maturity (1672-1673), tragic maturity (1674-1675), and disillusionment and death (1676-1680). Representative of Rochester’s prentice work is the early poem “A Song: My dear Mistress has a heart” (exact date unknown), a self-consciously conventional poem incorporating characteristics of the courtly love tradition. As in many of his other songs, Rochester explores the complexities of human sexual nature while entertaining rather than instructing the reader. In two eight-line stanzas of ballad measures, the poet employs the familiar figures and concepts of Restoration lyrics—the enslaving mistress whose “resistless Art” has captured the poet’s heart. While recognizing “her Constancy’s weak,” he is powerless to escape her “Killing pleasures and Wounding Blisses” and must only trust that this poem will convince her of his deepest regard. Without varying from the sophisticated pattern, Rochester writes a tender, graceful love lyric. What seems missing is the poet’s individual voice, which would bring this artificial form to life with the sheer intensity of his wit.
“Fair Chloris in a pigsty lay”
Another early poem, “Fair Chloris in a pigsty lay” (exact date unknown), marks him as an authentic poetic voice with its sudden, often brutal, wit that shocks the reader, demanding his notice. Rochester’s Chloris is not the conventional dreaming shepherdess of the pastoral; she is a swineherdess of the most lustful and crude sort. Surrounded by her murmuring pigs while she sleeps, Chloris dreams of a “love-convicted swain” who calls her to a cave to rescue a trapped pig, only to throw himself lustfully upon her. Instead of a self-abasing lover pleading with his mistress, Rochester reverses the persona as Chloris finds herself the object of a crude rape. The poem’s final stanza undercuts the brutality yet retains the indecency, as Chloris wakes, realizing that it was only a dream. Her innocence is preserved, although she has enjoyed the secret pleasure of a fantasy lover. While maintaining a humorous and playful tone, Rochester adds a final unexpected twist of eroticism which lifts this song above the conventionality of the earlier one. Such a mocking tone foreshadows the poems of his mature period; the “innocent” Chloris becomes the voracious Corinna of “A Ramble in St. James’s Park.”
“A Ramble in St. James’s Park”
The poems of 1672-1673, the period of Rochester’s early maturity,...
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