A Ribald Restoration Poet

December 3, 2009

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

After the severe Puritan restrictions of the English Protectorate were overthrown, the figure of the libertine began to take shape: usually of noble rank, sometimes philosophical, but usually more committed to contrivance of refined witticism and extravagant debaucheries. Such were the “Merry Gang” that grew up around King Charles II after the Restoration of the monarchy. Among this coterie was John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–1680), a man so charismatic that his contemporaries lauded him in verse and modeled dramatic characters after him. He himself produced much satirical and ribald poetry, but chose to publish very little. The Romantic critic William Hazlitt remarked “his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity.” His disarming combination of high eloquence with utter candor can be seen in this excerpt from The Imperfect Enjoyment:

… whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm and, and spend at every pore.
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 murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o’er
My panting bosom, “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 show my wished obedience vainly strive
I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive [fuck].…

Some stanzas later, he ends his lament with a harsh curse on his indolent member and a wish of ample recompense for his unfulfilled paramour:

May’st thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,
Or in consuming weepings waste away
May strangury and stone thy days attend
May’st thou ne’er piss, who did refuse to spend
When all my joys did on false thee depend.
And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

While Rochester pretends to disown his penis, dualism is not systematic in this work; he includes his organ as a constituent part of himself when he says “I dissolve” and “I…cannot swive.” Moreover, he reverses the Cartesian power hierarchy: He cannot master his corporeal self in this instance, and overall, the chief principle that drove his life and work was the perusal of physical gratification. In distinction to Hobbes’ pessimistic appraisal of human impulse, Rochester was not selfish in this principle. In this poem he is not disturbed by hurt pride, but instead, by his failure to satisfy his lover. He portrays her as at least his equal; an active agent with proclivities similar to his own, restrained only a little by a kindly manner. Another interesting feature of this poem is its elevation and empowerment of female genitals, which misogynists had long cast into the worst repute. Rochester’s egalitarian sentiments, however, didn’t extend beyond his class; in another rhyme he callously admitted: “…missing my whore, I bugger my page.”

Rochester’s curse on himself was more than fulfilled when he perished at the young age of 33, in all probability from some combination of venereal and alcohol-related maladies. His mother put out word of a deathbed conversion and tried to repress his unpublished works.