Once again the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is proving to be a jolt to my students. I always start my course “Couples Comedy in the Restoration and 18th Century” with this 17th century libertine, and the poetry does not hold back. Rochester freely uses the “f” word, the “c” word, and a whole host of other objectionable words. He regularly boasts of his sexual prowess, launches diatribes against women, advocates a range of deviant sexual activities. At one point he proudly claims that he himself is the fastest way to hell.
I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by Rochester since we have virtually nothing in common. Male posturing has always made me uncomfortable, and Rochester postures. I party very little whereas Rochester once claimed to have been non-stop drunk for a period of five years. I’m offended by Rochester’s aristocratic elitism and regret the fact that he wasted his great talent, dying of various sex and alcohol related diseases at 33. And yet…
And yet there is something that draws me to him. I think it may be in part his sensitivity and his vulnerability. For all his posturing, he reveals his doubts and insecurities. Sometimes he even uses his poetry to flagellate himself.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Rochester was jester to Charles. He therefore took out after hypocrisy and pretense, but whether he himself believed in anything is unclear. His truth-telling got him into trouble with Charles on numerous occasions, incidentally. He did get away with the following brilliant quatrain, supposedly improvised, that was an apt description of a monarch who often seemed more style than substance:
God bless our good and gracious king
Whose promise none relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing
And never did a wise one.
Okay, so that’s somewhat mild. His “Satyr on Charles II,” on the other hand, got him temporarily banished from court. It ends with him declaring his equal dislike for Louis XIV and Charles: “All monarchs I hate, and the thrones they sit on,/From the hector of France to the cully of Britain.” “Hector” means bully, “cully” means dupe. Court jesters are always walking a tightrope—that ‘s what gives them an edge—and Rochester, who owed his estate and pension to Charles, went too far regularly.
But the poems that draw me are those that focus on the battle of the sexes. Here’s one that is appropriately scandalous.
Love a woman? You’re an ass.
‘Tis a most insipid passion
To choose out for your happiness
The idlest part of God’s creation.
Let the porter and the groom,
Things designed for dirty slaves,
Drudge in fair Aurelia’s womb
To get supplies for age and graves.
Farewell, woman! I intend
Henceforth every night to sit
With my lewd, well-natured friend,
Drinking to engender wit.
Then give me health, wealth, mirth, and wine,
And if busy Love intrenches,
There’s a sweet, soft page of mine
Does the trick worth forty wenches.
The poem is intended to shock and perhaps shock it does. “I’ve got other options,” the speaker tells a buddy of his, maybe one who has been rejected. “What does one need more that buddies to drink with?” The final stanza–I can turn to my page boy to satisfy my lust–comes with the force of a comic punch line.
In some ways, the poem hearkens back to Plato’s symposium and the ancient Greek belief that higher love could only occur between men. Love with a woman was merely pragmatic, men becoming mere functionaries to get supplies for age and graves (offspring). Of course, any aspirations to a higher calling is undercut by the images of drinking with”lewd well-natured friends.”
But does Wilmot believe what he says? I find myself thinking of a conversation from the movie Say Anything by John Hughes (which gives me also a chance to tip my cap to this recently deceased pioneer of the teenpic genre). Lloyd Dobbs (John Cusack) is being consoled by his friends after having been rejected by Claire. They tell him that he can do better, to which he counters, “I got a question. If you guys know so much about women, how come you’re here at like the Gas ‘n’ Sip on a Saturday night completely alone drinking beers with no women anywhere?” There is a stunned silence and then the tentative and not very convincing reply, “By choice, man.”
The speaker in the poem insists too much. He’s like the little boy jumping up and down shouting “I don’t need you, I don’t need anyone.” But the poet recognizes this in the speaker. It’s as though he’s saying to the audience, “Men don’t believe this when they say it, and I know that you, lady readers, can see through it. There’s a scared individual underneath all this bluster who needs someone to prop up his manhood.”
I wouldn’t call this the healthiest way to enter into a relationship, but it certainly gives us insights into male bluster. The value of the poem may lie in this.
Some of that bluster comes from a terrified suspicions that absolute nothingness underlies existence. I will write on this in a future post.