StairWell Canto 10 extract

Context: In the 10th Canto of HellWard we met 4 poets condemned to Hell. Now in the 10th Canto of StairWell, we meet another 4 poets stuck in Purgatory. This extract takes us to meet the third poet in the sequence of meetings, which is the infamous John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester from the seventeenth century: libertine, sex-addict, and satirist of extraordinary power. One critic described him as the ‘great poet of unbelief’. This extract includes paraphrases from Rochester’s own highly charged and obscene verse. He died aged only 33 from complications from syphilis; in the last month of his life one contemporary described how Rochester was ‘pissing … matter’. And also in the last month of his life a priest read to him the 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah: ‘He hath no form nor comeliness …’ and he converted to Christianity in a famous death-bed repentance—he ordered that all his obscene works be destroyed. His atheistic and hedonistic ‘friends’ could not accept or believe it, but the evidence—as Graham Greene amongst others confirmed—seems conclusive; I find it compelling. Like Dante’s Buonconte, like the thief on the cross, Rochester at the last minute turned his life around.

_________________…we had to strive
Leaving him, then, praying for his new way,
We crossed to where another sought to live:

A line stretched back to lost and ancient days;
We marked its course and followed on its trail;
Methought my host excited in his praise

Of one whose whole short life had been to fail,
Except at that one moment nearing death
When Mary and mercy were both revealed:

‘Upwards in a storm wind, light as a leaf,
(I interviewed Buonconte on the Mount)
It’s truth I speak—in heaven he’s released;

One tear saved him; how many years to count?
Some seven hundred; this one, half of that—
Still labouring for release, John Wilmot,

Lord Rochester: unbelief’s great poet.’
There, in a corner, edged to one side,
Rochester mouthed his ambivalent state:

‘Worst part of me and hated far and wide,
Through all the town a common fucking post
On whom each whore’s cunt can greasily slide …

And yet, did not your mother love you most;
Your wife pray to God with furious intent
To save your soul and bring you home at last?

These women, then, not whores in pleasures spent,
But dames who moved you nearer more to God,
Oblivious of sacrifice’s expense.’

He turned from murmuring his bits and bobs;
‘My life, my body, all was pissing matter;
Bladder broken, unfit to do its job,

Like my whole life, each word I came to utter…’
His voice trailed off, as dirty water does,
Till finally it weeps into a gutter.

So down, defeated, in his shabby clothes,
Not royal lord who stood before his king;
I felt such pity, how he’d come to loathe

Himself. But then, something so surprizing:
He asked me to read him a special passage.
‘For me,’ he said, his eyes alight, imploring.

His sudden brightness transformed his dark image,
As if a dead torch’s battery gave shine,
So through its light we saw a new message.

Then Dante handed me the Book divine.
I opened up the page of fifty-three
And read to him exactly every line:

‘Who will believe? Who knows His mystery?
From the dry ground—without that comeliness
Attending all desire, all works of beauty;

Inheriting not mankind’s more but less;
Despised, rejected, acquainted with grief—
His way—that way of cross—that’s bruised, oppressed,

Inconsequential as a falling leaf,
Sheep-dumb, and dumber sheep damned to the slaughter;
Who threatened no words, nor voiced no relief.

His life given for each lost son, dear daughter;
Oh! Such a One as He is, even dead—
No maggot on his corpse, master of matter;

Then hear the cry of one, destruction-bred,
Beside His cross, upon the cross his own,
“Remember me in your kingdom,” he said.

Today with me, in paradise your home,
You will be with Me.’ How Rochester sobbed
Unbearable to the point of his break-down:

All that he owed God and from God had robbed.
But now as his confession reached its low,
I saw the stirrings of his loathing stopped—

New grace, like some new galaxy formed, glowed—
His body lifted, and at its heart, his heart
Began to be a spirit Christ’s own showed.

Though dead as dead bones—yet through Him life starts:
In vast valleys those dead might live again
Whole, from those billion, billion, broken shards.

‘Master,’ I said, ‘Of lustings in lost veins;
Abashed I am to say I loved your works,
Inspired by filth that ought induce deep shame;

How cutting, though, your lines no horrors shirked,
Precise in all the vitriol and vile
Whose depths suggested some foundation lurked

Beyond, unlike accumulated evils
Depicted in your verse. Which leads you here:
God’s StairWell where we both find life and live.’

He smiled, the first time, as from ear to ear.
‘You go,’ he said, ‘disciple of strange sorts;
Excel me, do more: and as you draw near

To that high place from where I’m falling short,
Remember me to Him who was despised—
Through Him my brazen horns will be gold wrought;

There is a crown for those that He has raised;
Let all my works be dust, so this one thing:
Together, at the end, we be with Christ.’

He shuddered at those thoughts salvation brings:
The hope the whole creation’s yearning for—
At last to see His beauty, full and limning,

As holy haloes might existence’ store,
Visible or not. How glorious
That One whose presence leaves us wanting more,

Whose Being not only creates, sustains us,
And here with Rochester redeems—within
Him now I sensed the glory, dead the lust.

But Dante touched my arm. ‘Forget those sins,’
He said. ‘Your friend Wilmot will find his way;
Best not to brood what was amiss, let in

Stray thoughts that straggle and lead more astray.
Perhaps he’ll join us at Saint Luke’s—but we
Must get there before ending of your day.’

Reluctant to leave …



James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He has been nominated by The Hong Kong Review for the 2022 Pushcart Prize for poetry, has won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, and performed in New York in 2019. He is a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. His most recent poetry collection is “HellWard.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit https://englishcantos.home.blog

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55 Responses

  1. Michael Pietrack

    The bear rhymes are really good and work, may favorite being stars/shards. Creative. Sometimes perfect rhyme can be contrived and mechanical, and forcing it may halt a very long work such as your poems. Major kudos and a tip of the cap.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Michael – I really like the metaphor of ‘bear rhymes’. Yea, that works for me! And glad you like them too. There is a place for perfect rhymes – a big place – and a place not (eg that masterpiece by Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’; and a place too for the hybrid – in a poem of this length, and given it is English, then the hybrid is essential, not as a compromise, but as integral to the conveyance of emotional states that are not ‘smooth’.

  2. Roy E. Peterson

    Your continued sharing of Cantos is entrancing and mesmerizing with great lessons for life. Thank you for the marvelous display of truly classic poetry.

    • James Sale

      Deeply appreciate your comments Roy, especially that one word: ‘mesmerising’ – that is an aspiration of mine: poetry as a form of hypnosis! In my view the greatest short poem that is quite literally mesmerising is Coleridge’s Kubla Khan; it hypnotises me every time I read it or recite it to myself. So if I can do that for you, I know I am doing something right. Thanks again.

  3. Brian Yapko

    James, what a compelling, thought-provoking narrative this is. The poetry itself has so much that is memorable. You shock with your echoes of Rochester’s rather earthy Anglo-Saxon. But I was also struck by the artful phrasing of “lustings in lost veins,” the spiritual triumph in “I sensed the glory, dead the lust,” and most poetically – “New grace, like some new galaxy formed, glowed.”

    But then there is the question of Rochester himself – appropriately chosen for Purgatory rather than Hell given his deathbed repentance (many a controversial historic personage has delayed baptism till the last minute so that as many sins as possible could be washed clean!) I generally have found Rochester to be more flash than substance, a bad-boy rock star or a proto-Hollywood celebrity so taken with his own brilliance that he can’t be tamed – Jim Morrison, Johnny Depp and Shia LeBoeuf come to mind. Talent overshadowed by deep questions of character. I’m not sure how history treats such personalities. I personally greatly dislike Rochester and question to what degree the poetry world is stronger for his presence. It’s not his profanity that disturbs me so much as his sheer, unapologetic negligence. You, however, treat him with – unexpectedly – great compassion. Ultimately, that is probably the right choice. You do not whitewash, but you recognize redemption when you see it. That’s really something.

    • James Sale

      Dear Brian, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Rochester is not for everybody but he has been a poetic ‘mentor’ to me since I was at university some 50 years ago. There is in his expressive capabilities such powers as I think only Dryden matched in that Restoration period (speaking of the poetry only). For a long while I wrestled with trying to emulate that clipped, urgent and direct way of turning a line. Coming back to him now at this late stage is a homage – yes, his faults were massive, but he could write – by God he could write! And also, for the avoidance of doubt, he also had some other redemptive qualities: courage under fire for one. Truly, a complex and disturbed individual, but one for whom I truly think the mercy of God plucked from the fire.

  4. ABB

    Rochester is quite funny, really biting satire. Was reading some parts of ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind.’ While Mr. Yapko’s comments above are apt and incisive, I found myself liking the guy…guess that raises questions about my character.
    You are adept at switching between different moods and modes, from light to serious, vulgar to sublime. It makes for good reading, as unrelenting sublimity or satire can get a bit tedious. Even Milton descended below the elegant to the grotesque in his description of Sin in Book 2 of PL.
    Take that Burch guy who hates you (and everyone else). The stuff he writes is nice, but it is so relentlessly picturesque, never deviating from ‘niceness,’ that it’s all a bit one-note. How ironic that his character is the opposite of his poetry.

  5. James Sale

    Dear ABB – love that cowboy hat! And thanks for your comments. If you like ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind’ then you will love ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’ and ‘A Ramble in St James Park’, but be warned: both contain heavily offensive materials. That you mention Milton in connection with my piece is a joy: Milton is my favourite English poet and it was Professor Vivian de Sola Pinto who observed that just as Milton was the great poet of belief in the C17th, so Rochester was the great poet of unbelief. Your final sentence on ‘The Burch’ is indeed ironical: how God punishes those who do not do good. As it happens I could not include Burch in purgatory as he is clearly in hell, but too inconsequential for me to mention. But I can – in confidence to you – tell you that the first two poets in StairWell before we meet Rochester are very minor contemporary Americans who may be formalists but who have violated the Muse. The last poet in StairWell’s purgatory is well-known to all: TS Eliot, the Anglo-American – clearly, he cannot be in heaven having massacred so much verse. Thanks again.

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, how intriguing. From the moment you dealt with an evil British Prime Minister in ‘HellWard’, I became a firm fan! I find myself swept up in the Canto 10 extract of ‘StairWell’. Your portrayal and treatment of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, has me thinking… deeply. I believe the best poems have an honesty about them… woven into the craft is a little piece of the poet’s soul. That’s what makes the best writers good. The best fiction has glimmers of truth shining from the lines. A reader knows when the words deceive… no matter how adept the poet if the heart of the poet isn’t beating between the background, the poem falls flat. We may hate the subject matter. We may hate the message. We may choose not to indulge a particular brand of poetry. But we all know good writing when we read it. I believe such writers can’t help that little hint of the personal from winking at the reader. It’s what makes their voice unique and that’s the very ingredient that gives a poem its WOW factor. Good poems are more than just well-placed, well-chosen words… they breathe, and they can only do that if the poet has given of himself to his art.

    To have a sinful heart and speak with a silver tongue is far worse than having a sinful heart and speaking with a vile tongue… at least people know where they stand with the vile tongue… it’s that silver one that turns out to be a cruel disappointment. James, your words always make me think, and this extract has my brain working overtime… I’m enjoying it. Thank you! I’ve also enjoyed all the astute and thought-provoking observations in the comments section. The SCP is the place to be!

    • James Sale

      Dear Susan,
      You are a role model for us all here at SCP: unfailingly polite, always interested and interesting, highly creative and a fabulous poet, so thank you for your kind words. Strangely, because you are British, I think you can really get ‘into’ my political stuff whereas an American friend of mine found those the least interesting passages in the HellWard sequence! But being Brits we ‘get’ our politicians in the way Americans ‘get’ theirs; although of course you may be in that enviable position now of ‘getting’ both! Yes, I am glad too you get the personal nature of the exposition in that we mustn’t be muzzled by the past because it is controversial, unpleasant, or downright obscene – we need, where we are inspired, to let the Muse bring to life what was dead long ago. In my small way, I am allowing Rochester to live again – and if they are now abandoning the teaching of Shakespeare in UK universities (because it might offend!), what chance a look at Rochester? But a look – here and there – is exactly what an education is about. And regarding my comments, I have made several recently, but in particular the defence of you – re. the dreadful Burch – was a pleasure. I can truly say – having read over a dozen Burch poems (and then stopping lest I induce a coma in myself) that one poem by you is worth all his collected works! So carry on!

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        James, thank you so very much for your support, encouragement, and inspiration. It means a lot to me. The last couple of days have been tough, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t change a thing, and the welcome support from my SCP family has helped me immensely. I thoroughly appreciate this superb site and all the magnificent people on it.

        As far as British and American politics go, I have a strong feeling we’re not that far removed at present. The people of the Western World have no voice… it’s been hijacked by the WEF and all those they’re paying with our money to further their cause. It’s wicked and shameful. When I say we have no voice… there are whispers left, and I encourage everyone to turn their whispers into a bold bellow against all that’s bringing our values down.

        As far as poetry is concerned, how wonderful that a superbly written extract from “StairWell” has roused passions in fellow poets and got a conversation going on exactly what poetry means and how to approach it from an analytical viewpoint. This appears to be the only site where individual opinions are welcome. The beauty of this is many are able to read and learn, and to decide from the vast array of differing takes which one aligns with theirs.

        For what it’s worth, when it comes to talent (the pure wonder of the creative marvel that everyone recognizes and acknowledges but may not be to their personal taste) I believe there’s an inexplicable component – a gift that the recipient doesn’t always deserve in the eyes of others. Perhaps we shouldn’t question why but only acknowledge that it is so. I have always found critiquing poetry tough. I am very precise in my poems, yet reluctant to afford the same sort of precision where critiquing is involved. I shy away from in-depth analyses yet love the creative process. I have no interest in poets’ bios – I just let their words sing to me… the words hold the key for me, not the poet behind them. I know when a poem breathes, and by that, I mean that the poet has given himself to his art – not just his craft, but his heart – that it’s not merely technique. I also know when a poet employs craft and craft alone. I know when a poet has lined up the form and the end rhymes (with the desired input of enjambment) and just needs to fit the subject matter into the tight space of the perfect template… this type of poetry falls flat for me. I think there’s more to a poem than the craft… am I wrong?

        I am thoroughly intrigued by Brian’s observations and look forward to Dr. Salemi’s answer. I’m concerned that I never want to look beyond the poem itself. I was forced to when I studied Literature and didn’t relish it… I wonder why? See James, this is where your wondrous words have led us… and I am thoroughly enjoying the conversation we’re having. Thank you for all you do for fine poetry!

      • James Sale

        Dear Susan

        Thanks for your further comments; two points if I may. One, I fully understand your distress at the Burch attacks, for no right-minded person could not be distressed. I have had many bad reviews of my poetry in my lifetime, and that’s fine: not everyone is going to like my work for whatever reason. But the trouble with Burch is that a. it is so malign and personalised. One realises that this is one helluva deeply disturbed individual. And b. that this sort of rubbish that he spews is out there permanently: anyone at any point can find this sort of nonsense – as if it were true – about YOU and there is no redress short of extremism. That is troubling, and of course takes some coming to terms with. Our robust friend, Joe, has come to terms with it a long time ago, and like Tyson Fury is quite prepared to enter the ring and knock ’em out, but it is also extremely wearying!

        Second, I like your point about the civilised poetry discussions that this site makes possible: really talking about all aspects of poetry without becoming too polarised about it. That is a joy. Indeed, I am going to release to Evan the next sequence of this narrative (re. TS Eliot) since I think (if Evan likes it and wishes to publish) there are many who will find the scenario with the kingpin of modernism in my purgatory really interesting – who knows what will come of that? Anyway, thanks again. Keep up the great work!

  7. Margaret Coats

    James, your line most like one of Rochester’s own (most appropriately) is the one where you summarize how he sobbed:

    All that he owed God, and from God had robbed.

    This has his direct, urgent turn of phrase. And since the canto deals with talented poets, it serves as a general warning.
    What a difficult soul to save, but your logic of redemption is sound, especially in naming the co-redemptrix and suggesting the contributing roles of other women.

    I never found Rochester so “precise in all the vitriol” that I didn’t notice his disappointing flaws of concept and style (not including vulgarities among these). To give him his due for wisdom, though, take these clever lines addressing Nothing:

    Yet this of thee the wise may freely say,
    Thou from the virtuous tak’st nothing away,
    And to be part with thee the wicked wisely pray.

    Still, I find that Dryden belongs closer to Milton, and Rochester with a large group of capable 17th century poets, including Marvell, Lovelace, Carew, Crashaw, and Vaughan. Like Rochester, some of them have “wood, hay, and straw” to be consumed to dust (the word you have him say) before brazen horns are gold wrought.

    • James Sale

      Thank you Margaret for your comments; one needs to take all comments seriously, but you have a special authority in that you are one of the top classicists on these pages – and very little gets past you! And you probably know this, but in quoting from his Address to Nothing, you are following in the noble tradition of the greatest classicist of all that the English language has produced: namely, another hero of mine, Dr Johnson (as chalk is from cheese with Rochester). In his Lives of the Poets, he makes no mistake about his disdain for Rochester and certainly does not give him a high place on Mount Parnassus: but ‘Nothing’ is his favourite Rochester poem. So you are in excellent company!

      Yes, and though I am no Catholic, you are right to point out the co-redemptrix foreshadowing that is here, and will be more explicitly explored in ‘DoorWay’ (the third volume, Heaven, that I hope by the grace of God to live to write). My own ‘Beatrice’ is waiting in the wings and I want everyone to see her!

      Finally, I do like the fact that you have picked up that line about ‘from God had robbed.’ I am myself particularly pleased with it in terms of the kind of directness that Rochester himself practised. I can’t praise myself for writing it because a. praising oneself is a useless activity, and b. it’s a ‘Muse-thing’ anyway: I believe in direct, divine inspiration and follow it as a matter of course. But the syntax and the rhyming seem very simple – easy even – but as you will know, to reach that level of simplicity is very difficult. When a poet of your calibre ‘gets’ it, that is very gratifying. Thanks again.

  8. James A. Tweedie

    James, another fine effort and thank you for sharing with it with us en route to publication.

    Two comments, one a brief question, one more complicated.

    First, why do you use single quotation marks to set off spoken text? Is this a British thing? Over here we would us them only as a subset within the context of a longer quote set apart by double quotes (“). I also find the single quote mark (‘) to be harder to see and easier to miss than a double.

    My second comment concerns the section beginning with Stanza 7 through to the end of Stanza 9.

    While I am not offended or put off by the language used in Stanza 7, to me it seemed to be out of character (and thereby jarring) for a man who has repented of his past and is in the process of regenerative purgation; whose heart desires that

    . . . all my works be dust, so this one thing;
    Together, at the end, we be with Christ.

    Is there another way of saying this without reverting to the imagery that he has supposedly rejected and repented of having used in his pre-conversion past?

    And on a related issue, according to the opening quotation mark at the beginning of Stanza 7, Wilmot continues speaking through to the end of Stanza 9. Can this be right? There seems to be a sharp change of language and perspective between Stanza 7 and Stanza 8, as if Wilmot ends his monologue with a fadeaway with the ellipsis after the word, “slide” and that a different person (either Dante or Sale) offers a corrective to Wilmot beginning with the words, “And yet . . .” and ending with the word, “expense” at the end of Stanza 9. If this reading is correct, then there is a close quote missing at the end of Stanza 7 and an opening quotation mark at the beginning of Stanza 8.

    If I am wrong, however, and Wilmot is speaking through Stanza 9, then to whom does he address these words?

    And yet, did not your mother love you most;
    Your wife pray to God with furious intent
    To save your soul and bring you home at last?

    As always, all the best.

    • James Sale

      Dear James
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Regarding speech marks I plead mea culpa: like certain spellings which once I knew, but since the advanced advance of Americanisms into British vocabulary, I don’t! I sway from recognise to recognise, from gray to grey and back again, and one could not accuse me of consistency! The thing that makes it worse is that my international publishers such as Routledge don’t seem to correct me on it, so I just plough on: so long as the sense is clear.

      Which leads to your second point: is the sense clear? Well, Dante did anticipate Jung by 700 years in establishing the 3 levels: no self-awareness (hell); self-awareness and regret but no integration of the self (purgatory); self-awareness and even the sinful nature completely integrated into human/divine harmony. Now this is very compelling, but I am not following Dante in how he interprets this in Purgatory: what Dante does is make clear they acknowledge their mistake and are working it through. But I – in purgatory – am showing the mind still in a state of division and awaiting a further healing. So the speaker is Rochester in a Jekyll and Hyde kind of moment: reverting to his old self, but then (think perhaps of Gollum in Lord of the Rings) talking to himself about the positives: his mother and wife. So there is a three part movement: old life and filth; mother and wife’s redemptive prayers; and then the morbid reflection of his total failure ‘pissing matter’, but then the strange request in asking me to read him Isaiah 53 and the saving moment that it is for him. So no, I think the punctuation correct as it is except that I might have used the double inverted commas! I hope that makes sense and if it doesn’t please say so: one can always miss something that others plainly see – naturally, I want to get it right. Thanks for all this deep thought about it.

      • James A. Tweedie

        James, Your explanation, while not self-evident from my reading of the text, makes sense, although Wilmot’s sudden reflective speaking of himself (re his mother). in third person continues to be a bit of a stumble for me as a reader. The example of Gollum is helpful.

  9. themindflayer

    I echo ABB’s thoughts on Rochester than one cannot help but feel sympathy for him despite his “sins”!! Haha. But indeed I think that is the principle strength of this passage, and how James Sale best emulates Dante. I think if Dante’s masterpiece, or indeed James’ own, were merely a judgemental diatribe against sinner, it would make for uninteresting reading. What elevates the poem to the level of greatness is this sense of terrible tragedy and sympathy for the human condition – empathy and compassion, two divine traits! On a technical note, it is interesting as well that ABB’s prediction about the direction of the English Cantos has come true! The use of perfect rhyme is far more pronounced at this stage as we move closer and closer to Paradise, thus the form reflects the meaning and content of the poem. I have to say, some of the perfect rhymes are sublime: utter / gutter being perhaps my favourite (that whole stanza is exquisite). I cannot wait to experience vol. ii in its entirety!

  10. James Sale

    Yes, James: it is abrupt and it is extreme, but I feel myself that that was how Rochester was, and that just as the dramatic switch from libertine to Christian at the end of his life was something contemporaries could barely believe, so too here the extremity of thought from one position to another. As for Gollum, I sort of saw Rochester like that poor creature: completely conflicted. But here, as Isaiah 53 calms him, and he gives me his benediction, knowing that he is going to the right place eventually, for we have established on the authority of Dante that Buonconte is now actually in heaven. Heck, I might have to have a scene where I meet him there!!!

  11. James Sale

    Dear Mindflayer – thank you. Yes, I agree with you on the compassion and empathy, and I think the Paolo and Francesca scene in Inferno 5 where Dante, the pilgrim, faints with the pathos of what he sees. Though, of course, to do so is to question the goodness of God – as if we could be more sympathetic, more loving than God himself. It’s a troublesome question throughout the poem. But you are right – we have to react as we feel it ourselves and with Rochester I do feel it.

    And – ha ha ha – that pesky ABB and his prescient awareness of future rhyme schemes; I remember him saying it. It is an issue in writing a poem such as this and I have not yet decided how I am going to attempt to technically solve the problem: if one is in heaven, wouldn’t all the rhymes be perfect? What would Dante say? Well, perhaps one clue is that he only rhymed Christ with … Christ! In heaven, then, does everything rhyme with Christ? In fact, is Christ the only line ending rhyme word? No, that cannot be. I shall mull on this for a long time, so thanks for reminding me of it.

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    James, this is an amazingly moving bit of text, and shows that “StairWell” will be a powerful achievement. In reply to some of the criticism made here of the Earl of Rochester, I’d like to address myself in general.

    First, Rochester was young, and had all of the expected hormonal pressures of youth. Second, his literary talents are more than just obvious to careful readers — they are coruscatingly brilliant. Third, any writer’s moral character is his own business, and should never be brought into a critical discussion of his verbal artifacts. By this last point I do nor mean to suggest that you are wrong to deal with his punishment in Purgatory or his sexually wild life, or the narrative of his deathbed conversion — on the contrary, the structure and theme of your poem require it, and you do it quite well. More power to you.

    However, a fourth point should be added, relating to the present-day context in which works of literature are being judged, critiqued, and in many cases condemned. Rochester’s subject matter may be inappropriate for schoolkids, but that doesn’t mean his poems aren’t excellent work, or that they should be bowdlerized or squirreled away in places where even adults might have difficulty finding them. Why do so many conservative readers shy away from his unbuttoned sexuality? Rochester is just as much a part of our great literary canon as Shakespeare. Are we supposed to read only “nice” stuff?

    Tight-assed Puritanism is alive and well these days, in the new secular religion called political correctness. Byron can’t be taught in college classrooms, and an unabashed sensualist like Rochester would be deemed utterly toxic by the left-wing scum and feminist bitches who now rule in curricular matters.

    It’s not you, James. It’s some of the comments here that indulge in a kind of moralistic tsk-tsking about Rochester’s subject matter and raw vocabulary. Why do they do this? Poets are not answerable, ethically, for their subject matter or their diction. They are only answerable to criticism of their aesthetic skills or faults. Rochester wrote about sex in a wild, unfettered, and celebratory manner. What was he supposed to do? Write pretty little Hallmark-Card verses about the joys of true love and suburban marriage?

    Men have always wanted (and still want) hard liquor, tobacco, gambling, rich foods, and loose women. This is a simple fact of human life, and no moralizing prigs are going to change it. Let’s face the fact that out enemies on the left are the new Puritans — notice that they are reflexively against all of the five things I have mentioned above. (They haven’t attacked hard liquor lately, but that’s because everyone still has bad memories of the nightmare of Prohibition.)

    We should all remember — the one great strength that we on the right have is that we are transgressive, shocking, and happy to insult and mock the left’s shibboleths. Celebrating someone like Rochester is ammunition in that battle.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Joe for your support for my poem – given you are such a brilliant classicist and fine poet, your praise means a lot. There are three types of poetry that I especially love: the brilliantly lyrical – Shakespeare’s sonnets a good example; the sublime epic – Milton et al; and of course the gutsy, coarse and vulgar (but with style): Rochester and as you note, Byron. You will remember how in my review of your own poetry I compared you to 3 poets: Byron being central. And of course he is like Rochester; they are of a sort of piece. Alongside you, the other great ‘Byronist’ on our site is Andrew Benson Brown whose Legends of Liberty is a masterpiece in the byronic style. Perhaps now that I have drawn attention to Rochester others might take a look at him too. The best edition of his work I have come across is that by Professor David Vieth. Transgressiveness in the sense you mean it, I am totally for.

    • Brian Yapko

      Joseph, whether or not this comment is directed at me or not, I appreciate this comment more than you might realize. It has made me do some hard thinking. You have described something of a poetic-critical covenant in which the critic is encouraged to leave questions of character (presumably any aspect of biography) outside of the analysis. At least insofar as it is irrelevant to the poem’s subject matter. I agree to that and, for myself, will be mindful of that in future comments in general. I will also take that to mean that my own personal life is irrelevant to how anything I write is to be received. Your argument is convincing and that does indeed seem like the right thing to do. That being the case, I’m forced to revisit and recant some of my own thinking here. I admire James’ poem. I actually admire Rochester, too, who I think is, as you put it, coruscatingly brilliant. Brilliance for me was never the issue.

      I’ve reconsidered my views, and I was wrong to say that Rochester’s talent was overshadowed by deep questions of character. In fact, I was the one who was careless. Although the subject of his character is very much at issue given the subject matter of James’ poem. I went beyond that needlessly into a personal dig that was irrelevant — although I find it difficult to not to say “what a waste” when a brilliant poet dies at the age of 33 for no good reason.

      All this being said, you assume the dislike of some critics (I suspect myself included) to be based on moralizing and priggery but I can assure that – at least in my case and upon reconsideration, this isn’t really what bothers me. Chaucer used words just as sexual. Byron was a sexual rogue and Shelley was an adulterer, Coleridge was a drug addict and Pound committed treason. Somehow, I have no problems with any of them. And as for “negligence,” Mozart, my favorite composer, was deeply negligent in his lifestyle. So it’s not that either. But something about Rochester rubs me the wrong way – you think it is purely his lusty descriptions of sex but, in all candor, I’ve personally both read and written things that would probably make both you and him blush. I think when all is said and done it may be a question or exhibitionism, which I find uncongenial. Yes, Rochester’s a brilliant writer. Transgressive? Yawn. You’ve written transgressive poetry and I’ve generally enjoyed and admired it without being shocked by it. I’ve written plenty that you would find disturbing and there isn’t a word that Rochester uses that I haven’t. But I can’t get past the feeling that Rochester writes shocking things because he wants to shock people, not because it’s organic to the piece. That’s what I meant by his “bad boy” character. I suppose this is purely subjective. I generally don’t care for that in music or fine art either. It certainly has nothing to do with politics or cancelling those we don’t like. It has everything to do with the fact that taste is an inherently subjective thing. As for enjoying Rochester’s – or anyone’s work – I don’t feel that I am obliged to like something just because it’s brilliant. But I will give it respect. I respect his work and I respect your views very much. You have indeed made me reconsider my views and what are legitimate criteria for judging the works of others. For that I thank you.

      • James Sale

        Hi Brian – thanks for this. I certainly think it is important not to like things just because others do or pressurise us so to do. It’s the classic recipe for the emperor’s new clothes or what in management-speak we call ‘group-think’ and what in the gaming world is ‘hive-mind’. I think we can all agree, especially Joe!, that we don’t like it and freedom means not being constrained by it. As we seem increasingly to live in a world in which the social diktats top personal ones (a curious reversal of the trend since the Enlightenment), it is more important than ever to be able to read and to like any poet we want. Let’s be clear about it: by and large the philosophers of the world have spawned the political tyrannies we suffer from, but the poets, largely, have imagined other possibilities! Which is why Plato was less than happy with poets!

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        To Brian and to James —

        Believe me, I was not aiming at anyone in particular. As I said, my comments were meant to be general. We all have our idiosyncratic and particular tastes in poetry, and we have a right to them.

        Anybody can be turned off by some of Rochester’s language, and perhaps Brian is correct — Rochester may have written much of his stuff as a way to show off and to “epater le bourgeois.” We’d expect that sort of thing from a young guy.

        The real thrust of my argument (and I was careful to keep this muted) was against readers of poetry who insist that their religious commitments and beliefs be the primary criteria for judging a literary work. THIS is what I consider the actual problem, not anybody’s personal reactions to Rochester. I tried to connect this problem (which many religious conservatives have) with the parallel phenomenon in political correctness, which insists on judging literature by “ethical” (i.e. woke, liberal, or leftist) standards.

        My own personal view is this: I don’t accept that literature is the handmaiden to anything else — not ethics, not dogma, not philosophical theory, not political goals, not social etiquette, not education, and not public consensus.

        Brian and James, I deeply respect both of your viewpoints. Your comments here at the SCP threads have always been of the highest intellectual caliber.

      • Brian Yapko

        Joseph, thank you very much for your generous comment. Thank you, James as well. I appreciate that this is not just a site for poetry appreciation but for education as well. I have learned much here — and I have much to learn.

  13. David Watt

    James, I applaud you for maintaining a lengthy narrative, as displayed in this extract, that fluently displays human fallibility and the gift of redemption. A lasting impression for me in reading this extract is a strong sense of Wilmot’s weaknesses and fears.

    • James Sale

      Hi David – thanks so much; it delights me what you have taken away from the poem: that sense of his character and his vulnerabilities. That is what I wanted to convey – for him to come alive in a meaningful way. The poem goes on my friend: may the God of all grace, all glory and all creative inspiration allow me to reach heaven and write about it!

  14. ABB

    ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’: ohhhhhh where to begin with this?

    Her nimble tongue, love’s lesser lightning, played
    Within my mouth, and to my thoughts conveyed
    Swift orders that I should prepare to throw
    The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.

    Loving it. I foresee this Rochester fellow being a rather bad influence on me.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Check out his poem “A Ramble in Saint James’s Park.” As late as the 1960s it was illegal to print it in the U.K.

      • ABB

        “…Had she pickt out, to rub her Arse on
        Some stiff prickt Clown or well hung Parson…”

        Black gold.

    • James Sale

      Oh dear! I fear I have led the young, tender, impressionable Andrew Benson Brown astray. Stop what you are doing Andrew: Longfellow – he is the answer – read him. If you are in England, Tennyson’s a good substitute, though avoid The Lady of Shallot. I am trying to help you: don’t you see?

      • ABB

        Love both of those poets, of course. Actually having a Longfellow article appearing in the next issue of American Essence this month, will send it to you when it gets reposted on the ET website.
        But sometimes one needs a bit of spice. Don’t worry, James, you have helped me more than you know…

      • BDW

        Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is a lyrical masterpiece of British literature.

  15. Anthony Watts

    It’s good to see James still unwinding his impressive chain of tercets with their linking rhymes, half-rhymes, consonant rhymes.

    Deathbed conversions are commonly thought to be motivated by fear (What if hell is real after all?!) That is a simplistic and, I suggest, rarely true rationalization of what James describes here – Rochester’s spiritual awakening. “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”

    • James Sale

      Thanks Anthony and I am glad you find the ‘chain’ impressive; as a true poet yourself, you will perfectly understand the difficulty in generating a structure such as this. And as for your fool persisting proverb, you are so right: one unpromising vein mined deep enough can lead to riches or wisdom!

  16. Leland James

    Mr. Sale:, catching up, I feel, in context of the BDW comment and particularly your response, I must comment again. You have been, in addition to me, been, by multiple readers, informed of their profound effect of and respect for Eliot. Ear and content. This challenges your, literally, making fun of Eliot by conflating him with his character Prufrock. Now, I think your last response is below you, for I think you are an honest, if erring, poet and thinker. Your planted axiom that youth is the reason some of us respect Eliot is unworthy. You, having become older and wiser, no longer hear Eliot? So, the rest of us are just children? Don’t think so. More broadly, this is the slippery slope of conservatism, of which I count myself, gone astray; formulas, adages, inflexibility, powdered wigs, coats and ties…. Not, understanding the heart of conservatism or the ear and soul of poetry which will not bow to the hidebound, false on either side of the free-verse/classical divide. Readers might want to see on the SCP site, my essay, “Contemporary Poetry from Vers Libre,” Leland James. In response to StairWell Canto 10 Extract by James Sale: glad for all thosewho care, agreeing with me or not, and glad for the editorial open debate.

    • James Sale

      Dear Mr James

      Thank you for re-entering this fray and for your contributions, but I do feel that you have strongly misrepresented my position (through false inference) and misunderstood poetry generally!

      Regarding the former fault: I am certainly not saying that the rest of us are ‘children’ because they continue liking Eliot with the intensity of their youth; I am simply saying that I do not so highly regard him as I once did. That seems to me a perfectly sensible position: I was a teenager in the 60s and thought the Beatles a great group but I consider them less great now. We all of us mature and this changes our view of things; it is entirely feasible for another not to like Eliot when they were young, but now to discover him in their more mature years. So, I resent your inference and judgement of what I didn’t say!

      But more importantly is your failure to understand what poetry is. You seem to want me to place Prufrock in Purgatory, but not Eliot. For a start, I have made it clear why Eliot can be identified with Prufrock and Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Eliot makes it really clear how deeply treacherous Eliot was with various women. But the thing is, this is a poem – an epic poem – a fiction: you seem to be treating it as if it were a biography or a critical treatise. How absurd is that? For goodness sake, please read the poem and stop ‘angsting’ about your hero – you are beginning to sound like a star-struck teenager yourself.

      Funnily enough, you have indirectly paid me the biggest compliment of all, for the greatest single comment on Dante in the C20th was made by Professor Charles Singleton: ‘the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not a fiction’. You are paying me the same tribute, imagining that this is real! Of course, I’d like you to believe it is, but it is not. This is fiction, Mr James – pure fiction!

      And because it is: I can imagine what I want – if you don’t like it, tough! I can put who I want where I want – and if you don’t like it, tough! That’s poetry for you. And finally on this point: you know, like Dante, I am populating my imaginary world with real people (the only exceptions being, like Dante, mythological and Biblical characters who – to me and to him – are real) and that it would be ridiculous and bathetic to attempt to place fictional characters – like Prufrock – in this narrative. Indeed, if I did that, then why not Gandalf and Rob Roy and Scrooge and etc etc. How preposterous would that all be?

      So please, put aside your love for Eliot and read the poem as a poem: it has content you don’t like? Many poems have content we don’t like, but the poetry can still speak to us. I am not a great fan of Wordsworth; in fact find him an insufferable bore on many occasions; but that said, there are poems by him which truly speak to the soul. I don’t have to hold against him the ‘egotistical sublime’ in every poem I read by him. Try not to hold my opinions of Eliot against me in reading the poem – look for form, for beauty, for inspiration, the kind of the thing that other commentators on the poem have mentioned. Best wishes.

  17. James Sale

    PS Mr James, you seem to have posted this on the part 1 of the Canto, not part 2, and I have followed you, so it may not make complete sense in this alien context!

  18. Leland James

    Mr. Sale: Beyond your argument: I’ve already said agree to disagree. My last point was to alert you to the many who experience Eliot outside, what appears to me, to be your ideology of poetry. You said of me: “But more importantly is your failure to understand what poetry is….” There is a world that disagrees with you. My poetry has been published, over three hundred poems, in seventeen countries, four collections. Numerous international prizes. Who are you to say I don’t understand poetry. Perhaps, but I am not Billy Collins. I often write in strict meter and rhyme—see SCPs—as well as informal verse. And, I wonder: my original criticism of your poem has been deleted from the chain. Hmmm? Hope this is some sort of, really quite unexplainable glitch (why just me) or maybe I’m being canceled. If so the cancelers must look at themselves in the mirror.

      • Leland James

        Sorry, Sale did not say “genteelly,” he regarding my criticism which has been deleted, “gentlemanly.” The miswords a computer switch before I caught. Signing off–let SCP sort this out. Or, you may be the last to read this–I really don’t know. Curious, I’m the only input to a thread that disappears?

    • James Sale

      What are you talking about, Mr James? Nobody has deleted your comments – there are here, just read them! And as for your not understanding poetry, quite clearly – on this showing you don’t: instead of attempting to reply to my comments on the fictional nature of poetry, you do what? Start citing how many collections you have had out, how many prizes, all me-me statements, but nothing that answers my points; just as, incidentally, there is nothing you have said about Canto 10 – the ostensible reason you are on this posting. You are quite a disappointment because you have nothing intelligent to say, except banging on about how I should be treating and respecting TS Eliot. Once again: this is fiction, Mr James. Try and understand that – please try and reply to my point instead of insisting on how important you are.

      • Leland James

        Not there not! My original comment has been deleted. Anyone who has followed the thread will know my original comment has been deleted. Period. Are we in to double-think?

  19. Leland James

    As to my poetic disagreement with Mr. Sale, this has been hashed out. People can draw their own conclusions. I’m done with that, readers can decide. However, a blatant, at least as I sign in to SCPs claim that something is true that is demonstrably false–find my original, one of the first criticism of Sale’s poems. It is, for any who have followed the chain not there. Reminder of something, those who care about poetry?

    • Mike Bryant

      Mr. James,
      I’m Mike the moderator. Please give me a bit of time to sort this out. I have accidentally deleted comments in the past. I also thought the issue was completely settled. Thanks, Mike

      • James Sale

        Thanks Mike – I appreciate what you are doing. I really don’t know what Mr James is going on about – the prose seems increasingly incoherent: ‘a blatant’ what, exactly? Blatant is adjectival and needs a noun. I think what has happened is that Mr James has posted his comments for Canto 10 part 2 on Canto 10 part 1, so that they don’t make much sense in that context. Just for ease of follow-through, I have responded where the comments occur. I shall be pleasantly surprised if anything he has said addresses the points I have made; but then I guess, we shall see!

      • Mike Bryant

        Thanks, James. The funny thing is, as moderator I see all the comments in the order they were made so I didn’t even realize there was a problem. It took me a while to figure out what had happened, too.
        All’s well that ends well.

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