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

by Joseph S. Salemi

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 loathed—and scrupulously ignored—by 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 poems—though 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:

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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.

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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:

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Crusht by that just contempt his Follys bring
On his craz’d Head, the Vermin fain wou’d sting,
But 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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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There’s a rough-hewn directness here that is missing from most earlier sixteenth-century love poetry. Rochester is saying “Damn it, woman—sleep 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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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 obscene—unless 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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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“Chancres” refers to syphilis, and “Weepings” to gonorrhea. “Stranguaries” are stoppages in the flow of urine, and “Stone” refers to kidney stones—all 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 religious—the 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 diversity—and 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 world—an 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 is—today, right now—a revolutionary and salutary act. Don’t let any lying left-liberal tell you otherwise.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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24 Responses

  1. Shaun C. Duncan

    Thank you for this tribute to one of my poetic heroes – and one, like so many others, that I discovered through your writings. In my opinion Wilmot is the only English language poet who comes close to the pungent quality of ancient masters like Juvenal and Martial. My personal favourite is “Señor Dildo.”

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Rochester was well read, so I’m sure he was familiar with Martial, Catullus, Juvenal, and Horace (who was also no slouch when it came to direct sexual statement). I’m glad I made you a fan of the Earl.

      Reply
  2. Brian Yapko

    I have to say, Joseph, even though this poet is not my particular cup of tea, I have come to respect his work. Candidly, the comments we exchanged on James Sale’s recent poem made me go back and look at a number of his poems. Your adjective “savage” is apt, but I also now find his poetry to be unusually concentrated, articulate, confident, bold and in-your-face entertaining. Rarely has there been a less dull poet. Your new essay now provides hugely important context for his writing. When I think of the Restoration I easily forget how destructive and repressive the Commonwealth years were. It does seem only natural that people of energy and wit would need to bust loose with a vengeance once the monarchy was restored. I’ll admit something else – much of my initial distaste for Rochester was a knee-jerk reaction to his coarseness and his bad-boy reputation. I understand clearly that his personal life and choices are irrelevant to what makes his poetry good, and I also understand that his sexual subject matter and earthy language may make him a bit jaw-dropping at times, but I think he achieves what he sets out to do – blow away hypocrisy and pretensions. Many modern poets try to do just that but without his skill, wit or breezy indifference to what others think. I made the mistake of thinking that his work was performance art. I stand corrected. It is, in truth, fine, compelling poetry. Rochester is a fascinating character and quite clearly a brilliant – and brave – poet. Good essay which explains this interesting poet and encourages that second look.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for appreciative words, Brian. Yes, Rochester is “unusually concentrated, articulate, confident, and bold,” and what strikes me is that this is not often true for someone so young. His achievement is impressive not only for its intrinsic quality, but because most of it was composed while he was still in his twenties!

      Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    A marvelous, insightful, witty and cogent essay on an intriguingly iconoclastic poet.

    The subject reminds me of Gustav Courbet’s infamous painting, “L’Origine du Monde” (a close-up detail of female genitalia) which, although painted in 1866 was not publicly displayed until 1988 and which has been on-view at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris since 1995). Excellence in art applied to socially marginalized (ie. deemed pornographic/”degenerative”) themes challenges culture and, for better or for worse, has the power to transform it.

    Just as Rochester’s in-your-face ribaldry in both life and art has long been subject to censorship so also were Courbet’s more sophisticated scandals of “L’Origine du Monde” and “Le Sommiel” (also 1866) hidden away to gather dust in private collections for over 100 years. (Manet triggered a similar, although less lasting establishment rejection of his “Dejeunere sur L’Herbe–which also is on display in the D’Orsay).

    The existence of such paintings (and there are countless other examples which could be cited) and Rochester’s poetry challenge the genteel image of poetry (and art in general) as necessarily being somehow “rapturous” in some romanticized sort of way. Do such “outliers” represent moral degeneration or are they to be celebrated as breathing fresh air into socially-imposed cultural suffocation?

    I am not aware that the Rennaissance’s revolutionary rediscovery of the nude figure in art (see Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and “Primavera” as two of the first of this kind) generated a censorious response from the Papacy (which was somewhat morally compromised at that point in any case), the contemporary glitteratti, or from the public in general.

    I’ve always been of the mind to keep my personal tastes separate from my holding a more libertarian approach to their place in society.

    It is not necessary for me to admire or celebrate Rochester while acknowledging his intermittent poetic brilliance.

    It is, in fact, impossible to force the human (creative) spirit into a box, for it will always find a way to push its way over the walls and find a way to color outside the lines.

    Thank you, Dr. Salemi, for so engagingly putting a spotlight on albeit a minor player on the greater stage of poetry and art.

    Closing Note: As recently as 2011 Facebook banned the posting of the image of Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde,” a policy finally rescinded as the result of a successful lawsuit settled in 2018. It is also worth mentioning that the painting appears on the second most popular postcard purchased from the D’Orsay gift shop).

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Mr. Tweedie, for your fascinating comments. I had not known about Courbet or his controversial paintings until you mentioned them, and I will be sure to look them up. It’s staggering to think that a painting from 1866 was not publicly shown until 1988, and that it was still a source of trouble at Facebook in 2011. But then again, as late as the beginning of this century a reading of Aretino’s sexual poetry was cancelled at a major art venue in London.

      There was some fuss about Michelangelo’s nude figures in the Sistine chapel from moralistic types, and I believe a later Pope wanted to have them retouched with fig-leaf foliage or some such absurdity. Saner heads prevailed, thank God.

      Reply
  4. Sally Cook

    Joe, I don’t suppose you expected to hear from a woman living in this century, or any other, for that matter, but here I am, just to say that many of the things Wilmot rails against are things that keep me from having many woman friends. I have known for years that men have a code, but women in general are jungle fighters.

    Of course I have friends who are women, and hope those on this site will join in. Unfortunately, however, be aware, ladies, you are in danger of being “cancelled” by the latest version of Puritanical behavior.
    Personally, I don’t care. I choose my female friends using my mother as a yardstick and the good news is – I find them –honest, truthful, to the point and incapable of cruelty.

    I like strong men; but as some say, less is more.
    And thats enough for me. Both Feminism and Gender-bending make me puke!

    Thanks for your support of John Wilmot. Seems ridiculous, when you think about it, that we are still fighting the same old battles over words all of us put to daily use. C’mon, you all know you do — only the labels today have changed.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, you always manage to hit the nail right on the head. And when you say “men have a code, but women are jungle fighters,” I immediately think of Kipling’s famous line: “The female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

      Sure, I’d love to hear comments from women about Rochester. And I think women are just as sick of cancel-culture as men are. When I listen to the tough-talking women on “Gutfeld” every night, I realize that there are plenty of ladies who are just as ribald and rollicking as John Wilmot was.

      And yes — we are fighting all the old battles over censorship today. The enemies now aren’t Comstockian prudes or evangelical ministers, but the preachy gender-feminist academics and anti-male harridans that we call “Bambi-Nazis” here in Noo Yawk.

      Reply
  5. ABB

    Lovely lovely lovely.
    I must admit that after reading J Sale’s chapter of his epic and then your comments on it, I have been a naughty boy and wrote a couple of raunchy poems. When shopping around for publishing venues I did find one journal that specialized in formal poetry of this sort, but it is now defunct.

    I initially thought a more liberal-oriented journal might be willing to go for them, but was surprised to discover what you conclude —all of the zines and journals I found that say they are open to receiving erotic poetry submissions (and there are quite a lot) are against formalist heterosexual erotica. Partly this has to do with the general ‘free verse imperative,’ but the real reason is that all of these publications focus on queer, genderbending, and intersectional erotica that “breaks boundaries.” For some reason it is perfectly acceptable to write about gay sex with all kinds of graphic descriptions, but not sex from a “cisgender” perspective. A recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” is a standard case in point.

    More weirdly, even certain types of descriptions of lesbianism are considered offensive (at least when written by a man) because it is obsessed with the “male gaze” and, being directed towards male titillation, reinscribes the established “patriarchal order.”

    It is the most absurd thing on earth that in the times we are living in—a hedonistic society that makes the Greeks and Romans look squeamish by comparison—there are no outlets for good old-fashioned literary hetero-filth.

    Any suggestions, good doctor?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Andrew, your perceptions are right on target, in my opinion. It is normal “cis-gender” sex (i.e. heterosexuality) that is now taboo and illicit. Depicting it in art or poetry will get you in trouble, and certainly anything celebrating its joys will cause a firestorm of abuse and condemnation. Rage at the “male gaze” has become a standard feminist excuse for attacking anything that shows female beauty — as if it isn’t perfectly normal and healthy for men to look at the female figure and adore it.

      My suggestions? Ignore completely any complaints or whining from our enemies, and do exactly whatever the hell you think best in your aesthetic endeavors. And if you want to write any really great formally excellent raunchy poems, send them to me at TRINACRIA. I like to intersperse them among the pious pieces.

      Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Wow, what a surprise, that every kind of sex is acceptable in erotica except the straight kind! I’m old enough to remember when everything in movies, ads, etc. was about sex of the straight kind… now even that is getting cancelled. I hate to think what’s going to cancel the current crop of graphic gay etc. sex…

      Just when I think I’ve seen everything, the modern world tops itself yet again.

      Reply
  6. Stuart Jay Silverman

    For a similarly appreciative, but less objectionably tendentious, view of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and his poetry, you might look into Columbia University’s library. You will be looking for Poetry of Flowers, my master’s thesis back somewhere towards the end of the 1950s. If you find it, you should look up “flowers,” a Restoration obscenity which more-or-less symbolizes Rochester’s poetry. Let me add that I’m a great fan of the poetry, especially The Maim’d Debauchee and Upon Nothing. Also, don’t assume that everything printed as Rochester’s is correctly so identified. z

    Oh, and my fourth book of poetry, PORTALS, is at the printer and should be available towards the end of November.

    Reply
  7. Damian Robin

    Thank you Dr S for your detailed appraisal of Rochester’s dexterous poetic skills aimed, I think, at balance and unabashed by its down and dirty content.

    And some fine, wide views in comments. And some I still need to read.

    I see serious observation and great playfulness in Wilmot’s words, often throwing a curved ball (while keeping the other in his trousers if that were possible and not painful) at hypocrisy and over-teacup-genteelness.

    He was a reporter in verse, a journalist, telling it as it was, observing, being truthful (no holes (sic) barred). But too sensitive to be the heavy guts type of social exposer who would publish widely. He did not seem interested in fame of a public, literary type. He may have sought renown as an alternative to validation or acknowledgement on a personal level.

    His poems were mostly about the aristocracy’s sexual exploits. He was not writing of a milkmaid and her lad, or erotic idylls in imaginary sassy vales, it was in the parks of London at night or off rooms in court or drinking houses or lordly or town houses, or in the shadier, unseen parts of the gentry’s gardens. A bit like I’ve heard of goings-on on Hampstead Heath (a large public green area in London) a while ago with the big-rich and the lowly in various gender combinations banging into each other in the dark.

    These were not fantasies to sexually rouse or get men or women to masturbate, they were real CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE SHARED KIND that he documented with wit, clarity, and some wisdom.

    Some of his work has a pushy, in-your-face, or cock-a-snoot attitude. This would be a concomitant of his subject matter not having a category or genre fitting to its seemingly opposing feelings. It is both sensitive and bawdy, subtle and rough. It is both delicate and overwhelming. As social indiscreet-ness was/is not so usually talked about in mixed company, it was and is shoved into the let’s-not-have-that-in-the-drawing-room box. When it is occasionally borough out (because quality and reputation do not die) people are over-sensitive for they are again being shown something their learned categorization cannot cope with.

    I see similarities in Donne and Marvell’s poems to women or from the sex bed. They are prepared to talk directly of sexual contact though they place it in a wider, more abstract physicality of Time or global travel. Rochester is sensitively immersed in the senses of himself and the woman (or boy) he is with. They are fundamentally intellectual, he is sensual. They are often seeking a grand rhetorical argument or truth. He is compassionate, accepting — of falling into sex as well as failing at it.


    With the new King Charles in the UK, Charles III, there is likely to be interest in John Wilmot’s time, touching on Charles I, as well as the Republican time, and the Restoration of Charles II. It will be interesting to see how Wilmot’s poems feature in that interest and if there are any new views and how his reputation pans out.

    Reply
  8. Damian Robin

    Wow – thank you Mr Bryant – a spirit, swift, invisible, a changer of words to make them more deliverable – thanks for the quick correction :^)

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      About Rochester’s lack of interest in printed publication — this was fairly common among aristocrats of the time. Print (as opposed to manuscript) was still considered somewhat unbecoming and “common”, and an aristocrat had little concern in developing a popular audience. This was also true of some of the earlier aristocratic writers of the English renaissance, like Surrey.

      This attitude comes right out of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, where it is emphasized that a top-notch member of the court should be skilled in many arts and accomplishments, but should never show off in a way that indicates a desire for attention or popularity. So one would write good poetry, but only show it to an appreciative group of one’s social peers.

      As to Rochester’s motivations, I think a lot can be attributed to his youth, and the impetuous, devil-may-care attitude that frequently marks young men just out of adolescence.

      As a side note: I’m glad we have another King Charles. I was afraid that the name “Charles” had fallen under some kind of interdiction or taboo as a royal name, which has happened with “Richard” and “Henry.”

      Reply
  9. Joshua C. Frank

    I’m afraid I don’t understand this kind of poetry. It seems to me that poetry should move us to virtue, not glorify vice or show every detail. I know Scripture and the classics depict sin, but they mostly say that sin has happened and then go on to detail the bad consequences. For example, in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the protagonist (a priest) has conceived a child out of wedlock; since he naturally loves his daughter more than life itself, he can’t bring himself to repent of having brought her into existence. Sin is not shown, only its consequences. We’re supposed to conclude that man’s heart is not made to withstand sin. But with Mr. Rochester’s work, I’m not quite sure what his point is. To glorify impurity? To laugh at people who are disgusted by it? Again, I don’t really understand it.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      You’re making the assumption that all poetry has to have “a point.” The only thing that poetry has to have is verbal excellence, excitement, and panache.

      And when you say that a work of fictive mimesis is “supposed to make us conclude” something, you are subordinating verbal excellence, excitement, and panache to an ideological (or religious) end.

      There are so many different and conflicting ideologies and religions in the world that you would be logically compelled to say that only those works of art that support your viewpoints and conclusions should be recognized as good poetry. That is an extremely narrow way of approaching art.

      Reply
  10. David Watt

    Your entertaining and instructive essay has given me a greater appreciation of Wilmot’s unashamedly honest poetry. I also take note of his syntactic skills.

    Reply
  11. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, I have been intrigued by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ever since he was mentioned in the comments section of my ‘Aspects of Love’ poems, and this vibrant, informative, and thoroughly engaging essay has given me a greater understanding of the poet and his colorful poetry. Historical context plays a huge part in the arts. I believe, if one has endured oppression, newfound freedom brings with it a wave of excess that extends to language. The ribald, ripe, and juicy flow of words from Wilmot may well have had a swathe of sniggering readers celebrating a devilish poetic decadence that tapped into the mood of the moment. There’s no doubting the poet’s talent… as for the subject matter, understanding why has given me a greater appreciation for his words… not that I would recite all of them over afternoon tea!

    I would also like to say, this beautifully written essay has swept me up in a swirl of literary gems that inspire and delight me… enough to encourage me to want to write an essay of my own. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      My deepest thanks for your appreciative words, Susan. Rochester’s bad reputation has prevented countless readers from approaching him; I wanted to show what a solid poet he was, and to explain the Restoration context in which he wrote.

      His influence and example stretched far into the eighteenth century — it’s very likely that the infamous “Hellfire Club” founded in 1750 by Sir Francis Dashwood (the Earl of Rosse) was inspired by Rochester’s libidinous and bibulous life. That club started in London, but soon moved to a ruined Cistercian Abbey near West Wycombe, where it became the scene for wild drinking and orgies.

      The motto of the Hellfire Club was this: PENI TENTO, NON PENITENTI. The Latin word-play is a bit shaky, but it basically means this: “With a stiff prick, not with penitence.” Rochester would have loved it.

      Reply
  12. C.B. Anderson

    The first time I read Wilmot’s “The Disabled Debauchee” I nearly fell out of my chair.

    Reply

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