Sunday, April 05, 2009

What to do about Rochester

Lord Rochester’s verse poses a problem of a different magnitude from Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Instead of the occasional blemish, or what Mark Athitakis points out is a bizarre obsession with how women smell, there is top-to-bottom misogyny:

Love a woman? You’re an ass.
’Tis a most insipid passion
To choose out for your happiness
The idlest part of God's creation.

Let the porter and the groom,
Things designed for dirty slaves,
Drudge in fair Aurelia’s womb
To get supplies for age and graves.

Farewell, woman! I intend
Henceforth every night to sit
With my lewd, well-natured friend,
Drinking to engender wit.

Then give me health, wealth, mirth, and wind,
And if busy Love intrenches,
There’s a sweet, soft page of mine
Does the trick worth forty wenches.
By the time of his death in 1680 from syphilis, gonorhea, and Lord knows what else, Rochester’s reputation for scurrility in verse was so well-established that for a century or more the editors of anthologies would attribute any bawdy poem to him.

Rochester never intended his rake-hell verses to be published. He wrote them for his own amusement, and that of his friends. As his close friend Robert Wolseley later said, he did not write “for any public or common entertainment whatever, but for the private diversion of those happy few whom he used to charm with his company and honor with his friendship.” The trouble is that Rochester’s verses are amusing. “The Imperfect Enjoyment”—a satire on what is now called, with medical primness, erectile dysfunction. “Signior Dildo”—an encomium to that “noble Italian.” “Upon His Leaving His Mistress”—so that she might “be the mistress of mankind.” “Upon His Drinking Bowl”—a toast to his saints Cupid and Bacchus. To read Rochester is to reexperience what it must have been like to sit with a circle of Restoration buddies, drinking heavily and trading incredibly well-made and witty obscenities.

Apart from its private amusement value, how can such a sinful poet be as great as Rochester so clearly is? Here is why. His character, as Kenneth Burke would say, “is based upon an integrity, or constancy,” and not upon a fixed and universal mode code (which is the real perversion of morality). Rochester had at least the integrity of being constant in his sin. He does not seek to set himself up as a moral champion, but only to achieve that integrity or constancy of keeping faith with his friends and enjoyments, no matter how imperfect.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I'm a big fan of appreciating an author's talent even if his or her subject matter or personal views tend to be reprehensible.

Also - syphilis makes you crazy.