Easy in adolescence to thrill at John Wilmot, Lord Rochester for the bawdy excesses of the verse, even then the thrill is tempered by suspicion that the bawdiness is impure. In little time there dawns the recognition that it was the same mind that cast out “A Ramble in St. James’ Park” as did “Satire Upon Mankind,” or “Upon Nothing,” and the suspicion might nourish a theory that the sensual urgings and fulfillments are the gratifications available to the nihilist.
Returning to Rochester in nascent Middle Age, I am moved to a question: how he differs in his savage lewdness from Swift or Pope or Dryden or Donne, beyond his preferred lewd realm being the bedroom (or Park, or anywhere)? Without substituting the excremental for the erectional imagination, I’m curious as to how Rochester orients, or orients himself towards, what in the poetry was intended (an intention still made good) to shock? He is part of the brave generation of poets who both felt that such a thing as a proper register (or what Davie calls “diction”) for poetic expression existed and the the borders of that register ought to be violated in order for poetry to answer to the corruptions and vanities of life; in the case of Rochester, it can feel a bit like a post-modern art installation where cheap plaster scenes of pastoral have been smeared.
What might be as much a matter of my own fatigue as anything in the poetry, it occurs to me as I return to Rochester on the page and in my mind that his intention is not, as Swift’s, to deploy low-language to expose the foulness of exchanges in courtship, dalliances, and civilization, but instead to express a genuine feeling towards the pleasures and pursuits of libertine life. Mine is, in a way, a return to the view of Rochester as libertine nihilist: but whereas the (my former) adolescent view finds in Rochester’s harsh and raunchy comedy and attacks an insatiable urge towards a sensual distraction from emptiness, the view I’d prefer now sees the poetry as incessantly rehearsing and revisiting a performance that no longer pleases. Rather than Eliot’s “laceration of laughter at what ceases to amuse,” Rochester’s might be the smarting at pleasures that ceases to divert.
In “The Disabled Debauchee” (a poem that–in all seriousness–might be turned to by those keen on pursuing disability studies), he writes in the closing stanzas:
The poem is written, a note explains, in the heroic stanza of Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis.” Rochester was not friends with Dryden, but the poem’s stanza is only in one of its uses a weapon against him. We are also meant to take its heartiness at face-value. And we are also, accepting that the hearty speaker is trying to cheer himself up with a stanza form entirely inappropriate to his suggestion, trying to feel that the poem is a mock-heroic: directed against the speaker.
The conceit of the poem is old—that there is a war between the sexes, sometimes, as in Donne’s poetry, an erotic war—but also new: it leaves one disabled, likely by disease. But there is also in the heartiness of this poem the absence of a note that is usually present in Rochester’s verse: anger. Rochester’s is not sneering satire; it is not mocking satire; it is not, as is Swift’s, savage in its rejection; it is instead, despising, heated satire. The anger is as undisguised as the lewdness.
And what I realized in reading this poem, and in thinking of others by Rochester, is that the anger that is absent here is usually also directed at what in these poems are the weapons and maneuvers of the battlefield: sexual acts.Rochester does not only attack others by implicating them in the bawdiness of his poetry; he also extends his fatigue with others to fatigue with their own debauchery, even trapped in the same cycle.
I can imagine William Empson smelling neo-Christianity in this life of reasoning: as if I were saying that Rochester is in fact making the case that he is very naughty and sinful indeed. But those are not the terms of his anger. And the attack is not, of course, explicit in the verse; I am judging it, or feeling it, in what I imagine the tone must be. He can do no other but roll in the muck, because the alternative is not really any purer; the airs of reason are not capable of sustaining life at all; other airs are pestilential. But that does not mean that he is not sick of the muck in which he rolls. It’s a profound complaint against existence in that the libertine is the preferred form of life to be preferred, even though it wearies and wears away; the advantage Rochester seizes is in pointing out to others that they share the life with him, that they too have chosen it, even though they profess to maintain a superior alternative (which doesn’t, he says, exist).
What’s more, he can really sling the accusations of lewdness at others, not only knowing that they will bring about impossible stammering denials and angry embarrassment, but because he knows that most others around him have not realized how tiring, irksome, empty that lewdness is: they still pleasure like they are having fun doing the naughty thing that everyone really wishes they could do. Rochester has given up on thinking it’s really worth doing at all, though possibly preferable to alternatives, if not continued out of habit.
I am not sure there is sufficient evidence in the words to back me up in such a view of the peculiar man. But it is, I think, a plausible tone in which the words might be heard; the view I propose can be considered as a solvent by which something might be “restored,’ with the knowledge that restoration or cleaning is a loss of something, a potential distortion, even if it brings forward something otherwise less noticeable.