Lead book review

Thug, rapist, poetic visionary: the contradictory Earl of Rochester

A review of Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, by Alexander Larman. You wouldn't have wanted to meet him, but he deserves a biographer who can write

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester Alexander Larman

Head of Zeus, pp.352, £25, ISBN: 9781781851098

Despite being an earl, Rochester is very nearly a major poet. His poems and letters were torn up by a zealous mother after his death, bent on destroying anything obscene or scandalous. A good deal was lost, but a lot was passed from hand to hand, copied and recopied (it was never printed in Rochester’s lifetime). His full development as a poet cannot be traced, but some of what survives is tantalisingly rich, and has fascinated many subsequent writers.

He is one of those rare poets who come to mean much more to later generations. ‘Upon Nothing’ bears a bleak relationship to the end of Pope’s ‘Dunciad’, and, very powerfully, to Hardy’s poem on the sinking of the Titanic, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’. The despairing lines from ‘A Satire against Reason and Mankind’ were much quoted by Tennyson, and had a definite influence on ‘In Memoriam’:

…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 reasoning engine lies
Who was so proud, so witty and so wise.

‘Huddled’ is one of those specific, painfully physical but transfiguring words, full of emotion. Henry James borrowed it when Mrs Wix and Maisie visit Clara Matilda’s ‘little huddled grave’ in What Maisie Knew.

There is, too, the obscene poetry, which refuses to be put aside as unworthy or undignified. Rochester’s reputation meant that any old filth was regularly ascribed to him after his death. When looking at the false Rochester ascriptions, it doesn’t take long to see that the wit, variety and disgust of his genuine poems were unique. The court play Sodom is a good example; gleefully obscene, with characters called Buggeranthus and Fuckadilla, it grows tedious after 30 lines, and most of it couldn’t be by Rochester. His authentic voice is sprightly, lewd and weirdly visionary. The long poem ‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’ views the elegant landscape in terms of the licentious behaviour seen there at night:

There, by a most incestuous birth,
Strange woods spring from the teeming
For they relate how heretofore,
When ancient Pict began to whore,
Deluded of his assignation
(Jilting, it seems, was then in fashion),
Poor pensive lover, in this place
Would frig upon his mother’s face;
Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise
Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies.
Each imitative branch does twine
In some loved fold of Aretine …

Such poems can always surprise, as in the light-hearted turn at the end of ‘Love a woman? Y’are an ass!’, when the ‘sweet soft page of mine/does the trick worth forty wenches’. Rochester’s best poem may be ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’, a curious sort of companion piece to Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, in which premature ejaculation is followed by impotence, with a long and wonderfully inventive passage of flyting, insulting his own penis — ‘What oyster-cinder-beggar-common-whore/Didst thou e’er fail in thy life before?’

His most surprising may be the undeniably disgusting ‘Fair Chloris in a pigsty lay’, where romantic dreams come down to this: ‘In dreams raised by her murmuring pigs/And her own thumb between her legs/She’s innocent and pleased.’ The tone of visionary strangeness and disgust is entirely characteristic, and obscene — a quality not incompatible with artistic invention — rather than pornographic — which must always remain conventional.

Rochester has not lacked for biographers. After reading any of them, one concludes that one would certainly not have liked him as a person. His father was of great service to Charles II in exile, and for that reason the son was granted much licence at court after the Restoration. He was banished a couple of times for overstepping the mark in dramatic fashion — abducting an heiress, handing to the King himself an obscene assault on him, and smashing up a priceless glass astronomical instrument when drunk.

Evidently, he was amusing and fast on his feet, and liked playing cruel practical jokes, once going into hiding under the disguise of an Italian physician. His long-suffering wife and his mother tried their best to salvage his reputation after his death, with only partial success; many tales were told subsequently of his hellfire reputation, and even of a upposed deathbed recantation, at the age of 33.

The rest of it is drunkenness, beating up the poor, raping lower-class girls and running away when his best friend got a knife in his side, which one finds amusing or not as the case may be. The one interesting feature about Rochester’s personality was his intellectual curiosity, which took surprising forms. When about to fight in a sea battle, he made his friends promise that if any of them were killed, they would return as ghosts and report on life after death.

I don’t think we really need bother with Alexander Larman’s addition to the previous Rochester biographies. It isn’t well written, which is a disadvantage if your subject himself is such an elegant writer. Italy is ‘the country that had produced Machiavelli, Caravaggio and the Borgias’. We hear about ‘the wheel of fortune’ and of Fate; and the word ‘coruscating’ is used for ‘excoriating’.

Satire is a very intricate genre, with many carefully distinguished sub-genres. Larman makes complete hay of it. Careful analysis distinguishes between satire and flyting, parody and pastiche, burlesque (high figures in low discourse) and mock-heroic (vice-versa) and many other sub-divisions. When Larman refers to ‘The Disabled Debauchee’ having a ‘parody of the form of the heroic stanza’, one needs to ask how this ‘parody’ differs from a heroic stanza. Can one parody a form at all? Or does he mean the standard mock-heroic use of a high form for low material, in which case ‘parody’ isn’t the word? It may seem a small distinction, but satire, after all, is Larman’s subject, and he ought to have it clear in his mind.

There is, too, a problem with his larger knowledge, and even very well-known writers get garbled in the retelling. A low point is this, about Rochester’s reputation in the 18th century:

Pope’s poem ‘On Silence’ is a clear homage to ‘Upon Nothing’, and his late poem ‘The Imitations of Horace’ alludes to Rochester, indicating that the latter’s poetry grew on him throughout his life.

It is hard to beat this for misapprehension and error. ‘On Silence’ is not just a homage to Rochester, but a declared pastiche of him, in a sequence of pastiches of Chaucer, Spenser and other classic English poets. ‘The Imitations of Horace’ are a loose collection of free translations rather than a poem. The Rochester referred to in the ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’ that prefaces the ‘Imitations’ is not the earl but Pope’s friend Francis Atterbury, the Bishop of Rochester, as ‘Mitred Rochester’ indicates. There might be suggestions in the brilliantly obscene ‘Sober Advice from Horace’ and the despairingly destructive last page of ‘The Dunciad’ that the Earl of Rochester was on Pope’s mind, but these apparently remain unknown to Larman.

It is unusual to see books published these days that contain much in the way of readings of classic authors. Rochester is of great interest, but it would be good to see him re-examined by a more alert and experienced writer.

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