October 18, 2017
Of Rochester and RakesOn this day in 1647 John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and perhaps the most notorious of the Restoration rakes, was born. By poem and play, song and satire, maid and monkey -- some say he trained his monkey to excrete upon his guests, others say he merely encouraged it -- Rochester became the talk of town and Court. If, as Samuel Johnson said, he "blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness," he also wrote, said William Hazlitt, verses that "cut and sparkle like diamonds." The general view is that, were the diamonds not so dirty, Rochester might hold a place in Restoration poetry second only to Dryden.
Perhaps it was self-preservation which forced Rochester's poems to appear anonymously (or not at all) in his lifetime; perhaps he was not interested in literary fame: "I have seriously consider'd one thing," he wrote in a letter to a friend, "that [of] the three businesses of the age, women, politics and drinking, the last is the only exercise at which you and I have not prov'd ourselves fumblers." The anecdotal evidence suggests that this is over-modest, and if Rochester could drink he could also write about it:
As Nestor used of old;
Show all thy skill to trim it up,
Damask it round with gold.
Make it so large that, filled with sack
Up to the swelling brim,
Vast toasts on the delicious lake
Like ships at sea may swim....
But this is the point at which Rochester becomes a debate, and more interesting than any cartoon Restoration rake. Modern biographers and scholars, from Graham Greene (Lord Rochester's Monkey, 1974) to Germaine Greer (Earl of Rochester, 2000), find less biography in the poems than satiric poses and pokes -- a "lampoon ethos" aimed at a "target fop." And philosophy: in "Satyre Against Mankind" Rochester scoffs that he'd happily be his monkey, "Or anything but that vain animal, / Who is so proud of being rational." Ordinary reason makes man "This busy, pushing stirrer-up of doubt, / That frames deep mysteries, then finds them out"; Rochester's "reason" is simpler, and nobody's fool:
Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
This asks for food, that answers, 'what's o'clock.'
Though now demure, have felt his powerful charms,
And languish'd in the circle of his arms....
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