-----Horace Walpole said of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, that he was "a man whom the muses were fond to inspire, but ashamed to avow."1 The tension maintained between Rochester’s talent as a poet (Vieth calls him the second-ranking poet of his age, "excelled only by Dryden"2) and his penchant for liberally sprinkling (if not soaking) his works in the obscene,3 has kept him out of the mainstream of college literary study.
-----This is unfortunate, as his works provide not only an overview of the poetical styles of the age but a look at libertinism through a man who espoused his own version of the libertine creed. Indeed, Rochester does not fit easily into any of the boxes held up for him. His status as a debauched rake is damaged by the time he spent living quietly with his wife and children in the country; his image as an atheist, by his deathbed conversion (indeed, that conversion’s position as a center of controversy illustrates the difficulty of pinning down Rochester’s personality). Even more frustrating is the virtual impossibility of creating a completely accurate and all-encompassing biography of him; information about Rochester’s activities is accounted for in great part by anecdotes, rumor, and legend.
-----Although the lack of reliable information about Rochester’s life makes it difficult to say precisely how close he was to the narrators of his poems, when taken together his longer satirical poems outline a philosophy of life: be honest (especially in the sexual arena), eschew hypocrisy, cultivate true wit, and live according to what he viewed as natural reason. Four of his works in particular bear this attitude out: "Tunbridge Wells," "A Ramble in St. James’s Park," "A Letter Fancied from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country," and "A Satire Against Reason and Mankind."
-----John Wilmot was born to Henry Wilmot, First Earl of Rochester, and his wife Anne St John, Countess of Rochester, on either April 1 or 10, 1647. Henry Wilmot, best known as Lord Wilmot, was a close ally of Charles I, and was a close ally of Charles II, with whom he went into exile in Paris. Unfortunately for young Rochester and his mother, still in England, Lord Wilmot’s actions led to an attempt on Cromwell’s part to confiscate Ditchley, the family’s country estate. While the outcome of Lady Rochester’s attempts to preserve the land are unknown, Burnet states that "dying before the King’s return, he left his son little other inheritance but the honour and title derived to him."4
-----Lady Rochester was a strong influence upon her son. She was a countrywoman: apart from one journey to Paris after her husband aided the king in escaping from England, there are no records of her leaving the countryside for the city.5 She was a Puritan, and a strong-willed woman. Greene says of her in his biography of Rochester,
She blows like a tempest through the lives of her husband, her son, and her son’s wife, disapproving always, railing always; even when she breaks down at the bed of her dying son, she retains enough spirit to hate and express her hatred of the unfortunate Will Fanshawe, one of his companions. (Greene, 15)
As Vieth notes, she came from a prominent Puritan family, and "seems to have been a sober, strong-minded, shrewd woman, well able to manage a household." 6
----- Young Rochester attended Burford Grammar School, and was "a model pupil."7 He also had a tutor at home, Mr. Gifford, chaplain to Lady Rochester. Gifford told the antiquary Hearne much later that Rochester was then "a very hopeful youth, very virtuous and good natur’d (as he was always) and willing and ready to follow good advice."8 On another occasion, Gifford said "the said mad Earl was then very hopeful and ready to do anything that he proposed to him, and very well inclined to laudable undertakings."9 Rochester entered Oxford at the age of 12, and was described by Anthony Wood as "thoroughly acquainted with the classic authors, both Greek and Latin; a thing very rare (if not peculiar to him) among those of his quality."
----- At 14, Rochester graduated from Oxford, and, with the permission of the restored King Charles II, set off on his grand tour of France and Italy with Sir Andrew Balfour, a distinguished botanist and safe guide, as his companion. In 1665, after his return, he began to court Elizabeth Mallet, an heiress up for grabs on the marriage market. Everything but his poverty seemed to be in his favor, but it seems that he feared failure nonetheless: on the way home from dinner at Whitehall, Rochester, with the assistance of a group of armed men, stopped Elizabeth’s carriage and carried her off. She was recovered shortly thereafter, and Rochester was sent to the Tower of London for his effrontery. After three weeks, however, he was successful in petitioning the king for a return to favor, and was released.
----- By now it was summer, and Charles II had ordered the navy to keep the Dutch East Indies Fleet from reaching port. Rochester volunteered for service, and acquitted himself with honor. Burnet says of the battle:
During the whole action the Earl of Rochester shewed as brave and as resolute a courage as was possible: a person of honour told me he heard the Lord Clifford, who was in the same ship, often magnify his courage at that time very highly. 10
Upon his return, Rochester joined the court at Oxford, and was sworn a Gentleman of the Bedchamber in March of 1666. Although the post was a significant one (at this time, it was not merely an honorary post but one which brought intimate knowledge of the king’s movements and was only given to his closest friends), by summer Rochester was again at sea. He proved his bravery again, this time by carrying an important message:
During the action, Sir Edward Spragge, not being satisfied with the behaviour of one of the captains, could not easily find a person that would cheerfully venture through so much danger, to carry his commands to the captain. This Lord offered himself to the service, and went in a little boat through all the shot, and delivered his message, and returned back to Sir Edward, which was much commended by all that saw it. 11
On January 29, 1667, he successfully eloped with Elizabeth Mallet, with the consent of the king. Rochester’s mother wrote to his former guardian, Sir Ralph Verney, requesting his help on the occasion of "my son Rochester’s sudden marriage with Miss Mallet contrary to all her friends’ expectation. The King I thank God is very well satisfied with it, and they had his consent when they did it – but now we are in some care how to get the estate." 12
----- At this point, Rochester’s life becomes increasingly difficult to chronicle with any accuracy. The remaining thirteen years of his life are filled with fantastic stories and unconfirmable anecdotes. Quarrels with the members of the court often sent him abroad (in one case, he boxed Thomas Killegrew’s ears in the presence of the king; although the king himself did not mind it particularly, the rest of the court was sufficiently outraged to make it wise for Rochester to be sent away), but he was in England for the birth of his first child in 1669. Rochester’s wit was a strong recommendation at court, as the King was particularly fond of those who had a way with words. Greene comments that
Reflections on the King and his mistresses which cost Sir John Coventry his nose cost Rochester, time and again, no more than a few weeks’ banishment from Court. … Up to the last years of his life the Earl was receiving many favours from the King, whom he continued to lampoon. 13
He was banished from the court at least twice for his poetry, but given money and a number of different positions (ranging from a seat in the House of Lords before he came of age to the Keeper and Ranger of Woodstock Park, which included a house as well as extensive grounds) by the King.
----- Rochester himself told Burnet that
for five years together he was continually drunk; not all the while under the visible effects of it, but his blood was so inflamed, that he was not, in all that time, cool enough to be perfectly master of himself. This led him to say and do many unaccountable things. 14
Among these "unaccountable things" were a series of impersonations – of a doctor (evidence for this is provided in Dr Bendo’s Bill, a poem advertising the doctor’s abilities and services) and an innkeeper, among others – and the drunken destruction of an impressive sundial belonging to the king. Rochester’s most shocking escapade, however, proved to be a scandal at Epsom in the summer of 1676. After reportedly beginning a fray with the city watch, Rochester fled, leaving his friend Mr. Downes behind. Downes later died of his wounds, and Rochester was very nearly tried for murder. However, by the time he returned to court (after spending some time as Dr. Bendo) he had regained the King’s favor, and was safe from prosecution.
----- Rochester appears to be the person that Dorimant of Sir George Etherege’s Sir Fopling Flutter or the Man of Mode is based upon – several contemporary writers connect the two. John Dennis wrote in A Defence of Sir Fopling Flutter (1722):
…all the world was charmed with Dorimant; and… it was unanimously agreed that he had in him several of the qualities of Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, as, his wit, his spirit, his amorous temper, the charms that he had for the fair sex, his falsehood, and his inconstancy… 15
Rochester did have at least one confirmed mistress in town, Elizabeth Barry, as well as being a frequenter of whorehouses. Indeed, it was thought that "he never loved any person so sincerely as he did Mrs. Barry." 16 He trained her for the stage, teaching her to sing and act with no small skill. She bore him a daughter, whom he eventually took into his own custody after he and Barry split.
-----Rochester did not spend all of his time in town, however; far from it. He had been raised in the country, and it was rare for more than a year to go by without him retiring to his country estate – to write, to recover from illness, or simply to relax. He wrote to his friend Henry Saville that the country was "where only one can think; for you at Court think not at all; or, at least, as if you were shut up in a drum; you can think of nothing, but the noise that is made about you." The only escapades recorded of him while in the country are harmless ones, and based on oral tradition.17 Most years, he spent some part of the summer with his wife, and every September, there was racing at Woodstock Park.18
-----Rochester seems to have loved his wife and children (of whom there were three by his wife: Anne, Charles, and Mallet, and one by his mistress Elizabeth Barry). Vieth calls his marriage an "unusually happy" one.19 In his frequent and affectionate letters to his wife, Rochester often asked to be remembered to the children, and he often wrote to the children themselves. Although he himself was continually in debt, he appears never to have drawn on his wife’s property without repayment.20
-----The last months of Rochester’s life, fall of 1679 to summer of 1680, are paradoxically the most hotly contested period of his life, in spite (or perhaps because) of this being the one period about which we have a primary source of information. Dr. Gilbert Burnet, an eminent historian and fashionable confessor, was called by Rochester to his sickbed. Burnet’s account of their conversations and Rochester’s repentance and conversion to Anglicanism was impugned by Rochester’s friends when it was published shortly after the Earl’s death but Rochester’s mother and several others insisted upon the validity of the conversion. Even today, there is argument over how reliable Burnet’s account is. Greene insists that with what we know of Rochester’s upbringing, "Burnet’s book becomes more than credible, it becomes convincing."21 However, there are those who, along with Rochester’s friend Fanshawe, believe Rochester was delirious from the effects of his illness. It is difficult to determine which version of events is the true one, and perhaps, like so many of the other pieces of Rochester’s life, we will never know the truth.
Rochester, Libertinism, and the Court of Charles II
-----An understanding of Rochester’s Court surroundings is helpful in looking at his poetry. Charles II had returned from his years in exile a realist, without illusions, and well-versed in what JR Jones calls "the black political arts of machiavellian statecraft."22 He manipulated and played upon the failings of both other governments and his own courtiers. Charles’s two major failings as a monarch were "indolence and inconsistency."23 Policies, and the ministers committed to them, could be abandoned at any moment; very few, if any, could feel secure at his court. While he appeared to be a witty and easy-going king, he was a master of hiding his true motives and feelings from those around him, and had the ability to see through the artifice of those around him and use what he saw to his own advantage.
-----Insincerity and dissimulation were rife at Court at this time: "Few ministers were given credit for any measure of integrity. Altruism and a sense of duty and responsibility were apparently obsolete virtues."24 It is unsurprising that Rochester, a young man raised by a Puritan-minded mother, developed a distinct hatred of artifice and hypocrisy early in his poetic career.
-----Sexual freedom was also a common theme in Court life. The keeping of one or more mistresses was so common as to be considered closer to concubinage than adultery. Although it was far more frowned upon for women than men, both sexes were often quite free with their favors. Charles II himself was known to have a number of mistresses, including Nell Gwyn, to whom Rochester wrote several letters and at least one poem. Whores were easily accessible, particularly in the theatres (one of many reasons the religiously conservative were adamantly opposed to the theatre), where they could be easily spotted by their dark masks and easy manners.
-----Libertinism had begun to wind its way through the court in the early seventeenth century, evolving as the years passed. By Rochester’s time, there were several fairly distinct forms, including Hobbesian libertinism, which drew heavily on reinterpretation of arguments found in Hobbes’ Leviathan and emphasizing glutting of the appetites, particularly sexual ones, and what Harold Weber calls philosophical libertinism, based around the writings of Epicurus and Lucretius and heavily promoting temperance.25 Rochester’s libertine views are difficult to classify. There are those, particularly Weber, who place him square in the camp of Hobbesian libertinism, citing his views on sexual gratification (i.e., that it is to be pursued) and the consumption of alcohol. However, this fails to take into account his more Philosophical Libertine views. Upon inspection, he actually falls somewhere between the two camps, advocating the use of reason to limit desires just enough to keep them "more in vigor" ("Satire Against Reason and Mankind," l. 103), renewing appetites to allow their gratification again and again, rather than allowing them to be completely sated and thus destroyed.
-----Rochester, particularly in his early years, was something of an icon for his time, a witty courtier, brave in battle, friendly with the king (when not being banished for his more outlandish escapades, at least), popular with women, and able to walk the dangerous pathways of court without incurring too much damage. Later in life, he fell out of favor and became "a Man whom it is the great Mode to hate,"26 but remained admired by many until his death.
Notes on Attribution and Dates in Rochester’s Poetry
-----Rochester’s poetry can present almost as many difficulties as his biography. The earliest printed edition of his works, which was published mere weeks after his death in 1680, contained many poems which were not by him at all, as well as several corrupted versions of poems. It appears to have been common at the time to attribute any obscene or bawdy work to the notorious Earl, regardless of whether or not he actually wrote it.
-----It is only in the last fifty years that serious work has been done to determine which poems Rochester wrote, and when he wrote them. Vieth’s books, The Complete Poems of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester and Attribution in Restoration Poetry27, lay out a timeline of the poet’s work, and explain how many of the author’s conclusions were reached.
-----In most cases, fairly straightforward research has determined whether or not Rochester is the author of the poems attributed to him (in some cases, works assigned to Rochester appear in authorized collections by other poets), although those poems for which we lack definitive evidence and must rely on stylistic similarities are still considered to be somewhat in doubt, and even now, various editions of Rochester’s "complete" poems will differ in content.
-----Rochester’s satires are comparatively easy to date, as they not only mention current events and contain allusions to other literary works whose publication dates are known, but they were widely read and occasionally mentioned in letters. Close readings of the poems’ contents combined with research into when they were read or mentioned by people of the time has established the year of authorship with a fair degree of certainty.
-----The poems analyzed in this paper have all been attributed with complete or near-complete certainty to Rochester, and their approximate years of composition fixed. All four were written in the last ten years of Rochester’s life: A Ramble in St. James’s Park before March 1672, Tunbridge Wells in Spring 1674, A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind before March 1675, and A Letter from Artemisia approximately 1675. I have used the versions of the poems presented in Vieth’s edition of The Complete Poems.
Rochester and the Speaker
-----It is traditional, when discussing a work of poetry, to refer to the narrative voice of the poem as ‘the speaker,’ rather than using the name of the author. I will follow this form, as Rochester and the speakers of his various works are not always completely identical (indeed, one of the poems I will analyze is spoken by a woman).
-----In satire, it is conventional for the poet to adopt a persona, that of a wiser, reasonable man disgusted with his fellow human beings, and proposing an alternate method of living while ridiculing those who do not meet his standards. The speakers of the poems examined below fit this pattern; even the female speaker of "A Letter Fancied from Artemisia in the town to Chloe in the Country" sees herself as wiser than those around her, and is disgusted by the way society women act. Where Rochester’s speakers differ from the typical satirical speaker is in the ideals they espouse. Disgust for artifice and hypocrisy, and advocation of reason are typical, but Rochester’s works extend the ideal of honesty into the sexual arena and insist that reason should be used to increase and prolong pleasure.
-----The speakers of the works discussed here are so similar to Rochester himself in character that it is possible to say that he shared most, if not all, of their attitudes and opinions. Like him, they are all rational, witty characters. Like him, they often despair of the intelligence of their fellow creatures; in a letter to his friend Henry Saville, Rochester lamented,
But most human Affairs [are] carried on at the same nonsensical rate, which makes me, (who am now grown Superstitious) think it a Fault to laugh at the Monkey we have here, when I compare his Condition with Mankind." 28
As in "A Satire Upon Reason and Mankind," Rochester compares humans unfavorably with animals: he no longer finds the monkey’s behavior comical, since humans are so nonsensical themselves.
-----That he did not live up to all of his own ideals is clear from his conversations with Burnet. He said to Burnet,
…the two maxims of his morality then were, that he should do nothing to the hurt of any other, or that might prejudice his own health, and he thought that all pleasure, when it did not interfere with these, was to be indulged as the gratification of our natural appetites. 29
It is clear from his early death (apparently of cirrhosis of the liver combined with syphilis) that he did not "do nothing…that might prejudice his own health," and indeed, he was aware of this fact: "he…was very much ashamed of his former practices, because he… had brought pain and sickness on his body"30 Of course, a great many people today also do not always live up to the ideals they hold; this does not alter the fact that they do hold them.
-----Although we cannot be completely sure either way, it is most probable that Rochester did indeed hold the opinions his speakers espouse. The same opinions are expressed repeatedly in Rochester’s work, and it is unlikely that he would give such emphasis to ideals he did not embrace himself, even if he did not always live up to them in daily life.
Sexual Honesty: "A Ramble in St. James’s Park"
----- "A Ramble in St. James’s Park" has an interesting point to make: it is commendable to engage in sexual intercourse when prompted by lust, but it is despicable to simply give in to others’ demands for sex when one does not feel attracted to them. Here, the ideal is what Dustin H. Griffin calls "Honest, generous lust." 31
----- As the poem opens, the speaker leaves a group of friends (who have been discussing sexual liaisons) and goes to St. James’s Park in search of someone to "fire my heart" (l. 8). After a digression on the origin of the trees in the Park, the speaker sees one of his regular lovers, Corinna, walking by. She looks at him disdainfully:
Whoever had been by to see
The proud disdain she cast on me
Through charming eyes, he would have swore
She dropped from heaven that very hour,
Forsaking the divine abode
In scorn of some despairing god. (ll. 35-40)
Then, to compound the offense, she takes up three "knights o’the’ elbow and the slur" (l. 43) – cheating gamblers.
----- The three men have many faults, but one particular in common: they are each artificial, especially in love. The first
Converts abortive imitation
To universal affectation
Thus he not only eats and talks
But feels and smells, sits down and walks,
Nay looks, and lives and loves by rote (ll. 57-61)
Not only is he full of affectation, but he is insincere in love. When one "loves by rote," one does not love spontaneously, or from genuine feeling. Love becomes a catechism, a script which one plays out without engaging emotionally.
----- The second man is not described in detail, but the few lines devoted to him are telling:
The second was a Grays Inn32 wit,
A great inhabiter of the pit,
Where critic-like he sits and squints,
Steals pocket handkerchiefs, and hints,
From ‘s neighbor, and the comedy,
To court, and pay, his landlady. (ll. 63-68)
The image of the law student squinting at the stage is far from flattering, and the young man makes things worse by stealing not only property (handkerchiefs) but ideas for dialog and manners of acting (hints) to use in courting. Not only are his amorous endeavors not entirely his own, but they are combined with his efforts to pay his rent. The implication is that he is courting at least in part as a way of paying his landlady, rather than from true affection. As with the first fellow, his love is insincere.
----- The third man is given an even more cursory overview than the second, but is clearly following in their footsteps. He hopes "By these two worthies to be made / A most accomplished tearing blade" (ll. 73-74). Rather than simply being who he is, he plans to model himself on the other two fops. This scarcely gives hopes for his future as a sincere lover.
----- As pointed as Rochester’s description of the three "knights" is, his real venom is saved for Corinna herself. In his eyes, she is the worse offender and therefore the object of the greatest scorn and fury. Her despicableness stems from several factors.
-----To begin with, she agrees to engage in sexual intercourse with the three men, in spite of their obvious idiocy. The speaker is not disturbed by the fact that she is sleeping with others than himself:
Had she picked out, to rub her arse on,
Some stiff-pricked clown or well-hung parson,
Each job of whose spermatic sluice
Had filled her cunt with wholesome juice,
I the proceeding should have praised
In hopes sh’ had quenched a fire I raised.
Such natural freedoms are but just:
There’s something generous in mere lust. (ll. 91-98)
Had she chosen someone worthy of her attention, he would not have minded; even a well-endowed fool would be acceptable, because the speaker would be able to hope that she was attempting to satisfy a longing for him. However, she has not been so selective, but has agreed to sleep with men for no other reason than that they are interested in her:
But to turn damned abandoned jade
When neither head nor tail persuade;
To be a whore in understanding,
A passive pot for fools to spend in. (ll. 99-102)
Her flaw is that she chooses men not because they attract her mentally or physically, but because they want her. The ideal would be for both Corinna and the men to be mutually attracted; here, however, the men are making love to her without true emotion, and she is responding without honest feeling. Thus, rather than engaging in a natural or ideal liaison, Corinna is engaging in an unnatural and disgusting one.
----- To make matters worse, she has in the past been one of the speaker’s favored lovers. In the past, he has made love to her, and then stayed to speak with her. She knows, and could betray
The secrets of my tender hours
To such knight-errant paramours,
When, leaning on your faithless breast
Wrapped in security and rest,
Soft kindness all my powers did move,
And reason lay dissolved in love! (ll. 127-132)
Rather than a mere one-night stand, she was to him a something more – he willingly made love to her after she had slept with "half the town" (l. 114), and enjoyed staying to talk with her after intercourse. But now, she has shown herself unworthy of his affection: "Gods! that a thing admired by me / Should fall to so much infamy" (ll. 89-90). By lowering herself to serve as "a passive pot for fools to spend in" (l. 102) when she was once one of the women he admired and cared for, her misbehavior in performing sexually without lust to inspire her is magnified into a monstrosity.
----- The remainder of the poem is a vicious series of curses and insults against Corinna, cementing the speaker’s rage against her. It is worth noting that one possible reading of the poem places some of the satirical force against the speaker himself: even he admits that Corinna appears "joyful and pleased" (l. 80) to go off with the three men. It is conceivable that his anger stems from a combination of jealousy and a failure to understand what Corinna sees in them. After all, perhaps she is motivated by lust, but he cannot or will not see it.
----- Either way, the ideal against which the relationships in the poem are measured is that of mutual attraction, honestly expressed. The men are criticized for their artifice in courtship and Corinna is attacked for engaging in intercourse without either rational or emotional motivation. It is vital for both parties in a sexual relationship to be honest with one another and act as they are prompted by their feelings and reason.
Artifice: "Tunbridge Wells"
----- Rochester’s disgust for artifice continues in "Tunbridge Wells," where he expands his view to include artifice in all areas of life, not just in sexual matters. The speaker, moving about the fashionable watering place of Tunbridge Wells, encounters a series of fools, each of which distresses him as much as, if not more than, the last.
----- The first fellow the speaker meets is "a mere Sir Nicholas Cully; / A bawling fop, a natural Nokes, and yet / He dares to censure as if he had wit" (ll. 14-16). Sir Nicholas Cully was a dupe in Etherege’s first comedy, The Comical Revenge; James Nokes was a celebrated comic actor of the Duke’s Company, known for his portrayal of solemn fools, who created the role of Sir Nicholas. This unnamed fop, who is naturally what Nokes is on the stage, is so revolting to the speaker’s sensibilities that he makes him "purge and spew" (l. 10); emptying his stomach of the wine he had drunk to make the medicinal waters from the wells less unpleasant. Rather than being comic, the fop is an image of revulsion because he attempts (and fails) to appear as if he were intelligent, "as if he had wit." As if this were not bad enough, he is accompanied by a train of identical fools, "All of his shape, all of the selfsame stuff" (l. 21). Even Nature has pointed out their folly: "Nature has done the business of lampoon, / And in their looks their characters has shown" (ll. 23-24). She has separated them from the rest of humanity, as though Nature herself had a sense of humor.
----- The next fool the speaker meets is "As great a fop, though of another kind" (l. 30). This one speaks very little (as opposed to the first one, who spoke a good deal), but everything he says is copied from others and applied indiscriminately. He "speaks all proverbs, sentences, and adage" (l. 36), rather than saying what he thinks in his own words. His artifice is if anything worse than the first fellows, as it is consciously affected. And not only does he say everything in words taken from others, he uses the same formality and high-flown language in every situation: he "Can with as much solemnity buy eggs / As a cabal can talk of their intrigues" (ll. 37-38). He does not apply his mimicked wisdom appropriately, which makes him an even more foolish sight. Interestingly, he is compared to the cabal, a group of traitors who plotted against Charles II. Talking of treason is an infinitely more serious business than purchasing eggs, and the contrast serves to make the fool look even more absurd.
----- A bit further on, the speaker meets a woman with her daughter; they are accosted by a "would-be wit" (l. 88) who, like the men in "A Ramble in St. James’s Park," makes love as if from a script. He uses a tired compliment to flatter her:
-----Madam, methinks the weather
Is grown much more serene since you came hither.
You influence the heavens; but should the sun
Withdraw himself to see his rays outdone
By your bright eyes, they would supply the morn,
And make a day before the day be born. (l. 92-97)
In attributing impossible feats to her beauty, he gives a compliment that is in effect empty, since it cannot be true. Her response is equally shallow, and accompanied by ridiculous contortions in an attempt to appear more attractive:
With mouth screwed up, conceited winking eyes,
And breasts thrust forward, "Lord, sir!" she replies.
"It is your goodness, and not my deserts,
Which makes you show this learning, wit, and parts." (ll. 98-101)
Her mouth is "screwed," her eyes "conceited," and her breasts "thrust," all words which show both the speaker’s scorn and her intense efforts. Her words themselves are empty formalities, particularly since the fop has not shown much "learning, wit, and parts," only his own folly. It becomes clear just how artificial his first speech was, when he speaks again:
He, puzzled, bites his nail, both to display
The sparkling ring, and think what next to say,
And thus breaks forth afresh: "Madam, egad!
Your luck at cards last night was very bad:
At cribbage fifty-nine, and the next show
To make the game, and yet to want those two.
God damn me, madam, I’m the son of a whore
If in my life I saw the like before!" (ll. 102-109)
His script has run out, and he is forced to "think what next to say." What comes out is at once more sincere and more improper; one should not swear when speaking to a lady. The section ends when the fop "drags" (l. 110) the woman to a peddler’s stall and buys her "hearts and such-like foolish toys" (l. 111).
----- The final group of people the speaker rails at are "cadets" (l. 153), younger sons who will gain little or nothing by inheritance, and must therefore live off their wits. They have very little, but still attempt to look impressive:
With hawk on fist, or greyhound led in hand,
The dogs and footboys sometimes they command.
But now, having trimmed a cast-off spavined horse,
With three hard-pinched-for guineas in their purse,
Two rusty pistols, scarf about the arse,
Coat lined with red, they here presume to swell:
This goes for captain, that for colonel. (ll. 155-161)
These young men do their best to appear dashing and grand, but instead look like fools, because they are too poor to support themselves in the style they attempt to imitate. Their effrontery in trying to look like something they are not turns them into a "Bear Garden ape" (l. 162); one of the spectacles presented at the Bear Gardens in London was an ape riding on horseback in imitation of a man.
----- To make matters worse, these young men are not judged fools by everyone:
No longer is a jackanapes accounted,
But is, by virtue of his trumpery, then
Called by the name of "the young gentleman." (ll. 163-165)
Society itself is the object of the speaker’s scorn. Rather than seeing the young man for the "jackanapes" he is, people let him go by the name of "gentleman." His artifice, which is repulsive, is accepted by society as truth. Given the various members of society presented in the poem, however, this is not surprising, as they are equally artificial.
----- The final paragraph of the poem summarizes the opinions presented, and makes a judgement about the state of affairs described:
-----Bless me! Thought I, what thing is man, that thus In all his shapes, he is ridiculous?
Ourselves with noise of reason we do please
In vain: humanity’s our worst disease.
Thrice happy beasts are, who, because they be
Of reason void, are so of foppery.
Faith, I was so ashamed that with remorse
I used the insolence to mount my horse;
For he, doing only things fit for his nature,
Did seem to me by much the wiser creature. (ll. 166-175)
Mankind is foolish and artificial, unlike animals who act only in ways true to themselves. Although beasts lack reason, they lack artifice as well, and are therefore far luckier than the speaker and, indeed, all of mankind. The ideal presented here is the speaker’s horse, who does "only things fit for his nature," rather than trying to be something he is not, or being fooled by another’s artifice.
A Woman’s View: "A Letter Fancied from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country"
-----Rochester’s attack on artifice continues in "A Letter Fancied from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country", but this time in a somewhat different manner. Here, he not only takes on the voice of a woman, but explains that women are born free and intelligent, but voluntarily chose to act foolishly. This differs from the belief generally prevalent in the period that women were naturally foolish and weak-willed. While the poem does express several opinions characteristic of the sexism of the age, the mourning over society women’s artifice and voluntary enslavement is not only suited to Rochester’s general hatred of hypocrisy, but holds a suggestion of protofeminism.
-----The poem opens with Artemisia considering the dangers of writing in verse (she is doing so by her friend Chloe’s command). First and foremost is the risk, regularly illustrated by "the men of wit"(l. 5) of attempting to write well, failing, and losing what little reputation for wit one possessed before:
How many bold adventurers for the bays,
Proudly designing large returns of praise,
Who durst that stormy, pathless world explore,
Were soon dashed back, and wrecked on the dull shore,
Broke of that little stock they had before! (ll. 6-11)
There is always the danger of extending oneself and, in failing, doing lasting damage to one’s reputation. Indeed, as she cautions herself, "whore is scarce a more reproachful name than poetess." However, she soon decides that the pleasure of doing something unwise is too great a temptation to resist, and carries on with the main part of her letter: a discussion of the follies of her fellow town-dwellers.
----- She begins by mourning for "that lost thing, love" (l. 38), which has been horribly corrupted by "ill-bred customs" (l. 39), but soon passes on to the main theme, "what yet more a woman’s heart would vex" (l. 54), the folly of womankind:
Our silly sex! who, born like monarchs free,
Turn gypsies for a meaner liberty,
And hate restraint, though but from infamy.
They call whatever is not common, nice,
And deaf to nature’s rule, or love’s advice,
Forsake the pleasure to pursue the vice. (56-61)
Rather than being pleased with their natural state, women forsake the liberty they are born with to pursue vice and "whatever is not common," lowering themselves in the process. Rather than appreciating their queen-like freedom, women "turn gypsies" in order to gain a different, but lesser, freedom. They disregard what is natural and even love itself to pursue "infamy" and "vice," they give up good things to pursue bad. Line 61 is a nod toward libertine philosophy: pleasure is presented as something to be pursued. In fact, the entire section can be read as a recommendation to a libertine lifestyle: the good things the women give up are freedom and what is natural and pleasurable. Artemisia is unclear about what she means by "vice," but her description of the things she disapproves of, such as artificiality, suggests that she means unnatural activities which are not prompted by reason or love.
----- Love becomes something which is enacted without emotion (similar to the speaker’s complaint against Corinna in "A Ramble in St. James’s Park"). Artemisia explains,
To an exact perfection they have wrought
The action, love; the passion is forgot.
‘Tis below wit, they tell you, to admire,
And ev’n without approving, they desire.
Their private wish obeys the public voice;
‘Twixt good and bad, whimsey decides, not choice.
They know what they would have, not what they like. (ll. 62-67, 69)
Love, rather than being an emotion or feeling, becomes something "wrought," or created. Appearance is vital: "to admire" is simply not done, and they are ruled by "public voice" rather than by reason or emotion. Indeed, they are so far from taking their own opinions into consideration that they do not even know "what they like." They simply want what they are supposed to, whether they "approve" of the object of desire, or not. This lack of self-knowledge makes reasoning impossible, and as in the other poems, lack of reason is to be despised. For these women, society, rather than reason or intelligence, dictates all:
Bovey’s a beauty, if some few agree
To call him so; the rest to that degree
Affected are, that with their ears they see. (ll. 70-72)
Rather than deciding for themselves what they think of someone, women listen to popular opinion, presenting the absurd picture of seeing with their ears rather than their eyes.
-----Most of the rest of the poem is dedicated to describing a specific example of this sort of woman. She has no name, but has no need of one. She is merely "a fine lady" (l. 74) who has come back to town
with her humble knight,
Who had prevailed on her, through her own skill,
At his request, though much against his will,
To come to London. (ll. 74-77)
Even before she speaks, we know from this passage that she is manipulative – she has, "through her own skill," not only made her husband bring her to London, but forced him to persuade her to come when he himself did not want to go. This shows a conspicuous lack of care for his feelings, as well as a somewhat disturbing willingness to manipulate him. As if that were not enough proof of her disdain for and manipulation of her husband, after she arrives at the house Artemisia is visiting, she tells her husband to leave, because "her affairs require / He, for some hours, obsequiously retire" (ll. 80-81). He has served his purpose, and now is ordered to depart.
----- Once "the necessary thing" (l. 92), her husband, is gone, the lady goes up to where Artemisia and the others are. In a speech delivered in haste to her hostess, she first complains of being altered by living so long in the country, then inquires "who are the men most worn of late? / When I was married, fools were à la mode. / The men of wit were then held incommode" (ll. 102-104). This objectifies men in the way men are usually seen to objectify women, reducing them to pieces of apparel to be "worn," and which can come in and out of fashion the way clothing does. The matching of love with fashion reinforces Artemisia’s earlier statement that women desire men according to whether society dictates they should. She explains at some length that fools are wiser for women to select as gallants than wits, because wits cannot be pleased. Fools are "true women’s men" (l. 135), trusting and willing to be pleased by women, while "Women should [wits], of all mankind, avoid, / for wonder by clear knowledge is destroyed" (ll. 118-119).
-----These rational points are immediately followed by a burst of idiocy. Seeing a monkey tied by the window, she runs to him
With forty smiles, as many antic bows,
As if ‘t had been the lady of the house,
The dirty, chattering monster she embraced,
And made it this fine tender speech at last:
"Kiss me, thou curious miniature of man!
How odd thou art! how pretty! how japan!
Oh, I could live and die with thee!" Then on
For half an hour in compliment she run. (ll. 139-146)
After the rather perceptive analysis of the differences between wits and fools, it is rather distressing to see the lady deliver a panegyric to a monkey. Her initial address to it could easily be taken for the same sort of enthusiasm women today display towards babies, puppies, and other cute mammals. However, the image of her running on in compliment for "half an hour" is remarkably foolish, as the fact that she treats the "dirty, chattering monster" as if "’t had been the lady of the house." Her declaration that she could "live and die" with it is made in the manner of a lover, as though she were in love with the monkey; this hardly does credit to her ability to discriminate in love! Her speech to the animal is utter nonsense, and illustrates Artemisia’s earlier statement that women willingly give themselves over to idiocy.
----- Artemisia thinks along similar lines:
I took this time to think what nature meant
When this mixed thing into the world she sent,
So very wise, yet so impertinent:
One who knew everything; who, God thought fit,
Should be an ass through choice, not want of wit;
Whose foppery, without help of sense,
Could ne’er have rose to such an excellence. (ll. 147-153)
It is true that some intelligence must underlie the lady’s apparent idiocy; her discussion of fools and wits clearly has some thought behind it. She does not have to be a fool, she is one "through choice, not want of wit" – she has chosen to act as she does, rather than being forced to it by having too little intelligence to act otherwise. The rest of the anonymous lady’s discourse in the poem is in the same vein: "Thus she ran on two hours, some grains of sense / Still mixed with volleys of impertinence" (ll. 256-257). She is the paragon of Artemisia’s opening assessment of women: they are born free and intelligent, but give up that freedom and act like fools to follow the dictates of society.
Synthesis: "A Satire Against Reason and Mankind"
-----Rochester’s best-known poem, "A Satire against Reason and Mankind," is justly famous; in it, he brings together his arguments against both rational thought and humanity, and presents his ideals of both. For Rochester, men are weighed down with pride and an unnatural manner of thinking which they call reason. This "reason" takes the world and twists it, leading men astray and making life far less pleasant than it should be. The ideal is a way of thinking which is conducive to pleasure, and men who fulfil their offices truly, rather than being hypocritical and self-serving.
-----The opening of the poem is clearly designed to shock the reader and draw him or her in:
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 pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational. (ll. 1-7)
Men are "strange, prodigious creatures," and the speaker finds himself to be one "at my cost," or to his own harm. It is, he claims, better to be an animal than a man, and were he given the choice of any body to inhabit, he would be anything but a human. This provokes the reader, and the speaker continues with an elaboration on the perils of reason, "an ignis fatuus 33 in the mind" (l. 12), which leads man astray to misery and death through pride. In the end, reason leaves,
The 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 has been in the wrong.
Huddled in dirt the reasoning engine lies,
Who was so proud, so witty, and so wise.
His reason did his happiness destroy,
Aiming to know that world he should enjoy. (ll. 25-34)
While reason makes one appear "so witty and so wise," in the end one is "huddled in dirt," a mere "engine," rather than a human being. Once one has been led astray by reason, it is not until the end of one’s life that one can realize that reason and the pursuit of knowledge have made life unnecessarily painful. Reason destroys happiness because it drives one to attempt to understand the world rather than to simply take it as it is and enjoy it.
----- At this point, Rochester inserts a passage from an imagined opponent to the previous argument against reason. This "formal band and beard" (l. 46) insists that reason is a gift from God,
By whose aspiring influence
We take a flight beyond material sense,
Dive into mysteries, then soaring pierce
The flaming limits of the universe, (ll. 66-69)
The speaker interrupts this stereotypical religious flight of metaphor, saying that not only is the clergyman’s argument an old one ("this we know / From the pathetic pen of Ingelo, / From Patrick’s Pilgrim, Sibbes’ soliloquies…" ll. 72-74), but that
…‘tis this very reason I despise:
This supernatural gift, that makes a mite
Think he’s the image of the infinite,
Comparing his short life, void of all rest,
To the eternal and the ever blest; (ll. 75-79)
This sort of reason makes men think too highly of themselves, rather than realizing what they are and moving on with their lives. This reason deals in "nonsense and impossibilities" (l. 89), and leads insignificant humans to the foolish conclusion that they are magnificent and powerful.
-----There is, however, a sort of reason of which the speaker does approve: productive reasoning, which has a positive effect on life.
But thoughts are given for action’s government;
Where action ceases, thought’s impertinent.
Our sphere of action is life’s happiness,
And he who thinks beyond, thinks like an ass. (ll. 94-97)
It is foolish to think past the present moment, or to use thoughts other than to decide what actions to take; those are the two tasks thought was created for. Reason has a definite purpose:
I own right reason, which I would obey:
That reason which distinguishes by sense
And gives us rules of good and ill from thence, (ll. 99-101)
Reason here is similar to the idea of ‘common sense,’ in that it should be used to determine rules of good and bad. One should think for oneself, decide how to act, and then act that way. Indeed, this sort of reason can help make experiences more pleasurable:
That bounds desires with a reforming will
To keep ‘em more in vigor, not to kill.
Your reason hinders, mine helps to enjoy,
Renewing appetites yours would destroy. (ll. 101-104)
By limiting oneself, one can invigorate desires rather than repress them. The reason the speaker is against crushes desires, while "right reason," by limiting actions, helps keep one from overindulgence or complete self-denial.
----- The speaker goes farther in his condemnation of false reason:
My reason is my friend, yours is a cheat;
Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
This asks for food, that answers, "What’s o’clock?" (ll. 105-108)
While the speaker is driven by his reason to fulfil his physical desires and needs, false reason dictates that one follow social norms. In this particular example, rather than eating when one is hungry, false reason forces one to check whether it is the appropriate time of day for eating. False reason is "a cheat," taking away pleasures without giving a reward. It is "perverse," and mocks its user, while the speaker’s reason is on its user’s side, a "friend," who bids one follow natural instincts rather than suppressing them.
----- In summation:
This plain distinction, sir, your doubt secures:
‘Tis not true reason I despise, but yours. (ll. 109-110)
The speaker has clarified his original premise. He does not simply condemn all forms of reason, just the ones which are detrimental to enjoying life to the fullest.
----- The final section of the poem is a condemnation of men, with a description of the sort of men the speaker thinks well of. Once again, man is compared to the animals, and found lacking:
Birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,But savage man alone does man betray.
Pressed by necessity, they kill for food;
Man undoes man to do himself no good. (ll. 129-132)
Animals do not betray each other, but men do. Men can be vicious to one another with little or no real reason, and that is a major flaw in the speaker’s eyes. Animals, on the other hand, only kill each other out of necessity, in order to survive, while humans do so for no reward at all.
-----Indeed, humans betray one another in truly despicable ways.
But man, with smiles, embraces, friendship, praise,
Inhumanly his fellow’s life betrays;
With voluntary pains works his distress,
Not through necessity, but wantonness. (ll. 133-135)
Men hide their betrayal behind the mask of friendship, and are cruel through "wantonness" rather than "to supply their want," like the nobler animals. Men have no real reason to act as they do, which makes them all the more repulsive.
----- As the poem draws to its close, the speaker describes those at whom the speech has been aimed:All this with indignation have I hurled
At the pretending part of the proud world,
Who, swollen with selfish vanity, devise
False freedoms, holy cheats, and formal lies
Over their fellow slaves to tyrannize. (ll. 174-178)
The poem is addressed to those who do not follow right reason, those who use their fellow men badly, and about whom Rochester uses very insulting language. They are: "pretending…proud…swollen…selfish" and work to create falsehoods with which to deceive and rule over the rest of their fellow men.
-----There are two sorts of man he says, if they exist, will make him take back his words. In Court, a political fellow "Who does his arts and policies apply / To raise his country, not his family" (ll. 187-188), an honest man who serves his country truly. In the church, not a false hypocrite
But a meek, humble man of honest sense,
Who, preaching peace, does practice continence;
Whose pious life’s a proof he does believe
Mysterious truths, which no man can conceive. (ll. 212–215)
In short, he seeks men who are what they claim to be. If they exist, the speaker says, "I’ll here recant my paradox to them" (l. 217), as they would prove that his arguments about the nature of mankind are flawed. However, even if such men did exist,
-----…yet grant me this at least:
Man differs more from man, than man from beast. (ll. 220-221)
Such paragons would be more different from the common sort of man than most men are from beasts.
Rochester and Other Restoration Philosophers
----- Rochester’s opinions are not entirely unique for his time period; what sets him apart from other philosophers of the seventeenth century is the ways in which he combined those opinions. As a literate (and literary) gentleman, Rochester was not only familiar with the classical authors, but doubtless kept up with his contemporaries’ literary production. Indeed, many of his poems ("Tunbridge Wells" in particular34) contain references to the popular poetry of the day, as well as influential philosophical tracts.
----- During his exiles to the French court, Rochester would almost certainly have come across the writings of Pascal, although he was too late to meet the man himself, who died when Rochester was fifteen. Pascal, like Rochester, saw public opinion and fashion as ruling forces in society: "Justice is as much a matter of fashion as charm is."35 Just as the men and women of Rochester’s satires live and love according to society’s dictates, Pascal saw justice as determined by society’s opinions. Unlike Pascal, however, Rochester does not present God as a solution to unhappiness and other problems.
----- Hobbes’ Leviathan (published when Rochester was about three) is often pointed to as a major influence on Rochester36, and with good reason. Anthony à Wood wrote that "the Court…not only debauched him but made him a perfect Hobbist."37 While it is not clear whether Wood meant that Rochester read Hobbes himself or was simply influenced by others’ Hobbesian attitudes is unclear, but both point to the young Earl learning about and espousing Hobbes’ ideas. After all, Hobbes’ Leviathan was one of the most significant books of its time (Hobbes himself had been a tutor to Charles II). However, several of Rochester’s poems point strongly to Hobbes as an influence, in particular, "Love and Life," whose second stanza is derived from Hobbes’ writings.
----- Leviathan, like some of Hobbes’ other writings, was highly controversial – Pepys called it "a book the Bishops will not let be printed again." Part of the work’s notoriety stems from Hobbes’ apparent disregard for religion as a source of enlightenment. While Hobbes viewed religion as useful, even necessary, for government, he did not espouse it as a way of becoming closer to God.
-----"Satire Against Reason and Mankind" shows Hobbesian influence throughout, particularly in its cynical view of humanity and reason. Hobbes saw humans as naturally fated to a life of conflict when a form of government is not present. In a now-famous passage, Hobbes explains that
during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.38
Without government, men would constantly be in conflict with one another, and life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."39 To avoid this, men create government, giving up some of their freedom in order to preserve their safety. Rochester’s couplet, "The good he acts, the ill he does endure, / ‘Tis all from fear, to make himself secure" (155-156) follows this idea closely. Both authors see laws and customs as artificial checks on human nature; the difference lies in their interpretation of it. Where Hobbes sees law as a positive force, Rochester deprecates it.
-----Like Rochester, Hobbes distinguished between proper reason and common reason, and the use thereof:
…reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art: but no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty; no more than an account is therefore well cast up, because a great many men have unanimously approved it… This NATURAL WIT, consisteth principally in two things; celerity of imagining, that is, swift succession of one thought to another; and steady direction to some approved end.40
Right reason is always available, but not always used; and "natural wit" proceeds towards an active end. Rochester’s approved form of reason is similarly rare, and intended to influence actions: "where action ceases, thought’s impertinent" (l. 95).
----- The chief subject over which Rochester and Hobbes differ is God. Hobbes insisted that God was unknowable, and that uniformity of religion was necessary for the existence of the commonwealth. Rochester, on the other hand, felt that religion was a fine thing and a source of happiness for those with the ability to believe, but did not himself believe that God existed.41
----- Overall, Rochester certainly appears to be a "Hobbist", if not a "perfect" one; he was familiar with the ideas of contemporary philosophers and embraced some, but not all, of their tenets. His personal philosophy is a unique blend of his own and others’ ideas. His emphasis on sexual honesty and complete disregard for religion sets him apart from many of his contemporaries, even when he agrees with them about human nature and societal hypocrisy.
-----As we have seen, there are several themes running through Rochester’s satirical poetry, ideas and ideals which crop up repeatedly. The most obvious is his emphasis on the importance of honesty and the repulsiveness of artifice. From the revolting fops of "A Ramble in St. James’s Park" and "Tunbridge Wells" to the society women of "A Letter Fancied from Artemisia" to the honest men held as ideals in "A Satire Against Reason and Mankind," the characters presented are judged according to the honesty of their actions. Those who are artificial are harshly rebuked; those who are not, are held up as (while unlikely to exist) the best of men.
-----Sexual honesty is likewise vital in Rochester’s works. Those who lack it, such as Corinna and the mother and daughter in "Tunbridge Wells," are mocked and reviled in the strongest terms. The ideal here is mutual love, honestly expressed; without it, love is a sham, a play enacted by disinterested players, and as unnatural and revolting as "mere lust" ("A Ramble in St. James’s Park," l. 98) is natural and commendable.
-----A strong dislike of artifice is also present in the poems’ emphasis that true wit is important. Those who pretend to be witty (the first "knight" of A Ramble), or steal wit from others (both species of fellow are found in "Tunbridge Wells") are reviled as strongly as those who are artificial in love. There is no ideal of true wit specifically presented in the poems themselves, but Rochester must have had one in mind, since, as Wyndham Lewis has pointed out, "in describing the negative or destructive side of human behavior, the satirist is establishing a positive foundation on which he can base his specific recommendation to virtue."42 Indeed, it is likely that Rochester viewed his own wit as true, as it is the opposite from false wit. Where false wit is artificial, Rochester’s own reveals artifice and pokes fun at its expense.
----- Reason is also an important theme in Rochester’s works. "A Satire upon Reason and Mankind" argues very strongly that natural reason, a logical manner of thinking, is right and useful, while the ‘reason’ of society is foolish and even harmful to one’s enjoyment of life. "A Satire" is the most obvious location of this theme, but it is also present in "A Letter Fancied from Artemisia." There, the women who do not think for themselves, but simply follow society and give up their natural intelligence and freedom are held up to scorn and mournful ridicule.
----- Taken together, these poems present a coherent set of ideals, a life philosophy. Whether it was Rochester’s own personal philosophy is debatable, but the consistent presence of the same ideas and the force with which they are presented points strongly toward Rochester’s belief in them.
|This page last altered: 12/16/99||Email Webmistress|