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Rochester And Obscenity Essay Research Paper

Rochester And Obscenity Essay, Research Paper “Rage at last confirms me impotent” (Rochester). How far is obscenity in Rochester’s work motivated by disquiet with the world at large, and how successful is Rochester’s ribaldry in fulfilling its satiric purpose?

Rochester And Obscenity Essay, Research Paper

“Rage at last confirms me impotent” (Rochester). How far is obscenity in Rochester’s work motivated by disquiet with the world at large, and how successful is Rochester’s ribaldry in fulfilling its satiric purpose?

Rochester’s poetry has been denounced by many as obscene and immoral. Samuel Johnson condemned his work and said that he lived and wrote “with an avowed contempt of decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious observation.” However, he is not without his admirers. Hazlitt respected his work, and remarked that “his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity”. It is true that Rochester’s work contains voluminous amounts of obscene language and metaphor. But this is not without reason, and does not mean his poetry is a light hearted and rude collection by a man who cared greatly for a debauched lifestyle. Frequently, the poetry contains an often very dark view of life in the Court (despite Rochester’s active participation in the courtly way of living), and some extremely clever and appropriate satire on King Charles II and the members of his court. The obscenity could be viewed as simply that – obscenity for the sake of it, but this may not be the case. There seems to be underlying feelings beneath the surface of the language, which reflect a dissatisfied soul observing the events around him. The question of the success of his ribaldry is one that requires a good deal of thought, as it is not always the bawdy poems that convey best the satire that Rochester aims for.

One of Rochester’s poems – a Song about Cloris – at first seems to be merely a poem about simple virtues, with humble characters found in the countryside. However, upon further inspection, this poem is a satirical parody of the epic poems of Homer with a considerably darker side than first imagined. It also contains some strange ideas concerning the psyches of women. The idea in the poem that a woman should be pleased to awake from a slumber where she thought she was losing her virginity to awake to a pig between her legs and still be “innocent and pleased” seems like a peculiar idea. It perhaps begins to explain some of the feelings Rochester has towards women. The idea of the woman not being in need of a man could have been a point of insult to Rochester, which could be why he describes her independence of men in such a perverse way:

“Frighted she wakes, and waking frigs.

Nature thus kindly eased

In dreams raised by her murmuring pigs

And her own thumb between her legs,

She’s innocent and pleased.”

(Song: 36-40)

Although the poem contains many sexual overtones, n this case, Rochester’s obscenity does not seem to be directed at or motivated by any particular events going on around him, as he is basing the style of his poem on the style of Ovid’s erotic poems. It does not in fact appear to be particularly obscene at first glance, in that everything he writes is cloaked in metaphor, so it is how the reader interprets the poem rather than straightforward ribaldry like some of his other poems – Signior Dildo for instance. Another poem that is similar to this song in that the rudeness doesn’t seem to be motivated by his agitation with the rest of the world is The Fall. This is an important poem for Rochester. It describes in abstract terms his anxieties – which it is not his personality that he is loved for, but “a frailer part”. He feels that he is in a fallen state, and that therefore there is a gap between human experience and perfect experience that he will never be able to bridge because of the fallen state he is in. Even when he is being coarse, he displays a gloomy sense of human existence. This does not become apparent until the poem is examined more closely. It seems the poem is more personal to Rochester, and concerns his own fears of inadequacies rather than the situation in the world at the time.

This gloomy sense of existence remains in his satires and lampoons, but the obscenity depicting Rochester’s disquiet with the world at large becomes more of an issue in a later poem – A Satyr on Charles II. The title is self evident, but the reasons for Rochester writing it are more complex. Rochester was supported by a pension from the king, but despite this, he still wants to make his vies known, if not to the king, then at least to his closest friends. The fact that he relied on Charles II for monetary needs (his) makes the fact that he was dissatisfied all the more apparent. It is obvious from the poem that he feels the king is not a good statesman, that in fact his “…prick, like thy buffoons at Court, Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.” (A Satyr on Charles II: 14 -15)

He takes the idea of the king being led by his penis rather than his skills as a monarch further later in the poem:

“‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,

The proudest peremptoriest prick alive…

Restlessly he rolls about from whore to whore,

A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.”

(A Satyr on Charles II: 16-17, 20-21)

Rochester is being obscene because it emphasises the way he feels the king is behaving – that he is wasting his time on prostitutes and good living instead of concentrating on his conflict with Louis XIV. It gives the effect that perhaps he was looking for – it is shocking to think of one’s monarch in terms of a Casanova type character, as opposed to a stately and dignified ruler. It is evidently motivated by events within the world at large. This is not the only poem in which his coarse language makes a mockery out of the king and other people in the court. It shows that he has a darker side to his work, which reveals itself in these lampoons. The poems also highlight his atheism and disbelief in religion. The whole period for Rochester is one of hypocrisy and dissimulation. His anxiety and disquiet becomes apparent in “Satyr against Reason and Mankind”, where Rochester comes out and says that he believes animals are more civilised than human beings:

“‘Tis evident, Beasts are in their degree,

As wise at least, and better far than he.

Those Creatures, are the wisest who attain…”

(Satyr Against Reason and Mankind 115-117)

The idea that the members of the king’s Court were no better than he himself is emphasised in Signior Dildo, which describes a marriage between the Duke of York and Mary of Modena. Rochester makes fun of the bride, and describes some sexual practices he believes her to previously have practised:

“The signior was one of Her Highness’s train,

And helped to conduct her over the main;

But now she cries out, “To the Duke I will go!

I have no more need for Signior Dildo.”

(Signior Dildo 5-8)

This also seems to suggest that at least part of the reason for the marriage was that of relieving sexual frustration. Rochester has similar ideas about Mary of Modena’s mother, saying that even she made use of ‘Signior Dildo’. The poem seems to highlight Rochester’s belief that the Court of Charles II was not the elegant and refined place that people may have believed it to be. The poetry seems to concern itself with faces, and how a person can change their attitude in the face of the public, while being a completely different character behind closed doors. ‘A Ramble in St James’ Park’ goes a little way to perhaps describing how Rochester may have felt about women at least:

“But when you doe the inside see

You’ll find that things are but as they should be

And that ’tis neither love nor passion

But only for your recreation.”

(A Ramble in St James’ Park 13-16).

These feelings of malcontent which reveal themselves in his lewd verse are further highlighted in Signior Dildo, where a good friend of Rochester, Henry Savile, was caught in the bedroom of the Countess of Northumberland, where he proceeded to offer her a stream of declarations of love. He also mentions this incident in Timon. This is an interesting insight into life in the Court, and is, apart from the coarse description, quite funny. Rochester attempts to write a penitential poem in To the Postboy, which shows that perhaps he is not the rakish cad that some of his poems make him out to be, as he apparently feels bad for having “outswilled Bacchus” and “swived more whores more ways than Sodom’s walls…”. And he now believes that “The readiest way to Hell…’s by Rochester.”

Rochester’s use of licentiousness in the poems does not always have the desired effect on his satiric works. As mentioned earlier, sometimes he is perfectly capable of success with ‘clean’ lines, such as in ‘Satyr’. See also Upon Nothing, which contains a frustrated open question to God. Rochester asks why inept people are allowed to govern the country:

“But Nothing, why does something still permit

That sacred monarchs should in council sit

With persons highly thought at best for nothing fit,

While weighty Something modestly abstains

From princes’ coffers, and from statesman’s brains,

And nothing there like stately Nothing reigns?”

(Upon Nothing (38-42)

These poems contain questions that were being pondered by a few writers in this time, and they obviously also interested Rochester. In fact, A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind provoked a lot of responses from clergymen. It accuses them of being hypocrites who take bribes, and asks of them “Is there a churchman on who on God relies; Whose life, his faith and doctrine justifies?” It goes on to say that they are all vain and prefer a luxurious life as opposed to a pious one. It shows how angry he was with the behaviour of these clergymen who people relied on to give them spiritual guidance, but later caused Rochester to write, in To the Postboy,” I have blasphemed my God and libeled Kings”.

This proves that his writing is not just pornography, written with the intention of making his friends laugh. It shows the serious side to John Wilmot that people at the time may not have been entirely aware of. Also, the fact that during the time he was writing, he was unable to show his work to many people and those who may have seen it could have got the wrong idea about what he was trying to say. They could also have been offended by his description of an event that could otherwise be quite amusing. This is not difficult with some of the work – it can be misleading because the obscenity tends to veil the ideas that are behind it, blinding a judgmental reader to its true intentions. In poems such as ‘Timon’, this becomes a problem. The poem is actually a social commentary and satire on the time, mentioning some famous (or infamous) historical figures of the time, such as ‘Mother Mosley’, Falkland, and Sir John Suckling. There are also mentions of literary works that were circulating, including one by John Crowne, who actually dedicated a play to Rochester in 1672 – ‘The History of Charles the Eighth of France’. However, the fact that Rochester brings into play a variety of obscenities concerning sexual activity and prostitutes could cause the reader to lose sight of the fact that Rochester appeared to be well read and quite popular amongst other authors at the time he was writing. This would be unfortunate, because often his poetry is both interesting and amusing.

On the other hand, they are successful in conveying Rochester’s true beliefs about the time – his atheism, his views on Charles II. The Fall and The Imperfect Enjoyment are examples of his work, which are obscene but let the reader know how he feels about certain things – the way his mind works. Imperfect Enjoyment for example, goes through several changes in register. It begins as a romantic and amorous poem, with many metaphors to disguise the fact he is talking about making love:

“Her nimble tongue, Love’s lesser lightning, played

Within my mouth and to my thoughts conveyed

Swift orders that I should prepare to throw

The all-dissolving thunderbolt below…”

(’The Imperfect Enjoyment” 7-10)

The poem then becomes more explicit as Rochester gets angry with himself for his lack of performance, and uses some lewd language to describe the woman, referring to her as a “cunt”, while he insists on trying to carry on what he has begun, with his “dead cinder”. The poem then changes again, becoming more political than romantic – a complete change from how it was begun. This once again highlights Rochester’s pessimism and dissatisfaction.

These beliefs also highlight how others felt at the time, even if they chose not to write what they were truly feeling so as not to offend. Rochester was not like this – he was content to show his poems to only a small circle in their unexpurgated forms rather than to rewrite them in order to make money from them, unlike poets such as Dryden. In this way, he is to be admired, and it is easy to understand why people such as Hazlitt respected him.

Through the use of obscenity, Rochester actually makes some good points in poems such as Satyr and A Satyr Against King Charles II. Although it takes a certain amount of interpretation, he can be seen to be successful in his use of obscenity in satire, although he has proved that he does not always need to take this route to write an effective and biting satirical poem. In fact, the indecency at times gives them a ’school boy humour’ quality, which takes away some of the credibility which may have existed in the poems. Also it can be concluded that the use of obscenity was often motivated by disquiet with certain situations at the time, as can be seen from his comments about the king and some of the members in his court, but again this was not always the case. Occasionally his bawdy language was used in poems that mimicked the style of some very early poets such as Homer and Ovid, which may explain his views concerning women. An example of this comes out in A Letter From Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country, where he talks about the vanity of women and their “silly sex!” who “turn gypsies for a meaner liberty”. However, because of the way he deals with the poem about Cloris for example, it is not easy to interpret it as a satirical parody on the epic, as it lends itself more towards being simply a rude poem about a woman who takes care of pigs. This is not entirely successful, but the poems can be taken for what they are if the lewd contents are accepted as part of Rochester’s style, and the poems are read taking that into account.

“Rage at last confirms me impotent” (Rochester). How far is obscenity in Rochester’s work motivated by disquiet with the world at large, and how successful is Rochester’s ribaldry in fulfilling its satiric purpose?

Rochester’s poetry has been denounced by many as obscene and immoral. Samuel Johnson condemned his work and said that he lived and wrote “with an avowed contempt of decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious observation.” However, he is not without his admirers. Hazlitt respected his work, and remarked that “his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity”. It is true that Rochester’s work contains voluminous amounts of obscene language and metaphor. But this is not without reason, and does not mean his poetry is a light hearted and rude collection by a man who cared greatly for a debauched lifestyle. Frequently, the poetry contains an often very dark view of life in the Court (despite Rochester’s active participation in the courtly way of living), and some extremely clever and appropriate satire on King Charles II and the members of his court. The obscenity could be viewed as simply that – obscenity for the sake of it, but this may not be the case. There seems to be underlying feelings beneath the surface of the language, which reflect a dissatisfied soul observing the events around him. The question of the success of his ribaldry is one that requires a good deal of thought, as it is not always the bawdy poems that convey best the satire that Rochester aims for.

One of Rochester’s poems – a Song about Cloris – at first seems to be merely a poem about simple virtues, with humble characters found in the countryside. However, upon further inspection, this poem is a satirical parody of the epic poems of Homer with a considerably darker side than first imagined. It also contains some strange ideas concerning the psyches of women. The idea in the poem that a woman should be pleased to awake from a slumber where she thought she was losing her virginity to awake to a pig between her legs and still be “innocent and pleased” seems like a peculiar idea. It perhaps begins to explain some of the feelings Rochester has towards women. The idea of the woman not being in need of a man could have been a point of insult to Rochester, which could be why he describes her independence of men in such a perverse way:

“Frighted she wakes, and waking frigs.

Nature thus kindly eased

In dreams raised by her murmuring pigs

And her own thumb between her legs,

She’s innocent and pleased.”

(Song: 36-40)

Although the poem contains many sexual overtones, n this case, Rochester’s obscenity does not seem to be directed at or motivated by any particular events going on around him, as he is basing the style of his poem on the style of Ovid’s erotic poems. It does not in fact appear to be particularly obscene at first glance, in that everything he writes is cloaked in metaphor, so it is how the reader interprets the poem rather than straightforward ribaldry like some of his other poems – Signior Dildo for instance. Another poem that is similar to this song in that the rudeness doesn’t seem to be motivated by his agitation with the rest of the world is The Fall. This is an important poem for Rochester. It describes in abstract terms his anxieties – which it is not his personality that he is loved for, but “a frailer part”. He feels that he is in a fallen state, and that therefore there is a gap between human experience and perfect experience that he will never be able to bridge because of the fallen state he is in. Even when he is being coarse, he displays a gloomy sense of human existence. This does not become apparent until the poem is examined more closely. It seems the poem is more personal to Rochester, and concerns his own fears of inadequacies rather than the situation in the world at the time.

This gloomy sense of existence remains in his satires and lampoons, but the obscenity depicting Rochester’s disquiet with the world at large becomes more of an issue in a later poem – A Satyr on Charles II. The title is self evident, but the reasons for Rochester writing it are more complex. Rochester was supported by a pension from the king, but despite this, he still wants to make his vies known, if not to the king, then at least to his closest friends. The fact that he relied on Charles II for monetary needs (his) makes the fact that he was dissatisfied all the more apparent. It is obvious from the poem that he feels the king is not a good statesman, that in fact his “…prick, like thy buffoons at Court, Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.” (A Satyr on Charles II: 14 -15)

He takes the idea of the king being led by his penis rather than his skills as a monarch further later in the poem:

“‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,

The proudest peremptoriest prick alive…

Restlessly he rolls about from whore to whore,

A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.”

(A Satyr on Charles II: 16-17, 20-21)

Rochester is being obscene because it emphasises the way he feels the king is behaving – that he is wasting his time on prostitutes and good living instead of concentrating on his conflict with Louis XIV. It gives the effect that perhaps he was looking for – it is shocking to think of one’s monarch in terms of a Casanova type character, as opposed to a stately and dignified ruler. It is evidently motivated by events within the world at large. This is not the only poem in which his coarse language makes a mockery out of the king and other people in the court. It shows that he has a darker side to his work, which reveals itself in these lampoons. The poems also highlight his atheism and disbelief in religion. The whole period for Rochester is one of hypocrisy and dissimulation. His anxiety and disquiet becomes apparent in “Satyr against Reason and Mankind”, where Rochester comes out and says that he believes animals are more civilised than human beings:

“‘Tis evident, Beasts are in their degree,

As wise at least, and better far than he.

Those Creatures, are the wisest who attain…”

(Satyr Against Reason and Mankind 115-117)

The idea that the members of the king’s Court were no better than he himself is emphasised in Signior Dildo, which describes a marriage between the Duke of York and Mary of Modena. Rochester makes fun of the bride, and describes some sexual practices he believes her to previously have practised:

“The signior was one of Her Highness’s train,

And helped to conduct her over the main;

But now she cries out, “To the Duke I will go!

I have no more need for Signior Dildo.”

(Signior Dildo 5-8)

This also seems to suggest that at least part of the reason for the marriage was that of relieving sexual frustration. Rochester has similar ideas about Mary of Modena’s mother, saying that even she made use of ‘Signior Dildo’. The poem seems to highlight Rochester’s belief that the Court of Charles II was not the elegant and refined place that people may have believed it to be. The poetry seems to concern itself with faces, and how a person can change their attitude in the face of the public, while being a completely different character behind closed doors. ‘A Ramble in St James’ Park’ goes a little way to perhaps describing how Rochester may have felt about women at least:

“But when you doe the inside see

You’ll find that things are but as they should be

And that ’tis neither love nor passion

But only for your recreation.”

(A Ramble in St James’ Park 13-16).

These feelings of malcontent which reveal themselves in his lewd verse are further highlighted in Signior Dildo, where a good friend of Rochester, Henry Savile, was caught in the bedroom of the Countess of Northumberland, where he proceeded to offer her a stream of declarations of love. He also mentions this incident in Timon. This is an interesting insight into life in the Court, and is, apart from the coarse description, quite funny. Rochester attempts to write a penitential poem in To the Postboy, which shows that perhaps he is not the rakish cad that some of his poems make him out to be, as he apparently feels bad for having “outswilled Bacchus” and “swived more whores more ways than Sodom’s walls…”. And he now believes that “The readiest way to Hell…’s by Rochester.”

Rochester’s use of licentiousness in the poems does not always have the desired effect on his satiric works. As mentioned earlier, sometimes he is perfectly capable of success with ‘clean’ lines, such as in ‘Satyr’. See also Upon Nothing, which contains a frustrated open question to God. Rochester asks why inept people are allowed to govern the country:

“But Nothing, why does something still permit

That sacred monarchs should in council sit

With persons highly thought at best for nothing fit,

While weighty Something modestly abstains

From princes’ coffers, and from statesman’s brains,

And nothing there like stately Nothing reigns?”

(Upon Nothing (38-42)

These poems contain questions that were being pondered by a few writers in this time, and they obviously also interested Rochester. In fact, A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind provoked a lot of responses from clergymen. It accuses them of being hypocrites who take bribes, and asks of them “Is there a churchman on who on God relies; Whose life, his faith and doctrine justifies?” It goes on to say that they are all vain and prefer a luxurious life as opposed to a pious one. It shows how angry he was with the behaviour of these clergymen who people relied on to give them spiritual guidance, but later caused Rochester to write, in To the Postboy,” I have blasphemed my God and libeled Kings”.

This proves that his writing is not just pornography, written with the intention of making his friends laugh. It shows the serious side to John Wilmot that people at the time may not have been entirely aware of. Also, the fact that during the time he was writing, he was unable to show his work to many people and those who may have seen it could have got the wrong idea about what he was trying to say. They could also have been offended by his description of an event that could otherwise be quite amusing. This is not difficult with some of the work – it can be misleading because the obscenity tends to veil the ideas that are behind it, blinding a judgmental reader to its true intentions. In poems such as ‘Timon’, this becomes a problem. The poem is actually a social commentary and satire on the time, mentioning some famous (or infamous) historical figures of the time, such as ‘Mother Mosley’, Falkland, and Sir John Suckling. There are also mentions of literary works that were circulating, including one by John Crowne, who actually dedicated a play to Rochester in 1672 – ‘The History of Charles the Eighth of France’. However, the fact that Rochester brings into play a variety of obscenities concerning sexual activity and prostitutes could cause the reader to lose sight of the fact that Rochester appeared to be well read and quite popular amongst other authors at the time he was writing. This would be unfortunate, because often his poetry is both interesting and amusing.

On the other hand, they are successful in conveying Rochester’s true beliefs about the time – his atheism, his views on Charles II. The Fall and The Imperfect Enjoyment are examples of his work, which are obscene but let the reader know how he feels about certain things – the way his mind works. Imperfect Enjoyment for example, goes through several changes in register. It begins as a romantic and amorous poem, with many metaphors to disguise the fact he is talking about making love:

“Her nimble tongue, Love’s lesser lightning, played

Within my mouth and to my thoughts conveyed

Swift orders that I should prepare to throw

The all-dissolving thunderbolt below…”

(’The Imperfect Enjoyment” 7-10)

The poem then becomes more explicit as Rochester gets angry with himself for his lack of performance, and uses some lewd language to describe the woman, referring to her as a “cunt”, while he insists on trying to carry on what he has begun, with his “dead cinder”. The poem then changes again, becoming more political than romantic – a complete change from how it was begun. This once again highlights Rochester’s pessimism and dissatisfaction.

These beliefs also highlight how others felt at the time, even if they chose not to write what they were truly feeling so as not to offend. Rochester was not like this – he was content to show his poems to only a small circle in their unexpurgated forms rather than to rewrite them in order to make money from them, unlike poets such as Dryden. In this way, he is to be admired, and it is easy to understand why people such as Hazlitt respected him.

Through the use of obscenity, Rochester actually makes some good points in poems such as Satyr and A Satyr Against King Charles II. Although it takes a certain amount of interpretation, he can be seen to be successful in his use of obscenity in satire, although he has proved that he does not always need to take this route to write an effective and biting satirical poem. In fact, the indecency at times gives them a ’school boy humour’ quality, which takes away some of the credibility which may have existed in the poems. Also it can be concluded that the use of obscenity was often motivated by disquiet with certain situations at the time, as can be seen from his comments about the king and some of the members in his court, but again this was not always the case. Occasionally his bawdy language was used in poems that mimicked the style of some very early poets such as Homer and Ovid, which may explain his views concerning women. An example of this comes out in A Letter From Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country, where he talks about the vanity of women and their “silly sex!” who “turn gypsies for a meaner liberty”. However, because of the way he deals with the poem about Cloris for example, it is not easy to interpret it as a satirical parody on the epic, as it lends itself more towards being simply a rude poem about a woman who takes care of pigs. This is not entirely successful, but the poems can be taken for what they are if the lewd contents are accepted as part of Rochester’s style, and the poems are read taking that into account.

Bibliography

Rochester’s poetry (Selected photocopies)

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