If one were to compile a list of the most outrageous, scandalous, and provocative poets in all of English literature, one name would have to lead all the rest: John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-80). His colourful private (and public) life at the court of King Charles II was dramatised in the film The Libertine, where Rochester was played by Johnny Depp. But what of Wilmot’s poems? Below we introduce ten of the Earl of Rochester’s best. Warning: these poems contain language and sexual content. Thou hast been warned!
Note: we’ve left out the poem ‘Signior Dildo’ because, although it’s been attributed to him, the Earl of Rochester (probably) didn’t write it. But if you’re curious, you can seek it out online.
For a good selection of the essential poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, we recommend the Selected Poems (Oxford World’s Classics).
1. ‘Against Constancy’.
Tell me no more of constancy,
The frivolous pretense
Of cold age, narrow jealousy,
Disease, and want of sense.
Let duller fools, on whom kind chance
Some easy heart has thrown,
Despairing higher to advance,
Be kind to one alone …
We kick off this pick of classic Rochester poems with one that takes a contrary view from that expressed in the majority of love poetry. Why should he be faithful to one person, the poet argues? It’s false, it leads to jealousy, and is not for him…
2. ‘Upon Nothing’.
Nothing! thou elder brother even to Shade:
That hadst a being ere the world was made,
And well fixed, art alone of ending not afraid.
Ere Time and Place were, Time and Place were not,
When primitive Nothing Something straight begot;
Then all proceeded from the great united What …
Part satire and part meditative poem, ‘Upon Nothing’ is – for once – not about sex (despite the early modern sexual double entendre lurking in its title). How can a libertine poet find meaning in anything when his life is dominated by court intrigue, sexual encounters, infidelity, and political machinations? Over at Poetry Foundation, Stephanie Burt ponders this very question in relation to one of Rochester’s most ambitious and wide-ranging poems.
3. ‘A Satire Against Mankind’.
Sometimes known by the longer title ‘A Satire Against Reason and Mankind’, this poem is another long satirical piece – but this time, against the whole of mankind and the state of being a member of the human race. Isn’t it a downer being a human endowed with reason, when being an animal would be so much simpler?
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 …
4. ‘The Disabled Debauchee’.
My pains at least some respite shall afford
While I behold the battles you maintain
When fleets of glasses sail about the board,
From whose broadsides volleys of wit shall rain …
Also known by the title ‘The Maim’d Debauchee’, this is one of Rochester’s most frequently anthologised poems. The unrepentant speaker (who is based to some extent on Rochester himself) declares that when he is old and incapable thanks to over-indulging in sex and drink, he will feel no remorse, and will urge others to do as he did. The poem is a fine example of Rochester’s amoral (if not actively immoral) poetry.
Fair nasty nymph, be clean and kind,
And all my joys restore;
By using paper still behind,
And sponges for before.
(Yes, he’s talking about her washing ‘down below.’) A short lyric in quatrains, this poem is essentially about men’s unwillingness to have sex with women who are on their period or who aren’t clean. Only the youngest and most naïve and keen men could overlook such things. One of Rochester’s more shocking poems in terms of its remarkably direct, even blunt, language for a poem written well over three centuries ago.
Fair Cloris in a pigsty lay,
Her tender herd lay by her:
She slept, in murmuring gruntlings they,
Complaining of the scorching day,
Her slumbers thus inspire.
The pastoral mode was popular in poetry written during Rochester’s time, and Cloris (meaning ‘green’) was the name given to many a rustic heroine from such poems. Here, though, Cloris’s fingers wander … ‘down below’ as she lies in the pigsty…
We get more filth – and filthy language (including a couple of notorious four-letter words) – in this poem which sees Rochester responding to a poem by Edmund Waller, ‘A Poem on St. James’s Park’. Waller’s poem whitewashes the park as an abode of beauty and wholesome activity, whereas Rochester lifts the lid on the sordid trysts that take place in the park:
Along these hallowed walks it was
That I beheld Corinna pass.
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.
But mark what creatures women are:
How infinitely vile, when fair!
8. ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’.
But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive,
To show my wished obedience vainly strive:
I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive.
Eager desires confound my first intent,
Succeeding shame does more success prevent,
And rage at last confirms me impotent …
One of Rochester’s best-known poems if not the best-known and most widely studied, this poem even gave its name to a mini-genre of poetry called the ‘imperfect enjoyment poem’: poems about the debt to pleasure that must be paid by those who indulge in promiscuous sex for its own sake. Rochester uses the pastoral mode for his poem, which sees the man unable to ‘perform’ when he’s with a beautiful woman. Rochester’s contemporary Aphra Behn would write a celebrated poem in response.
9. ‘A Satyr on Charles II’.
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition moves to get renown
Like the French fool, that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown …
Let’s bring this pick of John Wilmot’s poetry to a close with a couple of poems about his king, Charles II (reigned 1660-85), to whom Rochester was well-known: indeed, Rochester was one of Nell Gwyn’s lovers before the King took her as his mistress. However, when Rochester satirised Charles and his court in this 1673 poem, he was exiled for a time. Another poem to make liberal use of F-bombs and C-bombs…
10. ‘On the King’.
We’ll conclude this pick of the Earl of Rochester’s best poems by giving him the very last word, with his famous four-line verdict of King Charles II. It should be noted that this epitaph was tongue-in-cheek, not least because Rochester preceded Charles to the grave by five years:
Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King,
Whose word no man relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
For a good edition of the essential poems of the Earl of Rochester, we recommend the Selected Poems (Oxford World’s Classics).
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.