She Feels The Foe Within:

An examination of the poetry of Lord Rochester

Winner of the Peggy Grant Award for the Outstanding Dissertation,
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 2006


John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, seems destined to be forever remembered as the most infamous, the most debauched and the most obscene English poet of the seventeenth century. The fact that his life was recently made into a Hollywood movie called The Libertine and starring Johnny Depp as the man himself supports this concept of Rochester, as it is the persistence of this rakish reputation that ensures his legend lives on. It could be argued that men such as Marvell or Dryden left superior poetic legacies to Rochester, but the notion that a film of either of those poets’ lives would seduce cinema audiences to the same extent in the twenty-first century would not constitute any such debate.

In recent decades, biographical and critical accounts of Rochester have begun to abstain from the traditional narrow judgements of him, such as that passed by Thomas Longueville in 1902, who accused Rochester of leading a band of courtiers whose:

lives’ object and work was the gratification of their carnal appetites; their art, such as it was, merely served as a condiment to savour their sensual enjoyments”

This quotation is useful in that it draws the distinction necessary for this exploration of Rochester. A biographical study of Rochester designed to generate interest, such as The Libertine movie, may indeed come to the same conclusion as Longueville over the way Wilmot conducted his courtly life, and this particular judgement would be difficult to refute. However, Longueville’s comment on Rochester’s “art” is not merely reductive, but quite simply false. In one terse generalization, Rochester is condemned to representation as an indolent and immoral masculine predator devoid of artistic integrity.

The purpose of this investigation of Rochester is not to simply challenge this perception, as this has been done by numerous writers and critics through studying the tone and content of his letters to his wife and his mistress. In this case, such biographical information will have only peripheral importance. Instead, focus will be on the “art”, and on making interpretations of a variety of critical accounts, utilizing both insightful and erroneous readings. This method enables an analysis of Rochester with the ultimate function of proving firstly that Rochester did not and could not fully ‘savour his sensual enjoyments’, and secondly that the essential reason for this was he was never able to have a natural human identification with his own body.

These points lead to the central theory proposed by this dissertation: that although Rochester as a man in the seventeenth century could never recognize or express it, his true desire was to escape this male body and become a female.

The first aim, to convey that this notorious philanderer was actually never content with the sexual act, seems illogical when considered next to his poetic litanies of conquest. Yet it is a quotation from D.H.Lawrence in defence of his own sexual writing that may elucidate the root of this argument:

“It means being able to use the so-called obscene words, because these are a natural part of the mind’s consciousness of the body. Obscenity only comes in when the mind despises and fears the body, and the body hates and resists the mind.”

The first chapter of this dissertation will be concerned with the vast array of sexual activity within Rochester’s poetry. It may be continually juxtaposed with Lawrence’s statement on writing about sex, as Rochester never attains the harmony of mind and body that allows him to compose poems of satisfying or lasting sexual love and often resorts to a vile obscenity.

The second aim is to express what the critic Warren Chernaik observed in Rochester as “a yearning for deliverance from the prison of the flesh” . This prison shall be viewed from outside, inside and finally next to the feminine ‘other’.

The third objective is to examine Rochester’s unconscious desire to cross the gender barrier and become a female. The inferences taken from his poetry are best examined in relation to Shoshana Felman’s definition of the unconscious:

“As the unconscious traverses consciousness, a theoretical body of thought always is traversed by its own unconscious, its own ‘unthought’, of which it is not aware, but which contains in itself as the very conditions of its disruption, as the possibility of its own self-subversion.”

Chapter One: “The Action Love” – The Sexual Act In Rochester’s Poetry

Part I: The Happy Minute
As was established by the Longueville quotation in the introduction, Rochester’s enduring infamy can largely be attributed to the sexual nature of virtually all of his poetry. And yet it is apparent that his work does not contain a plethora of orgasmic delights. The critic Marianne Thormahlen attempted to categorize Rochester’s sexual poetry in her 1993 study Rochester: The Poems In Context, and found:

“It is significant that the ‘fulfillment achieved’ category only contains two specimens, and that they are both narratives that in no way involve the narrator himself.”

The two specimens referred to are Fair Chloris in a Pigsty Lay and As Chloris Full of Harmless Thought. As Thormahlen states, the sexual encounters do not feature the participation of a first-person male narrator, and it is also evident from these poems that they are not simple accounts of arousal and consummation. Fair Chloris in a Pigsty Lay is the tale of a shepherdess lured away from her herd of pigs by a deceitful admirer, who then attempts to rape her:

“Now pierced is her virgin zone,

She feels the foe within it,

She hears a broken amorous groan,

The panting lover’s fainting moan,

Just in the happy minute.”

This short extract illustrates several points about Rochester’s representations of sexual pleasure. Thormahlen’s observation is borne out here, as the person enjoying a ‘fulfillment’ seems to be the “the panting lover”, not the ‘I’ which could indicate Rochester describing or imagining a personal experience. That her “virgin zone” is “pierced” introduces the recurring theme that the reality of sex is that it is not the unifying and mutually pleasurable event he feels it should be, and that elements of conflict between the sexes are inherent in the act itself. The terming of the male member as a ‘foe’ expresses an attitude about the male body that shall be examined more fully in the next chapter, but again the insinuation of conflict is significant. “The happy minute” parallels with the orgasm in the other of Thormahlen’s fulfilment poems, As Chloris full of Harmless Thought, where it is given as “the lucky minute” . The use of “minute” to denote orgasm may be extended to convey Rochester’s belief that love between a man and a woman was always a transitory state, one which would soon dissolve back into biological and emotional tension.

A final point on the Fair Chloris... extract is that the ‘fulfillment achieved’ through the sexual union is solely that of the male rapist, and the subsequent stanza of the poem reveals that Chloris must masturbate upon waking from this dream to gain her own sexual relief. This inequality between the male and female sexual capacities is one of the essential issues running through this investigation, and it is here pertinent to discuss this with a view to analyzing Rochester’s negative proclamations on heterosexual sex.

Part II: Dull Delights
It is a singular characteristic of Rochester’s writing that in moments of sexual disillusionment he occasionally refrains from the traditional male tropes of cursing his own physical inadequacy or foisting blame on the polluting influence of a female companion; preferring instead to call into question the very existence of sexual pleasure.

In his magnificently vulgar poetic drama Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, several male characters pronounce heterosexual sex a mundane exercise. King Bolloxinian proclaims: “The Drudgery has worn out my desire” , and later Pockonello decries “Cunts repeated dull delights” . Rochester also articulates this feeling through a first-person male narrator in the poem Love A Woman! Y’Are An Ass!:

“Let the porter and the groom,

Things designed for dirty slaves,

Drudge in fair Aurelia’s womb,

To get supplies for age, and graves.”

This expression can be located in a social and historical matrix, as the view that heterosexual sex was a working-class pursuit and a fear that sex was a drain on the youth and strength of men were both common seventeenth century beliefs. Yet the third line highlights Rochester’s curious view of sex once more as whilst it acknowledges that Aurelia is ‘fair’, this reiteration of the drudgery of the act seems to suggest that he had a type of biological aversion to sex.

It is at this juncture that the first inquiry on Rochester’s consciousness may be made. It should never be hastily assumed that the views expressed by a poetic persona are necessarily that of its author, especially with an accomplished satirist like Rochester. However, it must be regarded as significant that the paucity of orgasmic joys and remarks of sexual ‘drudgery’ are present in the works of a man so readily associated with sexual decadence.

The presence of these sentiments may be explained with reference to a line from the character Tarsander in Rochester’s short poetic drama Actus Primus: Scena Prima: “What pleasure has a gamester, if he knows / Whene’er he plays that he must always lose?” . Tarsander here articulates the influence of anxiety on his enjoyment of sex. Whereas Bolloxinian, Pockonello and the narrator of Love A Woman... cast doubts on the actual sensations of sex, Tarsander introduces the idea that his physical pleasure is curtailed by the knowledge that his sexual capacity can never be equal to that of the woman. It remains possible that Rochester merely attributes this sentiment to the Tarsander character for the purpose of that piece, but by placing the origin of this expression at the author’s own psyche, it seems logical to conclude that this anxiety over the male sexual role is elsewhere being transferred into the slander of the sexual act itself.

Rochester traces this natural inequity between the sexes back to the inception of mankind in The Fall. In humankind’s prelapsarian state the sexual act was an involuntarily pleasurable function, as for both sexes “Enjoyment waited on desire” . From then on the development of man has reached the stage where men are “never of our joys secure” and sex is here again dubbed the “dull delights” . In the concluding stanza of this poem, the setting shifts from a remote comment on the sexual history of the species to the narrator’s direct address to Chloris imploring her to love him for more than sex. The notion of a sexual role-reversal in this poem is brought to light in another quotation from Marianne Thormahlen:

“The speaker, who has acted as if the quality of sensual pleasure were his sole concern, sees that his own inadequacies in this respect may lose him a mistress who means something to him beyond such pleasure... a traditional sex-role pattern is reversed: the man is afraid that the woman only wants him for whatever sexual services he is able to provide.”

The responsibility for the ‘dull delights’ has now been transferred from the ‘Cunt’ in Pockonello’s line earlier to the inadequacy of male performance, and Thormahlen believes acceptance of this responsibility has forced the narrator of this poem into adopting the traditionally feminine position of being perceived or utilised as a disposable sexual resource. This retreat from masculinity and resulting confusion over sexual roles can be traced through different poems and use of different poetic devices.

Part III: Supped Up
This section shall attempt to explicate Rochester’s myriad of conflicting views and feelings on sex; to convey that the confusion he suffered over his role in the sexual act caused a loathing of himself as a man, which may have been so deeply entrenched in his inner self that it remained outside his own realm of awareness.

In her book The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity, Teresa Brennan explains the theory of feminist Helene Deutsch:

“...she describes feminine passivity as ‘activity turned inwards’, and contrasts this with the external direction that marks masculinity. One of her main arguments [is] that ‘the man attains his final stage of development when he discovers the vagina in the world outside himself and takes possession of it sadistically’”

It can be proposed that Rochester never attains this final stage. A sadistic possession of the vagina would entail ‘taking’ it for one’s own pleasure, and the requisite secure and selfish state of mind is something that this examination has hence far suggested Rochester never experienced. By Deutsch’s criteria then Rochester, whilst obviously being a biological man, did not ‘become’ a fully developed, ‘genderized’ man.

Although Rochester is therefore not the archetypal active masculine ‘taker’, nor does he seem content to experience what Deutsch calls a “feminine passivity”. The speaker of Upon Leaving His Mistress comments on his lover Celia: “On her no showers unwelcome fall, / Her willing womb retains ‘em all” , and in A Ramble In St.James’s Park Corinna is accused of being a “whore in understanding, / A passive pot for fools to spend in!” . To Rochester, ‘feminine passivity’ signifies mindless, mercenary, mechanized copulation, and had he reached Deutsch’s final stage of masculine development as a true rake-hero would have done, this stance would not have presented an issue for him. That it did is shown by the images of the first-person narrator’s role in the sexual act in The Imperfect Enjoyment: “A common fucking-post, / On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt” and in the description of a romantic rendezvous with the aforementioned Corinna is A Ramble In St.James’s Park:

“When your lewd cunt came spewing home,

Drenched with the seed of half the town,

My dram of sperm was supped up after

For the digestive surfeit-water.

Full-gorged at another time

With a vast meal of nasty slime,

Which your devouring cunt had drawn

From porters’ backs and footmen’s brawn”

When objectifying himself, Rochester sees himself as a passive “fucking-post” that relief is taken from in this instance, and upon surveying his sexual relationship with Corinna, he feels his sexual efforts are “supped up” almost as an afterthought of her otherwise repugnant sex life. Many critics have concentrated on this vilification of Corinna as a tirade against the female role in sex she exemplifies – that of an infinite receptacle. The passage quoted from the Ramble... is the subject of studies by Warren Chernaik and S.H.Clark:

“... a series of highly charged verbs and participles, which evoke visual and kinetic image of an unsettling kind: ‘spewing’, ‘Drench’t’, ‘gorged’, ‘devouring’, all suggesting not only moral disapproval but physical aversion.”

“‘Spewing home’ seems more appropriate to the behaviour of the narrator himself; and if one pursues this somewhat lurid transference, he receives as well as adds to the ‘seed’ within. The voracity of the ‘devouring Cunt’ seems part of its attraction rather than a cause of repulsion. ‘Full gorged’ would seem attached to ‘Cunt’, but transfers itself to the speaker in both active and passive senses: he is himself swallowed up but also bloated by receiving the ‘vast meal’... The ‘nasty slime’ is displaced from the juices of female arousal onto the male ejaculate; but the point is that the two are inseparable.”

The first quotation emphasizes the repulsive qualities of Corinna’s sexual proclivities, and suggest that the speaker is presenting himself as a sort of moral superior. However in an examination such as this where the focus is on the consciousness of the writer, Chernaik may be accused of ignoring the discernible affinity between speaker and writer.

Clark does not deny these repulsive qualities, but by merging them with those of the speaker he arrives at a truer reading of the passage. That the speaker willingly allows himself to be “supped up” by the monstrous Corinna indicts himself in this debasement of sex, and the obscenities uttered by him in describing Corinna can be said to be a further manifestation of his anxiety at only being able to provide a “dram” to a “devouring Cunt” that gorges on half the town. The speaker’s complicity in this revolting distortion of the prelapsarian ‘enjoyment’ of The Fall, and the shameful tone of his confession to functioning as a “fucking-post” for whores, are crucial evidence in favour of the point that Rochester was physically and mentally unable to function as the sexually self-satisfying masculine body of the Deutsch quote.

Part IV: The Quintessence of Debauchery
However, the sexual activities detailed in Rochester’s writing are not just limited to heterosexual unions. There are several instances of first-person speakers indulging in sodomy, in addition to this being the subject of Rochester’s most expansive single work, the play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery. Homosexual relations are a homogenous grouping in Rochester’s poetry, and there are several factors which indicate that he gained more enjoyment from sex with men than women. The earlier quotations from Sodom... describe the major male characters’ blasé attitudes towards heterosexual sex. King Bolloxinian expresses a contrasting view on sodomy:

“Come, my soft flesh, our sodoms dear delight:

To honored Lust thou art betraid this night.

Lust with thy beauty cannot brook delay.

Between thy pretty haunches I will play.”

The anxieties present in Rochester’s descriptions of sex with women are conspicuously absent. The delight is not ‘dull’, and in fact the excitement of lustful anticipation is palpable in reading this extract. The homoerotic effect of such terms as “soft flesh”, “thy beauty” and “pretty haunches” are Rochester’s acknowledgement of the appeal of other men’s bodies. The real significance lies in the self-assured assertion “I will play”. This is precisely the type of sexual promise that a man such as Rochester would be expected to make to himself – except it is occurring in reference to a homosexual dalliance rather than a heterosexual one.

Other instances of this anxiety-free attitude towards homosexuality arise in Love A Woman? Y’Are An Ass!: “There’s a sweet soft page, of mine, / Does the trick worth forty wenches” and The Disabled Debauchee: “And the best kiss was the deciding lot: / Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy”.

To once again turn to the quotation from The Interpretation of the Flesh cited earlier, Rochester now seems to have attained the final stage in his masculine development as the sensually described “sweet soft page” is said to be “mine” so this ‘final stage of manhood’ has been attained without taking possession of the vagina at all.

The ensuing boast about the Page’s sexual ability may be viewed as the antidote to the polluting effects of Corinna’s multiple infidelities in the Ramble..., and as a disavowal of heterosexual sex. The remark of the ‘Debauchee’ also reveals some intriguing attitudes, as he is relaxed enough to compete for ‘use’ of the boy, and it must be noted that sex with the female is not even an option here – both want to use the boy.

Therefore it can be inferred that Rochester’s anxiety over heterosexual sex was due to his homosexual preference, but readings of other poems suggest this is untrue. Paul Hammond’s essay Rochester’s Homoeroticism expresses why:

“...homosexual sex is never included within a grammar of love... is supplementary, always a sign of something else... [in reference to Sodom] its frisson depends upon the... assumption that sodomy is the ultimate form of transgression against society, nature and God. The play reduces the male body to members and orifices”

Hammond is correct in stating that homosexuality is never mentioned in conjunction with love, and the poetic examples already given support this view. The invective against Corinna in the Ramble... is only ‘spewed’ forth as she rejects his love (“Who gave you privileges above / The nice allowances of love?” ), and diatribes of this sort are only never launched against these male partners as there is no love and thus no real emotion involved.

That Rochester perceived heterosexual love as the one true love and the natural way of humankind is articulated in Fuckadilla’s ‘Epilogue’ to Sodom. She here supersedes the multiple voices of the play to address men as a species and mount an impassioned vindication of sex with women:

“Wee, who for pleasures greatest joys were borne,...

Naked weele lye to entertayne yor Tarses,

Soe you will but forsake mens beastly arses...

Baffle not nature with yor silly hands

But come to us when e’re yor Pintle stands.”

To say that women are born for heterosexual sex, that it is “pleasures greatest joys” and to describe any other form of sexual activity as trying to baffle nature are a defence that could only have been undertaken so convincingly by a writer who was at least sympathetic to this perspective.

The first-person narrator of The Imperfect Enjoyment also espouses heterosexual sex as the natural means of copulation: “Woman or man, nor aught its fury stayed, / Where’er it pierced, a cunt it found, or made” . This last line proposes that sodomy is actually legitimate, and Paul Hammond believes Rochester wished to “make it clear that the male body is no more than a convenient substitute for the female” . This indiscriminate bisexuality of Rochester and the implications of it are most accurately, and self-referentially, depicted in Regime de Vivre:

“I rise at eleven, I dine about two,

I get drunk before seven, and the next thing I do,

I send for my whore, when for fear of a clap,

I spend in her hand, and I spew in her lap...

I storm, and I roar, and I fall in a rage.

And missing my whore, I bugger my page.

Then crop-sick all morning I rail at my men,

And in bed I lie yawning till eleven again.”

The poem is a fitting conclusion to this chapter as it provides a microcosm of Rochester’s sexual life as interpreted through his poetry. He seeks a woman, but he is unable to successfully consummate sexual relations with her and the inevitable orgasm is neither satisfying nor a moment of beauty. To try and reassert his own power, he rapes his page. Warren Chernaik likens this sexual life to:

“the equivalent of a kick, the relief of pent-up energies on the nearest available object. This, then, is a life of pleasure which in fact produces no pleasure at all.”

This point can be removed from the life of a poetic narrator and applied to Rochester’s unconscious. In May 1668, Rochester wrote a letter to his wife in the country whilst he was staying in London, the setting for all of his most flagrant debaucheries. With reference to the city he said:

“Am endeavoring every day to get away from this place which I am soe weary of, that I may be said rather to languish than live in it”

This chapter closes on the premise that the “place” Rochester refers to is not merely London, but that on an un- or sub-conscious level, he is expressing that the physical confines of his own body make him incapable of experiencing any sort of sensual joy.

Chapter Two: “A Frailer Part” – The Man, Men, and Manhood

Part I: A Rabble of Pricks
The summation of the last chapter was that sexual experience left Lord Rochester to languish in a bodily form that was alien to his spirit, and in a consciousness that could never recognize this impasse. This leads to an exploration of that bodily form itself. Focus shifts from the sexual act to a more concentrated study of Rochester’s portrayal of the masculine body, and to the male organs which enable that act.

S.H.Clark underlined the singularity of Rochester’s sense of masculinity:

“Given a masculine community as brutish and rapacious in its pleasures as one could wish... it still remains to be explained how Rochester speaks (or appears to be speaking) from a point outside of this collectivity”

Of course in his life, Rochester existed within this collectivity, as accounts of his own “rapacious” exploits will testify. It can be argued that in his poetry Rochester also operated within it, as his sense of disgust at the failings of the male body will later show. However, Clark’s point that he speaks from outside of the collectivity can be explained by the detached nature with which he sets about ridiculing the male body in the comic farce Signior Dildo and the poem on Charles II popularly known as the Sceptre Lampoon.

Rather than glorifying in the proud masculine idealization of the phallus, Rochester portrays the male form in these poems to expose the “intrinsic absurdity of the genital mechanism” . He describes the body of his monarch in the lampoon: “Yet still his graceless bollocks hung an arse: / Nothing could serve his disobedient tarse” , and the farcical scenes in Signior Dildo involve a “rabble of pricks” enviously attacking the anthropomorphic dildo, yet failing as:

“The good Lady Sandys burst into a laughter,

To see how the bollocks came wobbling after,

And had not their weight retarded the foe

It had gone hard with Signior Dildo.”

That the monarch’s penis is given the childish label of being “disobedient” underline its sexual unreliability when compared to “how lusty a swinger” Signior Dildo is. Rochester as writer and narrator remains outside of the collectivity of ownership of such a “tarse”, and outside of the “rabble of Pricks” by rejoicing in this mockery of men’s sexual organs. He seems to join Lady Sandys instead in appreciation of the ludicrous spectacle of the penis and testicles. The critic Harold Weber studied this aspect of Rochester’s poetry:

“Reducing men to their pricks makes them ‘objects of derision’, and there is unsparing indictment of the ‘anatomical insufficiency of the male body’, in particular the bullocks as ‘the male body’s betrayal of itself.’”

That such derision would be poured upon the male body by a male poet is intriguing, especially upon the testicles as it does not seem logical to attach responsibility to that part of the anatomy for the failure of the penis, and yet Rochester does so in the excerpts from both poems.

Rochester cannot maintain this remote vantage point of ridicule though, as he is more often dragged back into the collectivity of the “rabble of pricks”, as Warren Chernaik notes “the wish for a bodiless heaven confirms the reality of a genital hell” . Rochester confronts the ‘genital hell’ of men in his poems dealing with impotence.

Part II: Hide Thy Despised Head
The condition of male impotence appears and re-appears throughout Rochester’s body of work, and was an essential component of his fractured concept of sexuality.

The three poems where the despair elicited by erectile dysfunction are most fervidly articulated are The Imperfect Enjoyment, and the aptly titled shorter poems On His Prick and A Curse on his Pintle. The latter two poems have been read as rather formulaic complaints on the failure of the penis, as this had been a common theme in poetry stretching back through the English Renaissance and before, even to the time of Ovid.

However, an examination of Rochester’s poems in contrast with one of the most foremost poems on impotence written in the English Renaissance, Thomas Nashe’s The Choosing of Valentines (1589), should convey Rochester’s particularly unnatural sense of alienation from his own sexual organ. Some lines from Nashe’s tale detail his incident of impotence:

“I kiss, I clap, I feel, I view at will,

Yet dead he lies not thinking good or ill...

And when she looked at it, she would weep and sigh

And dandled it and danced it up and down,

Not ceasing, till she raise it from his swoon,

And then he flew on her as he were wood”

At first as Nashe tries to revive his flaccid member, it is referred to as “he”, as another being, and this soon degenerates into the even more remote object “it” when he has given up and responsibility is deferred to the hand of the woman. Upon its rejuvenation, the penis returns to its original state as “he”, the bawdy instrument of the narrator’s will. Upon a second sexual failure, this premature ejaculation, Nashe is compelled to admit: “I am not as Hercules the stout, / That to the seventh journey could hold out” . Thus Nashe’s fluctuating relationship to his penis has been illustrated, with him taking ultimate responsibility for the failure by unifying himself and his member by use of the pronoun “I” in the last excerpt.

Rochester uses similar terms to the first Nashe quotation in A Curse on his Pintle:

“I could by no means make him raise his head.

I kissed, I toyed, I clasped her cheeks and tail,

And fingered too yet I could not prevail.

Yea, though she took it in her warm moist hand

And crammed it in, dull dog, it would not stand.”

There are obvious parallels between these two versions of the moment when impotence strikes. Rochester too initially sees his penis as a debauched companion, “him”. Yet whereas Nashe’s explication in the first-person takes responsibility for his failure, in Rochester’s there lies a vital difference. The “I” in Rochester’s “I could not prevail” does not mean the same as it would were this phrase taken in isolation, but means that he, the being, could not prevail in rousing his errant manhood and controlling his own body.

There is another key distinction to be made between these two extracts, being that Nashe’s poem does not contain any insults made against the organ by its beleaguered owner. In the subsequent part of The Choosing of Valentines all of the narrator’s resultant chagrin is directed at the dildo that supplants his member in the affections of the resentful lady. Rochester however affects the curse on his pintle by calling it “dull dog” (the proponent of “dull delights”?); indeed he repeatedly insults and degrades his penis. In the Curse..., he calls it “my base unworthy prick” . In The Imperfect Enjoyment it is defamed as a “dead cinder”, “a wishing, weak, unmoving lump”, “a withered flower”, “treacherous, base deserter of my flame” and the “rakeshell villain” . The derision apparent in his remark quoted earlier on King Charles’s penis, the “disobedient tarse”, is projected onto himself in On His Prick as “his little needle” . This ritual self-abuse is a masochistic reflection of shame and failure.

However, On His Prick also contains a section that provides formidable evidence to support a view that Rochester yearned to escape from his “genital hell”, rather than simply decry it. This section reads:

“Shame and disgrace to all prick heraldry,

Hide thy despised head and do not dare

To peep, no not so much as take the air

But through a buttonhole, but pine and die,

Confined within thy codpiece monastery.”

The extent of Rochester’s self-loathing is manifest here, as he actually confers death upon his failed member within the quintessentially masculine appendage of the codpiece. The castratory impulse shall be returned to later in this dissertation, as Wilmot’s aversion to his own sexual organ has not yet been fully explored.

Once more, Rochester confounds the logic of the binary opposition in The Imperfect Enjoyment, as the shame and anger conveyed in relation to impotence would presumably mean that the opposite state (of erection) would be something to revel in for the narrator. James Grantham Turner identifies the paradox in this poem:

“In other Restoration treatments of impotence, like the pornographic poems attached to the Rochester canon or the taunts that Wycherley’s Horner receives when he pretends to have lost his virility, erection is equated with honour... Rochester’s variation on this common theme inverts this inversion with a ‘stiffly resolv’d’ diatribe against the failing member that includes erection as amongst its basest qualities.”

This aspect of the poem is communicated most forcefully in this text segment:

“Like a rude roaring hector, in the streets,

That scuffles, cuffs, and ruffles all he meets;

But if his king and country claim his aid,

The rakeshell villain shrinks, and hides his head”

The association of male virility with lower class depravity, that was also evident in the quotation in the last chapter from Upon His Drinking A Bowl, which declared heterosexual activity to be “designed for dirty slaves”, is detectable here too. The opposite states of the penis are both cited as it’s “basest qualities”, as the “rude roaring hector” of the erection comes off no better than the aforementioned “rakeshell villain”. Neither extreme results in a bodily identification or representation that is remotely positive, healthy, joyful, or even content.

Part III: Like A Decrepid Leatcher
A final point on The Imperfect Enjoyment concerning the narrator’s sense of the failure of his masculine body may be considered in reference to a quotation from John H O’Neill’s article Rochester’s ‘Imperfect Enjoyment’: The True Veine of Satyre In Sexual Poetry:

“The speaker has been raised to ecstasy by his sense of unity with Corinna, but now he begins to behave as if the power to bring about his happiness lies in himself. This is the pride of the flesh… when he finds… that he shares the common limitations of sexual capacity, he will be unable to accept the fact… Whereas as Corinna continues to feel the oneness with him in which the poem began, the speaker now sees himself and her as separate; he is refractory, whereas she is still possessed of the magic power which had originally been their joint property.”

The narrator’s grandiose metaphor for his penis in the poem, “the all-dissolving thunderbolt” , is a portentous expression as this pride soon dissolves along with his erection via a premature ejaculation. It is not clear in the poem if shame is derived from this initial ejaculation, but it is the ensuing impotence that reveals to him the nature of the sexual capacity of the male body. The character Buggeranthes enunciates this realization in Sodom:

“Yor menstruo’us bloud does all yor veines supply,

With unexhausted letchery, while I

Like a decrepid leatcher, must retire

With a Prick too weake to act what I desire”

Both of the quotations in this section illustrate Rochester’s idea of the innately feeble sexual capacity of his male body, and the divorce between mind and body that the Lawrence quotation in the introduction cited as being the root of obscenity. The comparisons with the female in this section exhibit Rochester’s feelings of inferiority within his male body, and introduce the concept of the next and final chapter.

Chapter Three: “Alas, I am a whore” – on Women, in Women, and as Woman

Part I: Yor Cunts Omnipotence
Rochester’s juxtaposition of the sexual capacities of the male and female bodies referred to in the previous section allows the transition into a study of women in his poetry. This link may suggest a resentment on the poet’s part that would justify the traditional accusations of libertine misogyny, and in fact such views have persisted into recent decades, as John Harold Wilson claimed Rochester was a “raging anti-feminist” and believes that in Rochester’s mind: “…poor, weak, silly woman is capable of incredible monstrosities” . Whether he displayed an attitude in life that merits this label is not the concern of this study, but it shall be asserted that Rochester’s poetry cannot be considered “anti-feminist”, even by twenty-first century standards.

Rochester not only made frequent reference to the innate virtue of the female, he often wrote using a female persona and placed great significance on the female characters in his poems. This set him in contrast with many of his predecessors of the English Renaissance, who almost exclusively relegated women to the marginal role of the objectified body viewed through the desirous male gaze.

Rochester’s vile portrayal of women such as Corinna in the Ramble… have been considered earlier in this dissertation, but it should be noted that this was an emotional response, a reaction, and not a spontaneous or random or (to his mind) unprovoked assault. The rage of the narrator of the Ramble is borne out of what he perceives to be a betrayal and a rejection of his sincere love for Corinna, as his vulnerability when his “reason lay dissolved in love” is exploited by her salacious sexual nature. Upon catching sight of Corinna nearer the beginning of his ramble, the narrator believes she could have been “dropped from heaven that very hour” , and the subsequent fall from innocence into sexual and emotional vice is an aspect considered later in reference to the female personae poems.

That Rochester was secretly attracted to Corinna’s boundless sexual capacity was earlier highlighted by a quotation from S.H.Clark, and Clark makes another point on this issue with reference to the work of Claude Rawson. Rawson believed that the seemingly slanderous line from Signior Dildo about Rochester’s contemporary the Duchess of Cleveland, “Her Grace of Cleveland / Has swallowed more Pricks than the Ocean has Sand” , actually makes her “a figure of enormous power, even grandeur” – and it’s worth noting that Rochester did write a three-line rhyme known as Attempting to kiss the Duchess of Cleveland. This allies her with Corinna, and suggests that the slanderous or seemingly hateful references to women has origins outwith basic misogyny.

Indeed, Rochester’s poetry is abound with comments on the essential goodness of the female gender. In addition to the feminine virtues expressed in Fuckadilla’s epilogue to Sodom…, Buggeranthes attributes all of the joy humankind can experience to the female sexual organ: “If I have treated soe sublime a sense, I ow it to yor Cunts omnipotence” , and the poet details women who have stolen his heart in a litany of poems.

Yet the importance Rochester regards females with as human beings and not mere sexual objects is reflected by the fact that in poems where there are a number of speakers or competing voices, frequently a female voice supplants the others and assumes control of the narrative at the crucial juncture, in order to provide a form of closure. This occurs in Sodom, The Mock Song and A Dialogue between Strephon and Daphne, and Rochester uses a female persona for the poems Fragment of a Satire on Men (What Vain Unnecessary Things Men Are), The Platonic Lady, A Song of a Young Lady To Her Ancient Lover and most significantly in the poem that is the main subject of the next section of this chapter, A Letter Fancied From Artemisa in the Town to Chloe in the Country’.

Part II: As True As Heaven
The Artemisa… poem is generally regarded to be Rochester’s greatest work. It is the assertion of this examination that it is also the most crucially and disastrously misinterpreted.

One particularly fallacious reading is that of the critic David Sheehan in an essay (somewhat ironically) titled The Ironist in Rochester’s ‘A Letter from Artemisa in the Town to Chloe in the Country’”, and an evaluation of this article’s critical assessments may provide an illuminating re-interpretation of this key poem. Sheehan comments:

“A… clue to the ironic intention of this passage is the conflict between the beliefs here expressed and those we suspect the author of holding. Nowhere else in Rochester’s poetry do we find such an unequivocally idealistic description of love, and in almost every poem we find it directly contradicted.”

Artemisa’s “idealistic description of love” is here given:

“Love, the most generous passion of the mind,

The softest refuge innocence can find,

The safe director of unguided youth,

Fraught with kind wishes, and secured by truth.”

Sheehan’s reductive reading fails to acknowledge that Artemisa’s “idealistic” concept of love is just that – a concept, and not a description of a love that can exist in reality due to the debasement of sex and love in the world. The preceding couplet make this clear: “Or name that lost thing (Love) without a tear, / Since so debauched by ill-customs here?” . To suggest that true love is now lost to the world cannot be considered to ‘unequivocally idealistic’. And even if Sheehan is aware of this distinction but merely errs in his expression, his statement that this notion of love is “directly contradicted” throughout Rochester’s poetry is false. Through use of his male personae, Rochester portrays himself as another lost idealist of love, as his equivocation of “truth” with “love” as made by Artemisa reappears in The Mistress: “Taking false pleasure for true love” , and Absent from Thee I Languish Still: “To thy safe bosom I retire, / Where love and peace and truth does flow” .

In Sheehan’s essay he includes the more extreme views of Howard D Weinbrot, who makes pronouncements on Artemisa’s character:

“…in the ‘Letter’ Artemisa becomes an active agent of evil in an apocalyptic or revelatory satire. Artemisa begins with a ‘little stock of virtue’, progressively reveals her moral deficiencies, increasingly accepts the base world she describes, until, by her promise at the poem’s end to send more letters to Chloe, she has become ‘an agent for the propagation of infamy’, spreading rather than purging evil’”

Again, mere reference to the text itself can convincingly refute Weinbrot’s allegations. Artemisa’s initial standpoint on love as quoted does not “progressively” change at all. She lays the blame for the debasement of love on her own gender, decrying our “silly sex” for their mechanization of sex: “To an exact perfection they have wrought / The action love, the passion is forgot” .

Rochester’s abhorrent female voice, the Fine Lady, who is quoted by Artemisa as saying love is “The perfect joy of being well-deceived” , is the subject of an attack by Artemisa herself who calls her “impertinent”, “an eminent fool”, and judges her as achieving a “dignity of folly” and lacking “discretion” .

Marianne Thormahlen believes that Artemisa’s idea of love and her defence of this concept are:

“…very much a woman’s point of view… I would hazard a guess that one reason why Rochester gave such lines on love to a woman was that he could not, as a fashionable man of wit, risk being identified with an attitude that might be thought to be outmoded… and literally effeminate.”

Thormahlen’s connection between Artemisa and Rochester suggests that the great libertine-rake sheltered a conventionally feminine understanding of love, and used Artemisa as a literary device to convey these feelings. That he used a female persona as such a vessel is significant in itself, but more so when juxtaposed with A Ramble In St.James’s Park. The sins of Corinna are the same as those of the Fine Lady. The Fine Lady has mechanized “the action Love” and Corinna has become a “whore in understanding, / A passive pot” . However, the difference in the treatment of the two reveals a meaningful contrast. Whereas Artemisa criticizes the Fine Lady in the quotations above, she never loses her composed, detached vantage point and degenerates into a tirade. Through her, Rochester is able to mount an artful satire that has led to the hailing of this, his ‘female epistle’, as his most effective poetic work.

In stark opposition is the wrath thrust on Corinna in the closing section of the Ramble…, as the speaker sets her body as the target for retributive abuse:

“You may go mad for the North wind;

And fixing all your hopes upon’t,

To have him bluster in your cunt,

Turn your longing arse to the air,

And perish in a wild despair.”

The divergence of the respective speakers on the fates of these promiscuous seventeenth-century women can be readily accounted for by the sex of the vessel in which the argument is made. Rochester is secure and incisive in his guise as Artemisa and is able to function without resorting to the horrifying vengefulness and obscenity of the male gaze of Ramble, which is infinitely more vehement and malicious.

A last parallel between the vessel of Artemisa and Rochester himself can once more be derived from the mis-reading of David Sheehan. She approaches the end of her letter to Chloe by writing:

“To Chloe, since I cannot choose but know

Readers must reap the dullness writers sow.

By the next post such stories I will tell

As joined with these shall to a volume swell,

As true as heaven, more infamous than hell.”

Sheehan states that the story of her letter to Chloe can only be ironically be described as ‘dullness’ due to its contest of “impossible ideals, mechanized love, illusions” and various other features of courtly relationships. However, Artemisa’s claims of such dullness correlate directly with the quotation from Rochester’s letter quoted in the first chapter of this study. He expresses a profound fatigue with such affairs that engulfs him to the point where “I may be said rather to languish than live”. Once more, Artemisa is a more collected, resolute and stable entity than Rochester’s male voice, she affirms life where he can only languish, and this sentiment that unites both is further evidence that his identification with the female was “as true as heaven” – an entity far more attuned to contentment in life than he is.

Part III: To Wish Those Eyes…

“Whilst yet my eyes alone were free,

My heart would never doubt,

In amorous rage, and ecstasy,

To wish those eyes, to wish those eyes fucked out.”

This section is a brief glimpse of this, the most arresting and horrifying image in Rochester’s poetry. Taken from The Mock Song, these are the concluding four lines when the voice of the female has supplanted that of the male, thereby castrating the narrator of this poem and turning his voice into that of the female. Rochester’s statement that his “heart” does not doubt his desire to be penetrated and killed through sex can surely be viewed as clear and formidable evidence of his unconscious desire to lose/escape his male subjectivity.


The purpose of this dissertation was divided into three key concerns. The first was to dispel the notion that John Wilmot was a characteristic libertine rake-hero of the seventeenth century, who used women as he did wine, and wrote poetry in celebration of these profoundly masculine self-indulgences. This was attempted in the first chapter, The Action Love, where the sexual content of a selection of Rochester’s poetry was analyzed, focusing on four sub-sections: instances of orgasm, the negative representation of the sexual act, Rochester’s confusion over the male role in sex, and the fleeting glimpses of homosexuality in the Rochester canon.

The second aim was to explicate Rochester’s sense of his own masculinity through the representations of the male body in his poetry. This was the subject of the second chapter, The Frailer Part, and was investigated through exploring three significant issues: depiction of men’s bodies outside Rochester’s own, his self-loathing elicited by the impotence affecting his own penis, and the sense of finite male sexual capacity in comparison with that of the female.

The third objective was to provide a culmination of the work of these two chapters, by proving how Rochester, whether consciously or unconsciously, conveyed through his poetry that he had an irresistible affinity with femininity and the female body which he did not have with his own male anatomy. The explication of this third chapter, Alas, I am a Whore, was conducted through concentrating on three interrelated sections: the debunking of the myth that Rochester was a misogynist (and thus by definition alien to the female psyche) through the positive portrayal of women in his poetry, the qualities of his writing using the female persona of Artemisa in the poem A Letter from Artemisa in the Town to Chloe in the Country, and a type of Freudian inversion regarding what could be termed as Rochester’s ‘vagina-envy’.

Thus while this final point may be dismissed by a reader as speculative, inferential and/or impossible, the concluding hope for this dissertation is that it shall constitute a valid and original addition to the body of critical work on Lord Rochester’s poetry. ●

ENDNOTES (in order of citation)

Primary Sources
All excerpts of Rochester’s poetry:
Wilmot, J. / Lyons, P.(ed) / 1996 / Lord Rochester: Everyman’s Poetry / London: JM Dent

All excerpts from Rochester’s ‘Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery’:
Wilmot, J. / Love, H.(ed) / 1999 / The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester / Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press

All excerpts from Rochester’s letters from:
Wilmot, J. / Treglown, J.(ed) / 1980 / The Letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester / Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Secondary Sources
Brennan, T. / 1992 / The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud & Femininity / London, UK: Routledge
Chernaik, W. / 1995 / Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature / Cambridge, UK: Univ.Cambridge Press
Clark, S.H. / 1994 / Sordid Images: Poetry of Masculine Desire / London, UK: Routledge
Felman, S.(ed) / 1982 / Literature And Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading, Otherwise / Baltimore, US: Johns Hopkins Univ.Press
Hammond, P. / Rochester’s Homoeroticism / article collected in: / Fisher, N.(ed) / 2000 / That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester / Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ.Press
Lawrence, D.H. / 1961 / A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover And Other Essays / Middlesex, UK: Penguin Ltd
Longueville, T. / 1902 / Rochester and Other Literary Rakes of the Court of Charles II (with Some Account of Their Surroundings) / London, UK: Longmans, Green & Co.
Nashe, T. / 1589 / The Choosing of Valentines / poem collected in: / Payne, M. & Hunter, J.(eds.) / 2003 / Renaissance Literature: An Anthology / Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing
Nussbaum, F. / 1984 / The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750 / Lexington, KY: Univ.Press of Kentucky
Thormahlen, M. / 1993 / Rochester: The Poems in Context / Cambridge, UK: Univ.Cambridge Press
Turner, J.G. / 2002 / Libertines And Radicals In Early Modern London: Sexuality, Politics and Literary Culture 1630-1685 / Cambridge, UK: Univ.Cambridge Press
O’Neill, J.H. / Rochester’s ‘Imperfect Enjoyment’: ‘The True Veine of Satyre’ in Sexual Poetry
Sheehan, D. / The Ironist In Rochester’s ‘A Letter from Artemiza in the Town to Chloe in the Country’
Vieth, D.(ed) / 1988 / John Wilmot: Earl of Rochester: Critical Readings / New York, US: Garland Publishing Inc