With characters like “Buggeranthos,” “C__tigratia,” “C__ticula,” “Clytoris” and of course “Fuckadillia,” the late seventeenth-century play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery would seem to be little more than pornography. And yet, in certain critical respects, this bawdy play embodied the Restoration.
The slender manuscript was anonymously penned in 1672, only twelve years after King Charles II’s return from exile in the midst of the Commonwealth’s rule over his executed father’s kingdom. Its prurient themes of sodomy, incest, and prostitution might be read to suggest that the English were very much ready to sluff off the stern-faced Puritans. A so-called closet drama—a play written not to be staged but simply read—Sodom waited another twelve years before it became available in smudgy print from the book-sellers on Fleet Street. However, the work is so congruent with the spirit of the era that it was already the best literary exemplar of King Charles’ reign the moment its author dipped his quill into the inkwell.
Sodom’s likely author, John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, deployed his ample wit to plumb the depths of the sewer, triangulating the vagaries of anonymous sex in public parks, waxing rhapsodic on “pr__ks” and “c__ts,” and singing a song praising buggery, sodomy, and all other manner of inserting body parts into other body parts. If Charles’ grandfather’s rule was marked by literary works of a particular philosophical profundity, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, then Sodom would seem to cover an exceedingly different set of concerns. Sodom was a harsh, hilarious, scurrilous, and scatological satire where “Charles II stood so utterly naked of royal majesty,” as the literary critic Richard Elias writes in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900.
It’s not that writing blue was novel. There are abundant examples of sexual and scatological themes, sometimes extreme, in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. And anyone who has read Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” knows that ribaldry has a venerable tradition in English letters. But, as the literary commentator Austen Saunders makes clear at the American Spectator, Rochester was “original in being so explicit.” A poet like John Donne’s verse may be erotic, but his meaning is ingeniously encoded in metaphorical conceit; Rochester, on the other hand, was the first English poet to fully reject euphemism. Saunders pointedly declares that the Earl was “always more than happy to call a dildo a dildo.”
That bluntness was a function of Wilmot’s era. Writing of the Restoration, the poet observes, “Oh! what a damn’d Age do we live in!” A damned age perhaps, but also the germinating embryo of our own era. It was during the Restoration that the rough shape of the contemporary world formed. London, for example, was becoming a massive city, a place where one could purchase a newspaper and read of scientific discoveries or about emerging political parties while getting one’s caffeine fix in a coffeehouse.
But this was also a world in the shadow of regicide—and a subsequent Draconian theocracy—and one where the hoped-for Restoration ultimately delivered its own oppressions. Charles’ 1660 London arrival on Oak Apple Day may have been a liberation from all that was dreary about Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, but it also introduced deeper anxieties. The literary scholar David Vieth writes that the “decade and a half following the restoration… probably marks the most traumatically rapid set of cultural changes the English-speaking peoples have ever experienced.” This traumatized world, where all inherited beliefs and moralities were questioned, called out for a poet laureate. Rochester, a debauched dilettante, answered that call.
Rochester is perhaps the single greatest pornographer produced in the English language. The literary critic Carol Fabricant writes in “Rochester’s World of Imperfect Enjoyment” (the Journal of English and Germanic Philology) that the “poems focus to such an extent upon genitalia of various sizes and capacities that these, by their sheer quantity, emerge as the central objects of Rochester’s world.” His verse was so scandalous his complete works weren’t compiled until the early twentieth century. Even then, many of his lyrics were deleted, lest academic publishers find themselves charged with obscenity.
As the literary historian Peter Smith explains in his book Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift, it wasn’t until 1953, when Routledge released Rochester’s full works, that the poet could join “Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, and Andrew Marvell in their list of impeccable sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets.” The official portrait of Rochester that hangs in the British National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square, a secular temple to kings and queens, poets and playwrights, depicts a man who wrote “My pr__k no more to bald c__t shall resort – / Merkins rub off, and often spoil the sport.”
As the literary critic Jonathan Brody Kramnick makes clear in “Rochester and the History of Sexuality” (ELH), the libertine understood that “desire [is] our presiding faculty, the cause behind our actions.” And Rochester was not concerned with bourgeoisie morality. As he wrote in his infamous A Satyr against Reason and Mankind, if he were a…
Spirit free, to choose for my own Share,
What sort of Flesh and Blood I pleas’d 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.
While Milton explained the ways of God to man, Rochester, his royalist colleague, explicated the ways of Priapus, with a predilection toward filth forming the primary basis of his worldview. The poet Thom Gunn reflects in “Saint John the Rake: Rochester’s Poetry,” from the collection Green Thoughts, Green Shades, that the Earl was “of course defiant, and the defiance is connected with one of the most frequent effects of all pornography, which is not only to excite but also to shock.” The Restoration was marked by this kind of explicitness, from the double entendres of dramatist William Wycherley to the saucy meditations of Samuel Pepys, but Rochester stood as the dirtiest, and shock was the currency he traded in.
Creature of the court, a royalist and a fop, dandy and dilettante, Rochester scandalized with verses like “A Ramble in St. James’ Park,” which depicts orgiastic public sex, and with his extended metaphysical meditation, A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind. This latter text serves as a volley against the logocentric impulses of Anglicanism and a preemptive attack on the fetishizing of rationality that would dominate the coming century. In her Journal of British Studies article “The Faith of Unbelief,” the literary scholar Sarah Ellenzweig argues that Rochester’s Satyr reflects a type of ecstatic and iconoclastic counter-faith which bears a certain similarity to the works of religious non-conformists like the Ranters and Seekers, who occupied the other side of the political divide during Rochester’s lifetime.
Rochester’s life and philosophy were frequently treated as a cautionary tale, as the literary critics Karel Vanhaesebrouck and Pol Dehert make clear in The Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies. Propagandists for piety claimed that the reason for Rochester’s death at the age of 33 was “more than clear,” brought about by “alcohol, abuse, and syphilis.” Whether or not Rochester’s death-bed rejection of atheism and conversion to Catholicism happened (as his detractors alleged), his work merits consideration as more than cautionary tale or titillating filth. Gunn (the poet) suggests that the libertine was a “kind of existential saint in his life,” because for “Rochester, as later for Blake, the devils were angels and the angels were devils.” He became a “dedicated libertine and a saint of debauchery.”
An attentive reading of Rochester’s verse reveals a coherent, albeit nihilistic and transgressive, philosophy, the culmination of his own debauched behavior, but also a testament to an emerging, dark modernity. Like those antinomian mystics who reject the law so as to be closer to God, Rochester’s “defiance was full-time.”
One can see Rochester’s fusion of concerns in his “Regime de Vivre,” which maintains the power to shock in the twenty-first century. Calling forth rock-and-roll as much as the Restoration court, the poem’s narrator recounts a soulless, addicted, mechanical life of empty excess:
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 the clap,
I spend in her hand, and I spew in her lap.
After a fight and the filching of his money, the narrator passes out, but:
If by chance then I wake, hot-headed and drunk,
What a coil do I make for the loss of my punk!
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.
A cursory reading of the poem might interpret it simply as smut rendered technically proficient, but Rochester’s purposes are never cynical, only nihilistic. For “Regime de Vivre” is both an expression and explanation of the conclusion of emerging modernity. The issue isn’t (and never was) that the language is ribald (there are countless examples of puckishness in literature). Rather, Rochester has traded the carnivalesque joy of earlier poets for the mechanistic joylessness of commodified prurience.
Smith writes that the “diurnal round of eating, drinking, molestation, quarrelling, theft, and exploitation seems, at first sight, to be brazenly and aggressively self-determined.” And indeed, it’s easy to read this as an expression of complete liberty, especially for those who’ve focused in on the confession of homosexual sex (while ignoring that what Wilmot writes about is also a rape). But Smith argues that this reiteration of “daily activities in a banal inventory… intimates ennui rather than gratification.”
There is a profound egocentricity in the poem, with the first person pronoun beginning the first four lines. Smith elaborates: “every line contains at least one use of the first-person pronoun and in no fewer than nine lines it appears twice or more.” But what Rochester expresses is neither confidence nor genuine self-love, but rather “bleak solipsism in the alembic of despair.” Divorced from the question whether or not Rochester celebrates this behavior (though nothing in the poem itself suggests that reading), we can consider whether the sonnet isn’t an expression of a particular type of alienated, detached, distanced, dead-eyed nihilism. The poet presents a “vicious circle of addiction… [where] the Cavalier eats, drinks, spews and fucks his way to oblivion.” The volta of the poem finds the narrator precisely where he was at the beginning, nothing gained, nothing lost, other than the agency of those who “exist only to satisfy his pleasure.”
Paradoxically, Rochester is a consummate moralizer. Not because he provides prescriptions for behavior (of course not), but because he diagnoses the malignancy of his age (and, arguably, ours): indulgent, narcissistic egocentricity. “One of the qualities that keeps bringing us back to the same works is that they let each age find what they’re looking for in them,” Saunders writes. But where his contemporaries read him as a profligate atheist, and others as an advocate for complete freedom, today we can see him as the poet of the porn addict, the compulsive gambler, the phone junky, and the internet slave. His was a picture of mechanistic hedonism, distant from the Falstaffian happiness of medieval and Renaissance literature, prefiguring where the ethos of “man being the measure of all things” can sometimes end.
Rochester’s is a perspective where all individuals are means unto ends, turned into products for consumption, and where sexual revolutions can result in the valorization of the individual’s desires at the expense of others’ consent. As regards the poet’s subjects, judge if you must, but Rochester instructs in a crucial lesson: that in libertinage there is often scant liberty.