Austen Saunders

The shock value of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester

The shock value of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester
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‘The Maidenhead’

Have you not in a chimney seen

A sullen faggot wet and green,

How coyly it receives the heat,

And at both ends does fume and sweat?

So fares it with the harmless maid

When first upon her back she’s laid;

But the well-experienced dame,

Cracks and rejoices in the flame.

Rochester is a favourite of A-level students because he writes about sex and uses rude words. That in itself would not make him an accomplished poet. Sex is not an obscure subject and there are lots of words which rhyme with ‘prick’. But there are good reasons to read Rochester. One is that he had a knack for creating effects which we have come to associate with literary authenticity and originality.

The invention of what we recognise today as a modern poetic voice is impossible to pin down. Ask a hundred literary historians who invented modern literature and you’ll get a hundred answers ranging from Homer to whoever wins this year’s Booker prize. 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. But even if it would be pointless to call Rochester the first modern voice in English poetry, he’s a practitioner of what has become an important artistic technique – claiming authenticity by being deliberately shocking.

‘The Maidenhead’ begins unremarkably (setting aside the title, which may not always have circulated with the poem when it was new). In fact it starts like the type of poetry popular at the start of the seventeenth century (fifty years before Rochester was born). The first stanza is reminiscent of the metaphysical poetry of writers like John Donne. Some sort of conceit is being introduced. A familiar object is described – a damp bundle of wood in a fire which steams as it dries in the flames. This is introduced through a question which draws attention to certain aspects of it. The faggot is described as ‘wet and green’, as coy and sweating.

Metaphysical poetry delights in verbal gymnastics. Conceptual summersaults yoke together apparently disparate things. The display of dexterity is itself entertaining and familiar experiences are made less familiar. Used to this kind of poetry, we can see that Rochester is setting us up for some sort of punch-line. The carefully chosen qualities the first stanza focused on are going to be applied to something completely different.

But, although we’re ready for it, Rochester still manages to surprise us. He does so through his usual technique of adopting a pose of shocking frankness. Many metaphysical poems are about the same things as Rochester’s poems (Donne’s ‘Love’s Progress’ deals with oral sex). But Rochester is original in being so explicit. Part of the point of Donne’s poem is that you have to work out what it’s about. There’s no need for that with Rochester. In ‘The Maidenhead’, obscene content outruns the reader’s imagination as Rochester springs the answer to his riddle on us before we could even begin to work it out.

Rochester does this time and time again. His poems make it perfectly clear exactly what he’s talking about and he’s always more than happy to call a dildo a dildo. In every case the explicitness of Rochester’s poems creates a sense that he is talking honestly to us. Their conspicuous refusal to use euphemism, or to avoid subject matter generally recognised as obscene, implies an unwillingness to abide by convention or to repress instinct.

Since Rochester’s day transgression, shock, and authenticity have become an important measure of what we expect from new works of art. Most people who think of themselves as serious about culture would say that they expect to be challenged, to hear truth spoken, to see something which breaks convention when they go to the theatre or pick up a new novel or visit Tate Modern. Some artists might ignore some of those expectations, but few can get away with dismissing them all (you can’t discuss Quentin Tarantino in terms of authenticity, but he certainly sets out to shock).

Is this still a grown-up way to approach artistic creation after four hundred years? Better ask the A-level class.