Austen Saunders

The shock value of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester

‘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.

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