Literature and Theatre

The fall of the well-bred man
Larry Carver

Chapter 2 rehearses Rochester's upbringing because it is here that we find the basic orientation of his life. Rochester's orientation, like so many artists and writers, was pious. It arose from his early childhood training and subsequent education, in a conglomerate of values that included love and honour for parents, governors, and princes, a belief in their authority, an equally deep belief in the truth of the Christian religion, of the honour claimed and due the aristocracy, and of the graceful performance of all the duties of peace and war that makes such honour, rooted in social origin, also a matter of merit. The emotional links – emotional because formed in childhood – with this aristocratic and heroic world are everywhere present in Rochester's work and life, even when, perhaps most of all when, he or his personae are violating them. A disillusioned Rochester came to doubt this basic orientation, opening himself up to new ways of accounting for his own motivations and of others’, and beginning a search for new duties, new authorities. It is this attempt to banish the past and to replace its claims of authority with new ones that Rochester’s poetry, though in no systematic way, records. The chapter goes on to show that ‘A Ramble’ was the first poem to record this process in all its complexity.

in Rochester and the pursuit of pleasure
The major satires
Larry Carver

In the years 1672–1676 Rochester wrote six poems – ‘Timon’, ‘Tunbridge Wells’, ‘An Allusion to Horace’, ‘A Satyr against Reason and Mankind’, ‘A Letter from Artemiza in the Towne to Chloe in the Countrey’, and ‘The Disabled Debauchee’ – that would form the basis of his reputation as the Restoration's major-minor poet. These poems, different as they are in structure, personae, and tone, share three interrelated characteristics. Like the apprentice work that served as their prologue, these poems lash the fools populating Restoration London. The voice is that of the satirist as hero, taking on society's foibles. In each of these poems the normative values, whatever their source, are themselves at some point called into question. The satirist becomes the object of his own satire or that of his creator as both search for a way to ground their judgments, to find a perspective from which to make sense of the satiric scene they confront and contribute to. Rochester's stumbling block in each poem inevitably arises over his pursuit of pleasure, his attempt to establish an ethical hedonism based on nature. Here too Rochester fails in his pursuit of pleasure, fails to unite grace and nature, but as he does so, he attempts – the third characteristic of these poems – to substitute aesthetic judgments for ethical ones, to make that which is well acted, well made, or well performed the norm by which to evaluate human beings.

in Rochester and the pursuit of pleasure
Larry Carver

Chapter 3 attempts to show that reading Sodom in the context of Rochester's apprentice work provides corroborative evidence that Rochester may have had a hand in writing this notorious farce. I do not argue that Sodom should be attributed to John Wilmot, rather that it has been, is, and probably will be for some time to come associated with Rochester because of how closely Sodom fits in – artistically, thematically, ideologically – with his early work. The chapter explores the play’s scabrous satire of Charles II, his minions, and the chief rivals for his bed in the spring and summer of 1670, Court politics, Catholicism, and other targets that we plausibly associate with Rochester: the divine right of kings, a standing army, the Secret Treaty of Dover, and the Declaration of Indulgence. The king’s and his minions’s heroically mad pursuit of pleasure – the word crops up twenty-one times in the play – does not end well, Genesis 19’s fire and brimstone offering a more accurate reflection of man’s experience than the teaching of Epicurus. The chapter goes on to show how Sodom satirizes the artistic mode that served to flatter that Court, the heroic drama. It ends in a reading of a group of poems that in subject matter and experimental rhythms are so close to Sodom that they could be considered a part of it, ‘Too longe the Wise Commons have been in debate’, written some time in April 1671 or March 1673 being, for example, Sodom in miniature.

in Rochester and the pursuit of pleasure
Larry Carver

This chapter examines why, in the face of formidable difficulties, the biographical approach has dominated Rochester criticism and why, despite the problems, it should continue to do so. In the reading of two poems, ‘A very heroical epistle in answer to Ephelia’ and ‘An Epistolary Essay, from M.G. to O.B. upon their mutuall Poems’, it traces the fascinating story of how long-accepted assumptions underlying the criticism of Rochester’s work were shaken by David Vieth’s findings that the two poems do not capture Rochester revealing his own beliefs but are satires on his lifelong bête noir, John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave. Because the poems have been the focus of a spirited critical debate that goes on to this very day, they allow us to understand the relationship between Rochester and his poetic persona and to scrutinize the conventions by which we have interpreted the poems. Both poems, moreover, grew out of, in part, Rochester’s vexed relationship with John Dryden, a relationship that is further explored in Chapters 4 and 5, Dryden playing a key role in Rochester’s writing of ‘An Allusion to Horace’ (Chapter 4) and the play, Lucina’s Rape Or The Tragedy of Vallentinian (Chapter 5).

in Rochester and the pursuit of pleasure
Abstract only
Larry Carver

A host of verbal portraits of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester along with five authentic portraits in oil have come down to us but with what truth to likeness it is not easy to tell. As with these various portraits, so with John Wilmot’s poetry, dramatic works, and letters. There is so much we do not know. Half of Rochester’s poems and letters remain undated; the authorship of key works – ‘Timon’, ‘To The Honourable***In the Pall-Mall’ (‘Fling this useless Book away’), ‘Signior Dildo’, and the notorious play, Sodom – is in dispute. The historical evidence, such as it is, must be disentangled from the biased accounts, past and present, of biographers and critics who have mistaken the legend for the life. In the poems, moreover, Rochester assumes a multiplicity of identities, and the real-life Rochester often donned disguises, making him hard to pin down. That said, thanks to the work of many gifted scholars, we know today a good deal more about John Wilmot, his life and work. In attempting to contribute to the ongoing conversation we who care about Rochester have had, this book argues that Rochester’s works should be read in a biographical context. Reading the works as doing something for the poet and his audience reveals that Rochester’s work clusters about a central theme, the pursuit of pleasure, reflects his Christian upbringing and provides evidence of a preoccupation with and, at the end of his life, an acceptance of Christianity.

in Rochester and the pursuit of pleasure
Author:

Rochester and the Pursuit of Pleasure, the fourth full-length study of Rochester’s work since David Vieth’s pioneering edition of The Compete Poems (1968), is the first to bring together a reading of John Wilmot’s poetry, dramatic works, and letters. The book makes three claims, all perhaps unexpected. Though a biographical interpretation of Rochester’s work is fraught with risks, theoretically and in terms of the surviving literary and biographical material, Rochester’s work should be read in a biographical context. Rochester drew upon his emotional, intellectual, and religious life. He wrote about what engrossed him, seeking answers to real life questions. Showing the role that biography plays in interpreting Rochester’s work illuminates, moreover, a central problem in Rochester criticism – the relationship of poet to his speakers. Reading the works as doing something for the poet and his audience reveals that they cluster about a central theme, the pursuit of pleasure, a complex process in which many of Rochester’s mid-seventeenth-century contemporaries were engaged. No longer sure under the old dispensation of their duties – familial, political, religious, or artistic – they sought new grounds for their motivations. For Rochester this pursuit of pleasure has its roots in Christianity. Rochester’s work everywhere reflects his Christian and God-fearing upbringing and provides evidence of an excessive preoccupation with, and, at the end of his life, acceptance of Christianity. As the various speakers and the man himself pursue pleasure by courting king, wife, mistresses, and the craft of writing, they in humorous, perverse, even criminal ways court God.

Larry Carver

Chapter 6 explores the rhetoric of Rochester’s letters and songs and his conversations with Gilbert Burnet to shed light on the role Christianity played in Rochester’s life and work. What we do know about that role comes from five sources: his childhood upbringing; the biblical and liturgical allusions found in his letters, poems, and plays; his conversations with Burnet; his correspondence with Blount; and the various testimonials concerning the Earl that can be gleaned from Rochester's mother, the antiquarian Thomas Hearne, Robert Parsons who preached the sermon at Rochester's funeral, his friend Robert Wolseley, and great admirer, Sir Francis Fane. There is widespread agreement that Rochester received a Christian upbringing but little agreement on how to interpret the other evidence. While more information concerning Rochester’s beliefs would be welcomed, the evidence we do have can be made to yield more information than if we take into account that Rochester's engagement with religion is more a matter of rhetoric than doctrine. Rhetoric is part and parcel of Rochester's religious concerns, a sixth and heretofore unexamined source of information concerning the place of religion in his life and work. Rochester’s rhetorical stance in the letters, the songs and love poems, and in the conversations with Burnet, his rhetorical use of Christian language, metaphors, and paradoxes, provide evidence of an excessive preoccupation with, and finally an acceptance of, Christianity that Rochester could never banish with arguments drawn from pagan writers.

in Rochester and the pursuit of pleasure
Lucina’s Rape Or The Tragedy of Vallentinian
Larry Carver

‘It is surprising’, writes Dustin Griffin, that Rochester was ‘attracted as a dramatist more to heroic drama than to comedy.’ Griffin solves part of the puzzle by suggesting that Rochester ‘Perhaps … wanted to show he was capable of matching Dryden on his own terms’, a suggestion I expand upon in this chapter. The other part to the puzzle lies in understanding Lucina’s Rape in its biographical context. Up to his undertaking Lucina’s Rape, Rochester had violated cultural and religious standards in a quest to find that which would ‘justifie the mind’ (III. iii., line 75), his scepticism and impiety disguising a desire for authority. His search had gone unfulfilled; there remained, as he poignantly wrote to his wife, ‘soe greate a disproportion t'wixt our desires & what is ordained to content them’. Lucina’s Rape attempts to mitigate that disproportion, ‘poetic forms’ being ‘symbolic structures designed to equip us for confronting given historical or personal situations’. In Lucina’s Rape Rochester attempts to look for patterns of value in the past, not to explode them as he had in his satires, but to affirm them. The Restoration Petronius took the historical Petronius Maximus stripped away his ambition and seamy machinations, and moulded him into a model husband, citizen, and warrior. While presenting an idealized conception of himself, Rochester gave a realistic assessment of the sordid goings on at court, the play satirizing Charles II’s physical pleasures while reserving salt for his political ‘pleasures’, the king’s prerogative, a widely debated topic throughout the 1670s.

in Rochester and the pursuit of pleasure
London’s alternative “gothic” tradition
David Ashford

The second chapter begins by engaging with some of the most prominent anti-gothic gothic fiction created over the past century: paranoid psycho-geographical fantasy in poems by Iain Sinclair, novels by Peter Ackroyd, essays by Stewart Home and graphic novels by Alan Moore. The potential for such provocative misreadings of the English baroque is shown to have a basis in the architecture itself, and it is suggested that the scope for uncanny sensations opened up by the structures might have much to tell us about the post-modernist baroque revival, the fiction of Sinclair and Moore having as much to do with the Thatcherite renovation of the metropolis as anything in the theory and practice of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

in A book of monsters
Abstract only
Promethean horror in modern literature and culture
Author:

A book of monsters presents a cultural history of Promethean horror in the modern age. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this book explores imaginative literature that exploits popular fears relating not to a “gothic” darkness, but to a scientific Enlightenment. Provoked by the Promethean ambitions of Modernism, the Promethean myth is discovered to have become a pervasive and increasingly oppressive component in our post-Modernist political, economic and cultural reality. Revealing why it is that Modernism (a cultural phenomenon that, in architecture, typically defined itself against neo-gothic irrationality) has in turn become imbued with the uncanny, A book of monsters considers an eclectic range of cultural material including psycho-geographical fiction by Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore, the fantasies of J. R. R. Tolkien, gorilla horror movies, anxieties relating to artificial intelligence in science fiction and philosophy of science, and popular debates surrounding the legacies of post-war Brutalist architecture, in a subgenre of the dystopia that is specifically anti Keynesian. Building on post-humanist philosophy, engaging with recent debates concerning animals and artificial intelligence, A book of monsters attempts to place urgent theoretical controversies in a historical context, making connections with issues in architecture, linguistics, economics and cultural geography. In so doing, the book presents a compelling and comprehensive overview on the West’s collective “dream-work”’ in those decades since the dreams of the nineteenth century were realised in Modernism – tracing the inception, and outlining the consequences, of literary fantasies.