. . . Wilmot

. . .

Everywhere I've browsed in the last week, I've seen links to a horrible misogynous disgusting pornographic poem.

Well, these are a few of my favorite things(1), and so I finally gave it a look. Oh man(2). What pretentious tripe(3).

Now back in my day(4), they knew horrible misogynous disgusting pornographic poetry. As witness this lyric by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, which I often recite on public occasions(5).

After reading that, a palate-cleanser is called for. Unfortunately, most of Wilmot's best poems are too long for me to transcribe(6). But here's something suited to my age and position.

  1. And apparently I'm not alone.
  2. Probably a safe assumption.
  3. Unpretentious tripe is properly referred to as "chitterlings."
  4. The Restoration.
  5. Which reminds me of the time I showed an S. Clay Wilson comic book to my younger prettier friend, Matt, and he told me in a hurt tone of voice, "But this isn't funny."
  6. Highly recommended are "A Letter from Artemiza in the Town to Chloe in the Country," "A Satire on Man," "The Disabled Debauchee," "A Ramble in St. James's Park," "Fair Cloris in a pigsty lay," "Tunbridge Wells," "Upon His Drinking Bowl," and the best treatment of premature ejaculation in the English language, "The Imperfect Enjoyment."

+ + +

"Pirates of Silicon Valley" kept reminding me of another long poem by Wilmot -- not his best, but memorable -- to which I once referred in a discussion of nonverbal online communication:
When poet John Wilmot whipped off that tribute to Charles II's tiny brain and huge penis which ended: "I hate all kings and the thrones that they sit on / From the hector of France to the culley of Britain," he was banished from court.

Now imagine how much easier things would've been for him if he'd instead only written: "I hate all kings and the thrones that they sit on / From the hector of France to the culley of Britain. :-)"

. . .

What it corresponds to

Some writers are recognizable in their correspondence and some aren't. (Recognizable to readers, that is; their recognizability as the animals previously encountered by fleshy intimates is an unrelated matter.)

Those writers whose letters cozily nestle alongside their oeuvre -- Henry Adams, Raymond Chandler, Samuel R. Delany, among many others -- rely on a "micro" verbal impulse as well as a "macro"-building one: an impulse to respond to the world and its inhabitants by producing paragraphs, whether those paragraphs are meant to fit into a larger structure or not. Their books may seem colder or crueler or wiser than their letters, but the material comes from the same source. (And, not all that paradoxically, their letters may sometimes seem a bit impersonal: the sausage meat grinds on in a steady stream, regardless who gets the individual link....)

Whereas Dashiell Hammett's letters, like James Joyce's, are purely practical objects (even when their practical purpose is to give their recipients a sense of personal connection), springing from completely different impulses than the writer's book-objects, constructed along completely different lines, and not of much interest except to the addressed or the biographer. For the enthusiastic reader? Well, from one letter where Hammett uses full-out "Hammett style" to describe a day of Army life, I learned that lapidary prose can be a very dull thing outside a structural context; e.g., you can't polish dust. That's about it.

Having now trudged through a Alaskan-sized mud stretch of these letters, I feel the need to revisit some flashier gewgaws, such as those of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. And, look, since they're out of print anyway, how about I pass a few past you as well?

The Earl of Rochester gives some friendly advice, c. 1671

Whither Love, Wine, or Wisdom (which rule you by turns) have the present ascendent, I cannot pretend to determine at this distance, but good nature, which waits about you with more diligence than Godfrey himself, is my security that you are not unmindful of your absent friends. To be from you & forgotten by you at once is a misfortune I never was criminal enough to merit since to the black & fair Countesses I villainously betrayed the daily addresses of your divided heart; you forgave that upon the first bottle, & upon the second on my conscience would have renounced them and the whole sex.

Oh, that second bottle, Harry, is the sincerest, wisest, & most impartial downright friend we have, tells us truth of ourselves & forces us to speak truths of others, banishes flattery from our tongues and distrust from our hearts, sets us above the mean policy of court prudence which makes us lie to one another all day for fear of being betrayed by each other at night. And before god I believe the errantest villain breathing is honest as long as that bottle lives, and few of that tribe dare venture upon him, at least among the courtiers & statesmen.

I have seriously considered one thing, that of the three businesses of this age -- women, politics & drinking -- the last is the only exercise at which you & I have not proved our selves errant tumblers. If you have the vanity to think otherwise, when we meet next let us appeal to friends of both sexes &, as they shall determine, live & die sheer drunkards or entire Lovers. For as we mingle the matter, it is hard to say which is the most tiresome creature, the loving drunkard or the drunken lover.

The Earl of Rochester starts a seduction, c. 1675

If you distrust me and all my professions upon the score of truth and honor, at least let 'em have credit on another, upon which my greatest enemies will not deny it me, and that is its being notorious that I mind nothing but my own satisfaction. You may be sure I cannot choose but love you above the world, whatever becomes of the King, Court, or mankind and all their impertinent business. I will come to you this afternoon.

. . .

The Earl of Rochester critiques, c. 1674

Dear Wife, I received your three pictures & am in a great fright lest they should be like you. By the bigness of your head, I should apprehend you far gone in the rickets; by the severity of the countenance, somewhat inclined to prayer & prophesy. Yet there is an alacrity in the plump cheek that seems to signify sack & sugar, & the sharp sighted nose has borrowed quickness from the sweet-smelling eye. I never saw a chin smile before, a mouth frown, & a forehead mump. Truly the artist has done his part (god keep him humble), & a fine man he is if his excellencies do not puff him up like his pictures; the next impertinence I have to tell you is that I am coming down to you. I have got horses but want a coach; when that defect is supplied, you shall quickly have the trouble of your humble servant....

The Earl of Rochester dies, February 1676

Dear Savile,

This day I received the unhappy news of my own death and burial. But hearing what heirs and successors were decreed me in my place, and chiefly in my lodgings, it was no small joy to me that those tidings prove untrue. My passion for living is so increased that I omit no care of myself, which, before, I never thought life worth the trouble of taking. The King, who knows me to be a very ill-natured man, will not think it an easy matter for me to die now I live chiefly out of spite.

Dear Mr Savile, afford me some news from your land of the living; and though I have little curiosity to hear who's well, yet I would be glad my few friends are so, of whom you are no more the least than the leanest. I have better compliments for you, but that may not look so sincere as I would have you believe I am when I profess myself,

Your faithful, affectionate, humble servant,

. . .

The Earl of Rochester is ill, c. 1677

Dear Wife,

My condition of health alters I hope for the better, though various accidents succeed: my pains are pretty well over, & my rheumatism begins to turn to an honest gout, my pissing of blood Doctor Wetherly says is nothing, my eyes are almost out but that he says will not do me much harm. In short, he makes me eat flesh & drink diet-drink.

+ + +

The Earl of Rochester gossips, November 1679

The lousiness of affairs in this place is such (forgive the unmannerly phrase! Expressions must descend to the nature of things expressed) 'tis not fit to entertain a private gentleman, much less one a public character, with the retail of them. The general heads under which this whole island may be considered are spies, beggars and rebels. The transpositions and mixtures of these make an agreeable variety: busy fools and cautious knaves are bred out of them and set off wonderfully, though of this latter sort we have fewer now than ever, hypocrisy being the only vice in decay amongst us. Few men here dissemble their being rascals and no woman disowns being a whore.

Mr. Oates was tried two days ago for buggery and cleared. The next day he brought his action to the King's Bench against his accuser, being attended by the Earl of Shaftesbury and other peers to the number of seven, for the honour of the Protestant cause.

I have sent you herewith a libel in which my own share is not the least. The King having perused it is no ways dissatisfied with his. The author is apparently Mr. Dryden, his patron my Lord Mulgrave, having a panegyric in the midst; upon which happened a handsome quarrel between his Lordship and Mrs. Buckley at the Duchess of Portsmouth's. She called him the hero of the libel and complimented him upon having made more cuckolds than any man alive, to which he answered she very well knew one he never made nor never cared to be employed in making. 'Rogue!' and 'Bitch!' ensued, till the King, taking his grandfather's character upon him, became the peace-maker.

. . .

The Earl of Rochester reminisces, October, 1677

Though I am almost blind, utterly lame, and scarce within the reasonable hopes of ever seeing London again, I am not yet so wholly mortified and dead to the taste of all happiness not to be extremely revived at the receipt of a kind letter from an old friend who in all probability might have laid me aside in his thoughts, if not quite forgot me by this time. I ever thought you an extraordinary man and must now think you such a friend who, being a courtier as you are, can love a man whom it is the great mode to hate. Catch Sir G. H. or Sir Carr at such an ill-bred proceeding and I am mistaken.

For the hideous deportment which you have heard of concerning running naked, so much is true: that we went into the river somewhat late in the year and had a frisk for forty yards in the meadow to dry ourselves. I will appeal to the King and the Duke if they had not done as much; nay, my Lord Chancellor and the Archbishops both, when they were schoolboys -- and at these years I have heard the one declaimed like Cicero, the others preached like St. Austin. Prudenter persons I conclude they were, even in hanging sleeves, than any of the flashy fry (of which I must own myself the most unsolid) can hope to appear even in their ripest manhood.

And now Mr Savile, since you are pleased to quote yourself for a grave man of the number of the scandalized, be pleased to call to mind the year 1676, when two large fat nudities led the coranto round Rosamund's fair fountain while the poor violated nymph wept to behold the strange decay of manly parts since the days of her dear Harry the Second. Prick, 'tis confessed, you showed but little of, but for arse and buttocks (a filthier ostentation, God wot!), you exposed more of that nastiness in your two folio volumes than we all together in our six quartos. 'Pluck therefore the beam out of thine own eye,' etc.

And now 'tis time to thank you for your kind inviting me to London to make Dutchmen merry, a thing I would avoid like killing punaises, the filthy savour of Dutch mirth being more terrible. If God in mercy has made 'em hush and melancholy, do not you rouse their sleeping mirth to make the town mourn. The Prince of Orange is exalted above 'em and I could wish myself in town to serve him in some refined pleasures which I fear you are too much a Dutchman to think of.

The best present I can make at this time is the bearer, whom I beg you to take care of that the King may hear his tunes when he is easy and private, because I am sure they will divert him extremely. And may he ever have harmony in his mind, as this fellow will pour it into his ears. May he dream pleasantly, wake joyfully, love safely and tenderly, live long and happily, ever prays, dear Savile, un bougre lasse qui era toute sa foutue reste de vie votre fidele ami et tres humble serviteur,


+ + +

The Earl of Rochester ends a seduction, c. 1679


I am far from delighting in the grief I have given you by taking away the child; and you, who made it so absolutely necessary for me to do so, must take that excuse from me for all the ill nature of it. On the other side, pray be assured I love Betty so well that you need not apprehend any neglect from those I employ, and I hope very shortly to restore her to you a finer girl than ever. In the meantime you would do well to think of the advice I gave you, for how little show soever my prudence makes in my own affairs, in yours it will prove very successful if you please to follow it. And since discretion is the thing alone you are like to want, pray study to get it.

. . .

The English Restoration seems startlingly close, as if a veil was lifted for a few decades and then hurriedly pulled back into place for two hundred more years. Generations of state-church tussling, civil war, and dictatorship had left England a fragmented culture bound together by a tradition of insecurity, uncertainty, and paranoia. Installation of the most tolerant monarch in its history unloosed a flood of free expression: of sexual pleasures and horrors, atheism and fanaticism, financial panic and soured idealism, class distinctions crossed and fetishized, free love and cheating at cards....

All very twentieth century save for the lack of whining. Among Restoration writers, hypocrisy and self-pity were more unforgivable than failure or disgrace, since, after all, failure and disgrace lay so clearly outside an individual's control. Most valued was a slantwise directness of insight and impulse, coupled with a humorously stoic awareness of the probable consequences.

Although newspapers, novels, and television weren't yet in full swing, many other aspects of modernity snapped into focus: science blossomed free of alchemy and astrology; for the first time, women wrote professionally (including all-round woman-of-letters Aphra Behn); diaries and letters and memoirs suddenly became compulsively readable narratives rather than bare inventories of purchases or devotions; William Congreve's comedies (largely predicated on their young heroes' fears of bankruptcy) remain the best in the English language; John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, remains the most exfoliative of English poets.

Poor Nelly For reasons we won't go into, the Victorian era offered little open support to its Restoration forebears, and into the mid-twentieth century much material was more or less supressed. Congreve stayed in print, though, and at present the writings of Pepys, Rochester, and the Female Wits are probably more accessible than ever before. But one of my favorite Restoration relics has never quite recovered its former visibility, and so I decided to produce an online edition.

Now Heav'ns preserve our faith's defender
From Paris plots and Roman cunt,
From Mazarine, that new Pretender,
And from that politique, Grammont.
     -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

The memoirs of the Count de Grammont were written in French, but I associate them with the English Restoration since they were ghostwritten by Anglo-Irish Anthony Hamilton, since (apart from some short introductory chapters) they're set entirely in the court of Charles II, and since, most germanely, I know them through a remarkable nineteenth-century English edition aimed at the Sophisticated Gentleman.

As I've mentioned before, it's one of my favorite books, largely due to its internal linkage. But I'm finding it a bit intractable to both online publishing and online reading: luxuriant sentence structure, multipage paragraphs, and gargantuan notes all work more efficiently in paper technology than in computer hypertext, and the tiny none-too-tidy print clogs OCR.

A bit at a time seems the best way to proceed. And so, contrary to my previous practice, I'll be issuing the Memoirs in serial fashion.

Of this initial installment, I actually slighly prefer the bizarre Victorian wrapping to the contents proper, although Hamilton's declaration of methodology, Grammont's Sgt.-Bilko-like account of seventeenth-century warfare, and his easy socializing with both king and rebel during an armed rebellion all hold their charms.

Next in the hopper, though, is his introduction to the English court, and then we'll be cooking with gas!

. . .

This is also the 355th birthday of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and what better way to remember the not-quite-national-over-there-either holiday than by pressing on to remember his most celebrated hoax?

In 1675 or 1676, possibly due to the discovery of "In th' isle of Britain" (a favorite of mine if not of Charles II), Rochester was banished from Court longer than usual, long enough to become bored enough to get into more elaborate trouble than usual. Thus he moved into the suburbs of London, disguised himself, and set up very successful shop as the noted quack doctor Alexander Bendo.

The Count de Grammont assures us:

Among all the compositions of a ludicrous and satirical kind, there never existed any that could be compared to those of Lord Rochester, either for humour, fire, or wit; but, of all his works, the most ingenious and entertaining is that which contains a detail of the intrigues and adventures in which he was engaged, while he professed medicine and astrology in the suburbs of London.
Sadly, that composition, having circulated only in manuscript, has been lost, unless it's in some bishop's safe-deposit box somewhere.

Happily, "Doctor Bendo"'s advertising spiel, having been issued as an infomercial pamphlet, has survived. (In fact, it's probably the only genuine Rochester work to be printed by Rochester himself.) In honor of the occasion, I skip ahead in the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont to share it with you:

I'll only say something to the honour of the Mountebank, in case you discover me to be one. Reflect a little what kind of creature 'tis, he is one then who is fain to supply some higher ability he pretends to, with Craft, he draws great companies to him by undertaking strange things which can never be effected. The Politician (by his example no doubt) finding how the people are taken with specious, miraculous, impossibilities, plays the same game; protests, declares, promises I know not what things, which he's sure can ne'er be brought about; the people believe, are deluded and pleased; the expectation of a future good which shall never befall them draws their eyes off a present evil: Thus are they kept and establish'd in subjection, peace, and obedience; he in greatness, wealth, and power....

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.

. . .

Intermediate Hedonics

She cried, "All this to Love and Rapture's due;
Must we not pay a debt to Pleasure, too?"
- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Why do we care about these dangly or tucked-away bits? Why should we even notice them?

Because they give pleasure. In fact, we're unlikely to be capable of seeing an anthropological sample, or a piece of commercial trash, or amateurish thrashing, as art until our interpretation of that something-else-in-the-kinks flips from "a mistake" to "a pleasure."

Hey, I'm no Johnny Greencarnationseed. I understand that the motive forces of life include much more than happiness, and that happiness includes much more than pleasure, and that most intense pleasures exist outside the aesthetic realm.

But philosophers are right to so often treat hedonics and aesthetics together. Art, being both in some sense external and in some sense non-utilitarian, definitively outlines pleasure in a way that other triggers do not. When a mathematician, for example, talks about a proof as beautiful, what's meant is not just that the proof exists aside from any application, but that its existence gives pleasure.

If we were a more rational species, "Form follows function" might be merely descriptive; what makes it instead a prescriptive aesthetic is the delight the prescriber takes in the resulting form.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.