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Rochester: The Poems in Context.

Marianne Thormahlen's Rochester: The Poems in Context sets out (as its title suggests) to place Rochester's poetry in a historical perspective. The book, she tells us in the introduction, is to have `an historical bias' (p. 4). Certainly much scholarly work on the period is quoted, but even where contemporary example is adduced, as in the discussion on Artemiza (pp. 135-40) or Upon Nothing (pp. 148-61), little new information is added that significantly affects the assessment of the poetry. Essentially the book repeats the approach adopted by both Griffin in Satires Against Man (1973) and myself in Rochester's Poetry (1978); a close reading of the poems in the light of known seventeenth-century attitudes and usages. In effect, Thormahlen engages in a debate over literary interpretation with Griffin and many of those who have written since, without advancing any radical reassessment of Rochester's poetry in the process. As she is an intelligent and careful critic, some of her readings are more convincing than what has already been said, but this is not a book that alters the map of our thought on Rochester.

In some ways it harks back to an earlier phase of Rochester commentary, revealing uncomfortably romantic assumptions that a real person is lurking within the print and substituting an intelligent neurotic for the earlier wicked Earl. She dismisses Against Constancy for being too unpleasant in its attitudes to represent the `real' Rochester (p. 62), for instance, and apologizes for being `too reductively biographical' in reading the Imperfect Enjoyment as based on a hidden fear of impotence in the poet (pp. 94-5) - here her wish to see her version of the poet in the poem has led, I think, to a serious misreading of the text and may be an interesting example of the sex of the critic being a factor in the misunderstanding.

The lines in question are those where the poet, having suffered ejaculatio praecox, attempts, but fails, to obey his partner's desire to try again:

I sigh alas! and kiss, but cannot Swive. Eager desires, confound my first intent, Succeeding shame, does more success prevent, And Rage, at last, confirms me impotent.

Thormahlen finds the reference to first intent, puzzling (p. 89) but assumes the shame and rage are over his failure to have a second orgasm, even though, as she rightly observes, an experienced lover would know that recuperation takes some little time'. Rochester was experienced enough as a lover to have fathered at least four children. The problem, however, is surely not as she describes it. The poet's first intent, refers back to the lady's reminder that `a debt to pleasure' is owed (`confound, is present in the past), which for the male is the need to adapt his timing to the (usually slower) timing of the female partner, though for mutual satisfaction the lady has to be careful not to over-stimulate, so her we, is justified. It was the poet's intention to get this right at the first attempt; through eager desires' he failed ignominiously. Now, the shame at being found an `errant fumbler' of the kind he admits to in a famous letter to Henry Savile (mistiming is always a frustrating experience) and his increasing anger at his failure to remedy the situation, result in his penis refusing to respond at all, even though the lady gives it a helping hand. The problem is not that the poet expects to achieve orgasm again so soon, but that he cannot get an erection which would pay the debt owing to the lady's pleasure. The reference to the penis as `my dead cinder' (cinders shrink) and to its being limber, (Bailey's Dictionary, 4th edition (1728)gives `soft' and `supple') surely makes the situation clear, and Thormahlen is therefore wrong to say Rochester never describes the simple failure to have an erection' (p. 95). The poet is not accusing himself of impotence in general, but of powerlessness in this instance. Rather than the traumatic experience Thormahlen sees in the poem, I still find it (as I did in 1978) `an extremely funny burlesque' (p. 92). Indeed, in general I find this book takes far too little account of the laughter (often sardonic it is true) that echoes through Rochester's pages.
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Author:Farley-Hills, David
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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