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Rochester, John Wilmot, Earl of (1647-1680)  

In his poetry and his dramatic farce Sodom, the Restoration rake Rochester depicts heterosexual love as imperfect or incomplete and offers homosexual intercourse as a natural alternative.

Since his alleged "death-bed repentance" in 1680, John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, has been the stuff of which legends are made. One of the most notorious rakes in Restoration England, Rochester is primarily remembered for his devilish pranks, sexual conquests, bawdy jokes, and drunken escapades.

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Born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, the son of Henry Wilmot, First Earl of Rochester, and Anne St. John, Countess of Rochester, John was educated primarily at Oxford. His travels took him to Italy and France, but his notoriety as a sexually mischievous aristocrat came mostly from his years in the entourage at Whitehall during the reign of Charles II.

One of Charles's favorites, Rochester was nevertheless exiled numerous times by the king for libelous poetry and scandalous behavior at court. Rochester frequently attacked the king and his multiple mistresses in poems like "A Satyr on Charles II."

Although many readers have focused on Rochester's scathing satires on the upper class, as well as the "Satyr Against Reason and Mankind" (one of his "cleanest" poems) as the most intellectually challenging of his body of work, it is in his satires against sexuality, particularly heterosexuality, that Rochester's poetic voice finds its most powerful expression.

The focus of heterosexual marriage, or at least of a monogamous relationship in Rochester's poetry, is intercourse. Rochester describes, often in highly misogynistic terms, heterosexual intercourse as a key grotesque event. In poems like "By All Love's Soft, Yet Mighty Pow'rs," distinctions between bodily functions--copulation, menstruation, and defecation--are effectively collapsed.

Rochester uses the common term for menstruation, "Flowers," in this poem to evoke the unsavory effects of making love while a woman is menstruating. (In juxtaposing this image with a "smock" which is "beshit," Rochester forms a troublesome alliance between two kinds of "waste," both of which are produced by his mistress.) This mixture of blood, sperm, and feces is certainly meant to shock and offend his Restoration audience in that it gives a less attractive "body" to courtly love poetry.

Rochester constructs heterosexual love as imperfect or incomplete in his poetry. Poems such as "The Imperfect Enjoyment," a poem dealing with premature ejaculation, and his widely anthologized "A Ramble in St. James's Park," the latter narrated by an angry lover cursing his overflirtatious mistress, both describe the heterosexual experience as unproductive.

The recurrent imagery of waste, "wasted" sperm and squandered attempts at pleasure, highlights the speaker's frustration in the aforementioned poems, but this "refuse" is often set against the relatively clean and waste-free love between men.

In Rochester's "Love A Woman? You're an Ass!," the narrator reduces the womb to a place of drudgery, a space fit only for servants forced to obey commands. The misogyny of the poem clearly offers the occasion to enter ties; the speaker refers to both his male friendship, his "lewd well-natur'd friend," and his "sweet soft page" as natural alternatives to intercourse with his mistress.

"Wit" in fact is considered a product of homosocial exchange and revelry: It is produced when women are banished from the scene. In a poem like "The Disabled Debauchee," Rochester's persona is so wrapped up in sexual ecstasy that in recalling a ménage à trois with his mistress and a page boy, he cannot remember which sexual roles each of the participants played.

The infamous farce Sodom: The Quintessence of Debauchery has been credited to Rochester. In Sodom, King Bolloxinion declares "" to be the intercourse of choice throughout the land since heterosexuality is so abhorrent and unclean. The play consists of one explicit sex scene after another as the king's subjects, both men and women, find other ways to satisfy themselves sexually than normative heterosexuality.

Rochester's poems participate in the libertine ethic of bisexuality so prevalent during the Restoration. Being part of the court culture not only gave Rochester his infamous reputation but also access to the aristocratic privilege of sexual liberty and experimentation. His poetic persona explores all the available avenues of sexual activity open to men of his class in the Restoration.

Amy Farmer

     

 
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A detail from a portrait of John Wilmot.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Frontain, Raymond-Jean. "Bakhtinian Grotesque: Realism and the Subversion of Biblical Authority in Rochester's Sodom." Journal of Homosexuality 33.3-4 (1997): 71-95.

Holton, Robert. "Sexuality and Social Hierarchy in Sidney and Rochester." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 24 (1991): 47-65.

Rawson, Claude. "System of Excess." Times Literary Supplement (March 29, 1985): 335-336.

Treglown, Jeremy, ed. Spirit of Wit: Reconsiderations of Rochester. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String, 1982.

Vieth, David. Attribution in Restoration Poetry: A Study of Rochester's Poems" 1680. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

_____. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. VIII, 1988.

Weber, Harold. "'Drudging in Fair Aurelia's Womb': Constructing Homosexual Economies in Rochester's Poetry." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 33 (1992): 99-117.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Farmer, Amy  
    Entry Title: Rochester, John Wilmot, Earl of  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 23, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/rochester_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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