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George Gilfillan: Rochester as wicked moralist
His Satire against Man might be praised for its vigorous misanthropy, but is chiefly copied from Boileau.
Rochester may be signalised as the first thoroughly depraved and vicious person, so far as we remember, who
assumed the office of the Satirist, —the first, although not, alas! the last human imitator of ‘Satan accusing Sin’. Some
satirists before him had been faulty characters, while rather inconsistently assailing the faults of others; but here, for the
first time, was a man of no virtue, or belief in virtue whatever, (his tenderness to his family, revealed in his letters, is
just that of the tiger fondling his cubs, and seeming, perhaps, to them a ‘much misrepresented character’,) and whose life
was one mass of wounds, bruises, and putrefying sores, —a naked satyr who gloried in his shame, —becoming a severe
castigator of public morals and of private character. Surely there was a gross anomaly implied in this, which far greater
genius than Rochester’s could never have redeemed.
Hippolyte Taine on Rochester
History of English Literature (1863), translated by H.van Laun (1878), i. 469–70.
Hippolyte Taine (1828–93), French historian and critic, perhaps the most distinguished foreign
commentator in the nineteenth century on English life and letters. His History of English Literature,
published in four volumes in 1864, is regarded as one of his most important works.
From carnage they thew themselves into debauchery. You should read the life of the Earl of Rochester, a courtier and a
poet, who was the hero of the time. His manners were those of a lawless and wretched mountebank; his delight was to
haunt the stews, to debauch women, to write filthy songs and lewd pamphlets; he spent his time between scandal with
the maids of honour, broils with men of letters, the receiving of insults, the giving of blows. By way of playing the
gallant, he eloped with his wife before he married her. To make a display of scepticism, he ended by declining a duel,
and gained the name of a coward. For five years together he was said to be drunk. The spirit within him failing of a
worthy outlet, plunged him into adventures more befitting a clown. Once with the Duke of Buckingham he rented an
inn on the Newmarket road, and turned innkeeper, supplying the husbands with drink and defiling their wives. He
introduced himself, disguised as an old woman, into the house of a miser, robbed him of his wife, and passed her on to
Buckingham. The husband hanged himself; they made very merry over the affair. At another time he disguised himself
as a chairman, then as a beggar, and paid court to the gutter-girls. He ended by turning charlatan, astrologer, and
vendor of drugs for procuring abortion, in the suburbs. It was the licentiousness of a fervid imagination, which fouled
itself as another would have adorned it, which forced its way into lewdness and folly as another would have done into
sense and beauty. What can come of love in hands like these? One cannot copy even the titles of his poems; they were
written only for the haunts of vice. Stendhal said that love is like a dried up bough cast into a mine; the crystals cover it,
spread out into filagree work, and end by converting the worthless stick into a sparkling tuft of the purest diamonds.
Rochester begins by depriving love of all its adornment, and to make sure of grasping it, converts it into a stick. Every
refined sentiment, every fancy; the enchantment, the serene, sublime glow which transforms in a moment this
wretched world of ours; the illusion which, uniting all the powers of our being, shows us perfection in a finite creature,
and eternal bliss in a transient emotion, —all has vanished; there remain but satiated appetites and palled senses. The
worst of it is, that he writes without spirit, and methodically enough. He has no natural ardour, no picturesque
sensuality; his satires prove him a disciple of Boileau. Nothing is more disgusting than obscenity in cold blood. One can
endure the obscene works of Giulio Romano, and his Venetian voluptuousness, because in them genius sets off
sensuality, and the loveliness of the splendid coloured draperies transforms an orgie into a work of art. We pardon
Rabelais, when we have entered into the deep current of manly joy and vigour, with which his feasts abound. We can
hold our nose and have done with it, while we follow with admiration, and even sympathy, the torrent of ideas and fancies
which flows through his mire. But to see a man trying to be elegant and remaining coarse, endeavouring to paint the
sentiments of a navvy in the language of a man of the world, who tries to find a suitable metaphor for every kind of
obscenity, who plays the blackguard studiously and deliberately, who, excused neither by character, nor the glow of
fancy, nor science, nor genius, degrades a good style of writing to such a work, —it is like a rascal who sets himself to
sully a set of gems in a gutter. The end of all is but disgust and sickness. While La Fontaine continues to the last day
capable of tenderness and happiness, this man at the age of thirty insults the weaker sex with spiteful malignity:
When she is young, she whores herself for sport;
And when she’s old, she bawds for her support….
She is a snare, a shamble, and a stews;
Her meat and sauce she does for lechery chuse,
And does in laziness delight the more,
Because by that she is provoked to whore.
Ungrateful, treacherous, enviously inclined,
Wild beasts are tamed, floods easier far confined,
Than is her stubborn and rebellious mind….
Her temper so extravagant we find,
She hates or is impertinently kind.
Would she be grave, she then looks like a devil,
And like a fool or whore, when she be civil….
Contentious, wicked, and not fit to trust,
And covetous to spend it on her lust.1
What a confession is such a judgment! what an abstract of life! You see the roisterer dulled at the end of his career,
dried up like a mummy, eaten away by ulcers. Amid the choruses, the crude satires, the remembrance of abortive
plans, the sullied enjoyments which are heaped up in his wearied brain as in a sink, the fear of damnation is fermenting;
he dies a devotee at the age of thirty-three years.
A Satire against Mankind quoted
By Benjamin Jowett, 1872:
Some eighteenth-century [sic] verses, which he was very fond of, and often repeated, I have forgotten; but perhaps you
can recover them. All I remember of them is:
Thus age and sad experience, hand in hand,
Led him to God, and made him understand
That all his life he had been in the wrong.2
(A letter from Edwin Harrison to the authors, 12 July 1872, E.Abbott and L.Campbell, The Life and Letters of
Benjamin Jowett (1897), ii. 38)
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson, c. 1874–80:
His taste lay chiefly in sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry, in which he was widely read, and which he used to
quote with admirable power. I can still remember the almost terrible force he threw into the noble lines of Rochester
on the ‘Vanity of Human Reason’.
‘Reason an ignis fatuus of the mind…’1
(‘The Reminiscencies of the Right Honourable W.E.H.Lecky 1874–80’, Hallam, Lord Tennyson, Tennyson, a Memoir,
1 It is doubtful if these lines are Rochester’s, at
least I have not been able to find them in any edition of his works, (tr.). Hayward prints
these lines, under the title ‘The Nature of Women’, Works, p. 111. Subsequent editors have omitted the poem as spurious. Its first
attribution to Rochester is not until Bragge’s not very reliable edition of the Works, 1707.
2 An ironically garbled version of lines 25–8 of A Satire against Mankind. Jowett’s biographers give a more accurate version and add ‘I
owe the identification to the Rev. H. E.D.Blakiston of Trinity College, Oxford.’