Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, enjoyed a plethora of liberties as a member of Charles II’s court in Restoration England. Although his relationship with the King was a volatile one, his frequent banishments and subsequent returns to the court ultimately evidence the height of regard the King held him in. Perpetually simmering with sharp and offensive wit, Rochester became renowned for his highly sexualized writings. While far from bombastic, the obscenity with which he wrote created a necessary distance between Rochester and his work so that he could create sexual metaphors for a personal sociopolitical commentary that would otherwise truly endanger his standing with the King. As it was, the grotesque sexual acts he depicted in his work suggests far more than mere elements of dissatisfaction with the court Charles ran. Rather, the specificities of his dissatisfaction can be found in a sociopolitical interpretation his play “Sodom and Gomorah,” with general discussion of the impotency of the leadership at court metaphorized in the intimate “The Imperfect Enjoyment” as well as a brief examination of Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment.”
If we are going to believe that Rochester held Charles in contempt as a leader because of his inability to constrain the whims of the court, then we must also subscribe to an understanding of Rochester as the most willing participant in whimsical acts himself—one of the trademarks of a good courtier was the ability to practice one thing and maintain personal beliefs in contrast with those actions. The latter is not difficult to accomplish—Rochester was a staunch Libertine, believing that human pleasure was the most worthwhile pursuit, and especially endeavored to practice this philosophy through sexual experimentation. With regard to Rochester’s view on Charles’ leadership, however, the relationship between his opinion of Charles, his outward actions, and his writings, constitutes a difficult trifecta to disentangle.
It’s possible that Rochester recognized the court’s frivolity as a defense mechanism through which people could exhibit behaviors that would otherwise be deemed utterly inappropriate—and punishable by law. For example, the acts of sodomy and incest (to name a couple) that are portrayed in “Sodom and Gomorah” are committed at the explicit directive of King Bolloxinian.
“Let other Monarchs who their Scepters beare
To keepe their subjects lesse in loue y feare
Bee slaues to Crownes, my nation shall be free
My Pintle onely shall my scepter bee” (lines 3-6).
King Bolloxinian’s proclamation that his penis shall be the only tool he needs to effectively reign is likely a reflection of Rochester’s own goodwill towards his monarch; Rochester himself does, after all, enjoy a Libertine existence whereby he may follow his sexual urges and desires as he pleases. Rochester also expresses his belief that King Charles is lenient not out of laziness, but necessity. The phrase “Bee slaues to Crownes” recalls the inherent danger of being a monarch—that is, to be slave to the crown is to renounce any obligation to the people, a renunciation that Charles II is not in a position to make in the wake of his father’s beheading and the subsequent political turmoil. Thus, in order to maintain his crown, Rochester suggests through King Bollox that the only option is to bestow sexual freedom to the people, and to join them in their earthly enjoyments. This further establishes his humanness and desire to be seen as a fellow person, not one removed from them by his power and otherness.
Another interpretation of “My Pintle onely shall my scepter bee” is that King Bollox is an honest leader—he wields his “scepter” the same way any other man would, despite his status as king. “Onely” reveals the fragility of the male scepter (penis) and establishes a tension within the metaphor—if King Bollox declares that he only needs his penis to rule effectively, he renounces any claim he may have as a monarch to higher powers of vitality. Essentially, if his scepter fails him, he fails as both as a man and a king. In opening “Sodom and Gomorah” in this manner, Rochester effectively establishes himself as sympathetic to the king, however, the character nomenclature and grossly coarse register inhibit him from approving of the king’s leniency.
The issue of leniency as Rochester expresses it in “Sodom and Gomorah” is an oddly hypocritical one—who is Rochester to balk at the freedoms bestowed upon others when he himself depends on the advantages he has taken to maintain his opulent existence? His criticisms appear to lie in the direct endorsement the sexual acts described in the scene receive: “I do proclaim that Buggery may be vsd/Or’e all the land so C—t be not abus’d” (lines 69-70). King Bollox’s articulation of his endorsements offers a stark contrast to the passivity with which Charles II allowed his court to descend into whimsical frivolities. In urging a comparison between King Bollox and King Charles, Rochester forces the reader to acknowledge that active approval and passive inaction are equally harmful to the structure of a court, yet the subtly of his argument is crafted so as to seem coincidental rather than overtly critical.
The aggressive dismissal of the woman as a source of sexual gratification features prominently in Rochester’s play as well. In scene two Queen Cuntagratia complains “I can command all but my Cunts releife” (line17), whereby Rochester cleverly encapsulates the eternal frustration of man in one woman’s enumeration, which is: women command the relief of a man’s sexual urges, but their inability to be satisfied by the man throughout the course of a coupling renders them useless as sexual partners because of their insatiable nature. This insatiable nature leads man to feel needlessly ashamed of their sexual prowess and endurance, for they are exhaustible while women aren’t. Thus, in the world of “Sodom and Gomorah” women do not ultimately make satisfactory sexual partners.
The inescapable convergence of men and women’s desires is captured in Fuckadilla’s cyclical comment: “What woman cann a standing Pri— refuse?” (line 26). Here, Rochester gives the reader pause. Is Fuckadilla commenting on a woman’s sexual appetite, saying that a woman will always desire sex with an aroused man? Or is her comment with regard to the habit of heterosexual coupling society has perpetuated since the conception of Adam and Eve, whereby the aroused man is driven to a woman out of habit rather than desire? Rochester appears to acknowledge that women do have some redemptive value as sexual creatures in their knowledge of sexual tricks and games, if not their aesthetic appeal. “All this & more you Clitoris haue done/Taught me new waies vpon old joys to come/Shew’d me the various postures of delight/ffrigg’d me all day & melyed me al night” (lines 39-42). Yet even King Bollox’s speech is tinted with the sense that everything good that Clitoris has done for him was in the past; there is nothing new that she can offer him.
The sharpness and repetition of Rochester’s criticisms of women suggest that he holds more at stake within the script of his play than is explicitly understood by the reader on first, superficial read; it’s almost as if the vulgarity and absurdly detailed sexual descriptions are meant to veil a claim of far more substance than simply abusing women. Given Rochester’s prominence within the court and his turbulent relationship with the king, it’s likely that the only form of discourse available to him in a way that would initiate a discussion about the king’s rule without directly implicating him in a direct criticism of the king was that of a poet and playwright. By casting women as the enemy of male satisfaction and superiority, Rochester achieves a new valence disguised as the old adage “blame the women.” Where previously women have been scapegoated for simply being women, Rochester constructs a very coherent reason for their fall from grace: they are overzealous and sexually inexhaustible, rendering men incapable of performing.
So what does a pornographic depiction of courtly life mean for the interpretation of “Sodom and Gomorah” as a socio-politically charged play? If we consider the political unrest and instability the preceded and surrounded the Restoration, as well as the fragile state of religion, it’s possible to read Rochester’s play as a commentary on the liberties people were taking as those of advantage and not granted permissions. Read through that historical lens, the women in the play begin to represent something far less soft and willing than a whore’s body—rather, the whore begins to represent the disintegration of English values and the emasculation of the king by those who are less than him. To preserve the masculinity of the king, Rochester suggests that homosexual encounters are both safer and more pleasurable for it—“And Pock for my mate I choose/His Arse shall for a minute be my Spowse” (lines 53-54).
In the following scenes of homosexual encounters whereby King Bollox’s men give themselves to him as willingly as he takes them, Rochester introduces the incredible scene where the king next proclaims that incest is now legal (Act III, line 113). While sodomy at this point was staunchly regarded as an unnatural sin punishable as a capital offense, the stigma of incestuous sexual relationships overshadows the questions regarding masculinity inherent in people’s homophobia, particularly because homosexuality as we know it would have appeared to manifest itself in the intimate relationships that close male friends held during the Restoration period and had for hundreds of years before. Thus, perhaps Rochester has a point in his exploitation of male relations in such bald-faced verse. In his essay “Sexuality and social hierarchy in Sidney and Rochester,” Robert Holton acknowledges the implicit political statement Rochester is making while supporting Rochester’s liberally descripted scenes: “…it is not necessary to discard the sexual imagery in order to reveal this level of meaning. Instead, sexual and political levels of discourse are interwoven and serve to illuminate each other” (Holton, 59).
Moving from “Sodom and Gomorah” to a briefer, tighter focus on a specific concern of Rochester’s, “The Imperfect Enjoyment” encapsulates his ability to sexualize his concerns in a way that make his statement readily accessible to those who are willing and able to find it. Specifically focalizing the lack of centralizing power within an anonymous man’s embarrassing pre-ejaculation, Rochester represents King Charles’ premature efforts to liberate his people from social constraints and monarchical obligations so as to preemptively encourage support for his reign. Within this reading, the man’s lover, Corinna, becomes the recognizable face of an unsatisfied body. “Ev’n her fair hand, which might bid heat return/For frozen age and make cold hermits burn/Applied to my dead cinder warms no more” (Rochester, lines 31-33). In depicting Corinna as capable of stirring heat in all but the man, Rochester effectively comments on the futility of the man’s efforts to rise to her desires, which in turn reflects an assertion that a body in power must not sacrifice the gratification of another for momentary relief, however wanted that relief may be.
In her essay “Pornography, Obscenity, and Rochester’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” Reba Wilcoxon testifies to the value of Rochester’s pornographic descriptions of the embarrassing scene between two would-be lovers. “The entire description of the love scene, which is direct and comparatively unelaborated, is the stuff of pornography; yet the general meaning and the speaker’s emotional reaction are antithetical to pornography, where every sexual fantasy ends in success…” (Wilcoxson, 381). The effect of hyper-sexualizing a failed sex scene further suggests that there is more at stake within the context of failure to perform as a man than just within a sexual context. The subsequent dehumanization of Corinna as a whore only looking to satisfy herself—“Through all the town the common fucking post/On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt/As hogs on gates do rub themselves and grunt”(Rochester, lines 63-65)—also entraps the man as a product to be used in the same manner the whores (hogs) are used by men.
Hogs featured prominently against the English landscape as a primary source of meat and also, to some extent, may be seen as representing wealth because of the greater access higher financial status afforded the Englishmen who consumed it. Thus, likening whores to hogs in “The Imperfect Enjoyment” is both meant to offend but also reveal a grudging need for such creatures of instinct. Through the vulgarity of his comparison, Rochester implies that whores are debased as they are when a man—their rightful superior—fails to sexually conquer them and instead turns to grotesque scorn, hyperbolizing his disgust for creatures that are solely driven by their disgusting, insatiable wants. Wilcoxson concurs on this point, contending that “Rochester’s soldier demonstrates a misplaced heroism, bold in his attack on whores, a coward in the presence of ‘great Love,’” (Wilcoxson, 383-384). Framed within a political scope, the vulgar attack the man makes on women seems to be laced with anger that while he may be used at the discretion of others against the natural order of things, him using whores for his own benefit is a natural order that does not take away anything from their identities as whores.
The anonymity of the man in “The Imperfect Enjoyment” functions to emphasize the question of who the man is meant to represent. In “Sodom and Gomorah” the likening to King Charles was easier to assume based on the lead being a king, but Rochester appears to strive for a different, broader commentary in his poem. “Where’er it pierced, a cunt it found or made/Now languid lies in this unhappy hour” (Rochester, lines 43-44). Clearly, the man in the poem is opening a dialogue about the power and vitality a penis possesses, however, his present inability to harness that power suggests that his vitality is waning. In this way, Rochester may indeed be creating a criticism of the king’s rule through the lens of a vigorous man that has expended himself too much to maintain for much longer. The man’s claim that “with virgin blood ten thousand maids has dyed” (line 38) concedes that at one point he was able to effectively rule and silence those who protested, but now he finds himself vulnerable in the most intimate moments.
One of Rochester’s highly regarded contemporaries, Aphra Behn, also published a poem on the subject of male failure to perform sexually. While “The Imperfect Enjoyment” describes pre-ejaculation, however, “The Disappointment” depicts Lysander and Cloris, fraught with passionate desire for one another, and stalled by Lysander’s physical inability to dominate Cloris the way he wants to and feels he should. “Offering her virgin innocence/A victim to love’s sacred flame/While the o’er-ravished shepherd lies/Unable to perform the sacrifice” (Behn, VII, lines7-10). Cloris herself is a nymph, likely chosen to be so by Behn so as to emphasize the degree of Lysander’s impotence (nymphs were regarded highly for their easy and fun sexuality). Impotence functions within this scene to heighten the sexual desire Lysander himself has stirred within Cloris, rendering her breathless with desire and needing his “sacrifice.” It’s possible that Behn means sacrifice to signify the inevitable exhaustion and vulnerability that a man faces post-sex, but the phrase also suggests that Behn is commenting on the roles men and women assume in sexual relationships and how those roles affect the structure of their relationships within society.
In the essay “Power, Gender, and Identity in Aphra Behn’s ‘The Disappointment,’” Lisa Zeitz and Peter Thoms suggest that there is a danger in adhering to social roles. “His true weakness, however, exists not in his lack of control over his passions and penis, but in his inability to distinguish his own identity from the role he has assumed” (504). Once again, the latent suggestion is that the sexualized descriptions within the poem are meant to veil a greater valence than simply social commentary—specifically, the social commentary Behn is enacting comes from her observations of the country’s higher circles. By addressing the roles that people not only naturally embody in relationships with one another, she also recognizes that these roles are inherent agreements that are not always consciously made, and when individuals cannot fulfill these naturalized roles, a tension is established between the self and the role.
Read in conjunction with “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” Behn’s work reiterates the idea latent in both pieces that a sociopolitical commentary can be made by analyzing the individual level on which interpersonal relationships are formed. Specifically, with regard to King Charles II’s rule, both authors seem to be in mutual agreement that any failure to perform in the present trivializes the multitude of successes a man may have had in the past, particularly if his past exploits have been numerous. This maps neatly onto a discussion of Charles’ rule as overly lenient due to fear—perhaps young men waste aware their virility in their youth out of fear for their capacity to perform in the future. In that same vein, perhaps Charles is afraid to institute firmness to his rule because of the fear that he will not be able to do so should he attempt it. This fear is most obviously demonstrated in Rochester’s “Sodom and Gomorah” wherein the ending is as inevitable as it is absurd, and serves to heighten the sense that attempts to reclaim power are as necessary as they are vital to the stability of a regime.