If you are looking for conventional love poetry for Valentine’s Day, the verse of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, might not be your best bet. Any man who wrote a poem called Against Constancy is never going to subscribe to hearts-and-flowers romance. A leading figure of the Restoration court – its “blazing star”, if you will – Rochester lived out his life like a mixture of rock-star and prophet, piercing the glittering facade of the world he inhabited and exposing in his poetry the dirt and depravity behind. Dying cruelly young at 33, he deprived England, and its literature, of one of its brightest lights. He has gone on to enjoy a remarkable afterlife, being played by Johnny Depp and featured in a song by Nick Cave, but his writing has resisted all attempts to pin it down, and continues to provoke and delight more than three centuries after his death in 1680.
For many, it comes as a shock to read Rochester’s poems for the first time. Four-letter words are gaily scattered about in a manner sure to offend the prudish, and the force of the sexual and scatological imagery to be found in his writing means that preconceptions of what poetry – especially Restoration poetry – “should” be are challenged. Poems such as his bawdy social satire Signior Dildo, the chillingly misanthropic A Ramble in St James’s Park, and his brilliant meditation on premature ejaculation The Imperfect Enjoyment are strong stuff, even today; no wonder that his work was sold as pornography until the middle of the 20th century. But then again, what else can you say about a man who said of himself, in Upon His Drinking a Bowl:
Cupid and Bacchus my saints are,
May drink and love still reign!
With wine I wash away my cares,
And then to cunt again.
All my past life is mine no more,
The flying hours are gone,
Like transitory dreams giv’n o’er,
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.
The time that is to come is not;
How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot;
And that, as fast as it is got,
Phyllis, is only thine.