Essay: Earl of Rochester / Aphra

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[. . .] Within this rhetorical inversion, I think it possible that "cunt" is a term of great praise. It follows from the rhetorical inversion that Rochester's presentation of Corinna will be a whore who can speak in the lofty terms of abstract concepts when speaking about the poet's inability to achieve erection a second time after premature ejaculation:

When, with a thousand kisses wandering o'er

My panting bosom, "Is there then no more?"

She cries. "All this to love and rapture's due;

Must we not pay a debt to pleasure, too?"

("Imperfect Enjoyment" ll. 21-4)

In other words, Corinna acknowledges the poet's "love and rapture" as an excuse for the premature ejaculation, but hopes that her "kisses wandering" may stimulate him again so that she, too, may achieve climax -- this is the "debt to pleasure" that Corinna wishes to see paid, and it would be paid in wood (so to speak). But Rochester follows this with a catalogue of the desperate and overwhelming emotions which attend his inability to achieve tumescence and finally breaks out into the poem's second half, a sort of expostulation or curse upon his penis, ending with the poem's shocking final couplet, indented as its own separate verse paragraph:

And may ten thousand abler pricks agree?

To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

("Imperfect Enjoyment" ll.71-2)

With this Rochester formally curses his own prick, but the terms of the curse are to see "ten thousand abler pricks" -- attached, one presumes, to ten thousand abler men -- "do the wronged Corinna right" by performing the job that the poet could not, and paying the debt to pleasure. This is the element that makes readers like Wilcoxon profoundly nervous, but I think that Rawson's insight holds true here: within impotence Rochester still has the sexual energy of ten thousand men, or through impotence he can be pushed into a lurid and rococo Caligulan or Neronian fantasy of a vast orgy in which one woman is brought to climax by ten thousand different lovers with "abler pricks." The extravagance is meant to be a joke, and a funny one at that -- if Corinna had sex with one man every minute, it would still take an entire week to accomplish such a task. It is clearly satiric hyperbole -- and perhaps an expression of the vigor with which the poet feels he could satisfy his own mistress, if his body were not in apparent rebellion against his own lustful intentions.

The aesthetic shock of the closing couplet does register as a sort of shock, and for that reason it might be easy to make the leap and call the poem "shocking." This what Reba Wilcoxon, in her essay on "Pornography, Obscenity and Rochester's 'The Imperfect Enjoyment'," sets out to address, by explaining Rochester's work within the context of Classical sources: for her, the faculty of Ovidian imitation is one of several crucial factors that marks Rochester's achievement in this poem as a poetic not pornographic one. Wilcoxon's concerns about pornography seem almost quaint to us thirty-five years later (now that Andrea Dworkin is dead, and the Internet porn industry is alive and kicking) and her assessment of Rochester's poem as "blatantly shocking in sexual language and imagery" is likely to raise a chuckle in an undergraduate today (Wilcoxon 375). Likewise WIlcoxon's judgment that the protagonist of the poem "has used others as objects" which says more about the context of Wilcoxon's own bias within the context of 1970s feminism than it does about Rochester's context of Restoration court-poetry written on a French neo-Classical model (Wilcoxon 384). On the surface of it, it would seem like Rochester's narrator is calling for Corinna to be raped by ten thousand men. Yet this is where the question of satiric or mock-epic intent becomes most crucial. For a start, we must take the element of obscenity in the closing couplet as part of Rochester's theatricalized persona in this poem -- Rawson remarks on the freedom to use profane language as being an indicator of Rochester's social status as an Earl, "lordly accents" that hint that the poems' author is a courtier and close intimate of Charles the Second, who would banish him from the court for a time after reading one of Rochester's profane verse satires about his mistress (Rawson 4). So this leads to a rhetorical position where that kind of rhetorical excess is required of Rochester, to establish his bona fides as one who is free to put any sort of language into heroic couplets. Rochester became so well-known for obscene poems that Sir William Empson notes that, after his death, any obscene poem tended to be ascribed to Rochester in the same way "as proverbs are attributed to Solomon" (Empson 275). Yet there is a tradition of heroic exaggeration here, which marks the poem as mock-epic: the threat cannot be taken seriously, and within the dramatic context of the poem it registers as a theatricalized expression of impotent male rage. The feminist emphasis loses sight of this theatrical element in Rochester -- seeing the masculinities rather than the masks in his poems. Ultimately it serves as an illustration of Farley-Hills' wearied claim that "the history of Rochester criticism…illustrates almost all the ways imaginable in which the critic can be deflected from a reasonably objective view of the poetry" (Farley-Hills 1) -- from the vantage of over three decades after her article's publication, Wilcoxon seems to be no exception to Farley-Hills' generalization.

Recalling again Empson had said that any obscene poem of the Restoration whose authorship was not otherwise apparent tended to be attributed to Rochester, in the way that proverbs are vaguely attributed to Solomon, it is worth noting that this is precisely what happened to Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment" on its original publication in 1680, when it was attributed to Rochester (Rawson 8). This suggests that whatever compositional differences one may detect, the compositional similarities were sufficient to contemporary readers of both Rochester and Behn that the two could be confused (or one advertised as the other) to contemporary publishers. It is possible to overstate the importance of published editions of their work, though -- both Rochester and Behn wrote their verse for an intimate coterie of social equals of high rank. Behn did not have Rochester's aristocratic title or male gender which gave him the uniquely privileged access to Charles II that he enjoyed (until it was revoked), but Behn became a part of Charles's court by travelling in well-connected social circles and would, in fact, be recruited by the King himself to do espionage work abroad. But in terms of tone, Behn's poem is far milder than Rochester's -- although the sudden violence of Rochester's expostulation has an equivalent emotional turning-point in the concluding stanza, when suddenly the tone becomes dark and almost supernatural:

The nymph's resentments none but I

Can well imagine or condole:

But none can guess Lysander's soul,

But those who swayed his destiny.

His silent griefs swell up to storms,

And not one god his fury spares;

He cursed his birth, his fate, his stars

But more the shepherdess's charms,

Whose soft bewitching influence

Had damned him to the hell of impotence.

("Disappointment," Stanza XIV)

This stanza serves as Behn's formal close, but it also crucially -- and quite suddenly -- shifts into the first person. Any claims that Behn's sex is responsible for a more "mild" tone than Rochester clearly is incapable of seeing that -- despite her lack of Rochester's varied profanities -- there are two separate rhetorical gestures in this final stanza which mark a violent rhetorical discontinuity with the stanzas that came before. The first -- signified by the spiritual and religious words ("god," "cursed," "fate," "stars" in the sense of zodiacal fate, "charms," "bewitching," "damned," and "hell") which suddenly turn the erotic pastoral of the poem's body into a distinctly supernatural and moralistic turn. One reason Behn's poem may initially have been wrongly attributed to Rochester is that this turn seems, in some muted way, to resemble the pattern of Rochester's life as established by his posthumous fame, which hinged on his supposed deathbed religious conversion "abetted by Burnet," the attending minister who wrote up Rochester's theological deathbed ruminations as a best-selling religious tract (Rawson 8). But beyond any speculation as to whether there is any specific reference to Rochester here -- and whether Behn names Cloris after the shepherdess in a bawdy pastoral by Rochester, "Fair Cloris in a pig-sty lay" -- it is definitely beyond doubt that the poem takes a similarly dark turn to Rochester's poem, although… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Earl of Rochester / Aphra.  (2011, February 11).  Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/earl-rochester-aphra/2904262

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"Earl of Rochester / Aphra."  Essaytown.com.  February 11, 2011.  Accessed April 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/earl-rochester-aphra/2904262.