Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire

By S. H. Clark | Go to book overview
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Rochester as Libertine

Given Rochester’s undisputed status as ‘one of the dirtiest poets in the canon’ (Porter 1982:61), one might have thought any sustained consideration of his work would at some point involve detailed analysis of the issue of misogyny. This has not, however, proved to be the case. It is not that feminist criticism has neglected his writing: in the last twenty years, Fabricant (1974), Wilcoxon (1979), Wintle (1982) and Nussbaum (1984) have all provided illuminating commentaries. Yet compared to the attention devoted to the niceties of satiric form or the problems of textual attribution, this aspect of his work has suffered at least comparative neglect.

The issues involved appear to have been regarded as simultaneously too self-evident and too problematic. The general impression given is that Rochester has been too readily indulged by his proponents and too easily dismissed by his detractors, and that both parties have tended to rest their respective cases upon the more restricted question of obscenity. Yet even the infamous question, ‘Whether the Boy fuck’d you, or I the Boy’, (‘The Disabled Debauchee’ (40)) looks positively anodyne in comparison to the physiological explicitness of Dorset’s ‘strange incestuous stories/ Of Harvey and her long clitoris’ (‘Colon’ (44-5)), or claims that Mulgrave’s ‘feeble tarse’ could only be stirred by ‘a straight wellsphincter’d arse’ (‘A Faithful Catalogue of our most Eminent Ninnies’ (112-13)). As Dustin Griffin observes, ‘his obscenity and misogyny are mild when compared to Oldham or Robert Gould or a number of anonymous Restoration satirists’ (1988:55). Barbara Everett finds the presence of these terms evidence of ‘a betrayal of human sense and meaning to mere grunting phatic gesture’ (1982:22); perhaps, but they may equally well be seen as part of the Royal Society ideal of purifying the dialect of the tribe. As Defoe observed,


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Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire


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