Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Development of the Later English Restoration Impotency Poems

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Development of the Later English Restoration Impotency Poems

Article excerpt

The impotency poem tradition begins with the development of Latin elegy in the first century BCE to address issues of social and political complexity. (1) The erotic-satiric elements seen in those earliest examples of the form lay the template for early modern reclamations of poetic texts able to explore with humor and satire the relationships depicted. By exploring the allegoric and symbolic potential of impotence within the sexual episode, poets are able to comment on the significance of this as a "failure to serve." As a result, where early elegists such as Catullus and Propertius explore the perceived corruptions of the first half of the century BCE in Rome, English early modern poets such as Thomas Nashe engage with the motif of impotence to explore the limitations attendant on "professional" writing practices in late-sixteenth-century London (Lavery).

With Propertius's introduction of the "lost opportunity recovered" element to erotic elegy (2.15), the use of impotency texts to allegorically explore the significance of movements between action and inaction, power and impotence, is established. The seventeenth-century French poet Cantenac clearly brings this device to the fore with his impotency poem "L'Occasion Perdue Recouverte" (first published in 1661), literally translating as "The Lost Opportunity Recovered." It is perhaps no surprise that this type of poem catches the imagination of the English court in context of their recent recovery of a "lost opportunity." Certainly the publication of the Cantanec text corresponds to the beginning of a spate of impotency texts produced in English over the following two decades. Initially appearing from within the English court itself, with works by poets such as Etherege, Rochester, and Behn, what is perhaps most interesting is the later response to the "Imperfect Enjoyment" episode in English literary history with the printing and circulation of more clearly propagandist versions in anonymous form in the years that follow. By considering the relationship between these early and late Restoration impotency texts, we are better able to understand both the intertextual links between the French and English versions and the satiric potential of the "impotency poem" as an increasingly popular form of writing over the latter half of the seventeenth century.

These well-known impotency texts are therefore produced within a culture newly fashioned around principles of libertine freedom. This image is encouraged by the Merry Monarch, in "The Declaration of Breda," as part of his construction of monarchy as liberating the English from a dogmatic and oppressive Puritan Republic: "If the general distraction and confusion which is spread over the whole kingdom doth not awaken all men to a desire and longing that those wounds which have so many years together been kept bleeding may be bound up, all we can say will be to no purpose." It is in this context that Rochester explores the concept of impotence in a highly erotic, darkly obscene representation of the outcome of excessive, unthinking sexuality: "Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry, / A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie" ("The Imperfect Enjoyment" 35-36). The threat to "order" this position presents is then shown to be as destructive of the individual as Puritanical self-denial, and ultimately Rochester expresses his "Imperfect Enjoyment" as an erotic-satiric response to monarchical constructs of libertine kingship, whose "scepter and his prick are of a length" ("A Satyr on Charles II" 11). (2)

Finally, however, the impotency poem tradition climaxes with a series of anonymous texts that respond to this articulation of the impotency poem in English as capable of commenting on wider social and political concepts. Through close analysis of the dating and content of these later intertexts, we can see that these anonymous literatures constitute a more "propagandist" form than the subtly subversive satire of earlier English impotency texts. …

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