This is as close to a trigger warning as you’re ever likely to encounter at The Free Press. We believe in treating you, our free-thinking readers, as adults who don’t get riled by an opinion you disagree with.
But this warning is not about opinions. It’s about words—some pretty salty (and even offensive) ones—found in “Regime de Vivre,” the poem featured in this week’s “Things Worth Remembering.”
The bawdy poet in question, the Earl of Rochester, was famous for his libertine wit. Everyone in King Charles II’s court, including (possibly) the king himself, was familiar with the earl’s oeuvre and, shall we say, tastes. But Douglas, as always, is reading his poem out loud (click below to hear him recite this one), so if you have kids nearby you might want to get them out of earshot before listening.
I hope you enjoy—and share your reactions in the comments.
Not all poets are good people. And if one job of poets and poetry is to tell us how to live, then we must also accept that some poets show us, by example, how not to do so. The history of poetry is full of bad boys, but if any poet deserved that title it was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. He was one of those “gentlemen” who lived in the time of Charles II, when the Restoration of the monarchy in England led to a certain relaxing of the puritanism of the Cromwell years. A little too much relaxing, in some cases.
From his earliest years, the Earl of Rochester was what was then known as a rake, a word that, I think, also gives us the term rackety—one that I still find useful to describe some people. A few years back, an American diplomat was taken by some friends to a club in London, where he was shown photographs of a club within the club whose aristocratic members had, as their aspiration, the aim of doing absolutely nothing. My American friend was appalled. “How did your country survive such ghastly people,” he said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he hadn’t seen the half of it. Lord Rochester would have killed him off almost as fast as he managed to kill himself off.
While still only in his late teens, Rochester tried to carry off a much wealthier woman to be his wife. That is, he quite literally tried to carry her away in a carriage against the wishes of her family—and the lady herself. The plot was foiled, the woman released, and the King sent Rochester to the Tower of London for a few weeks to cool off. (The couple still eloped sometime later.)
His subsequent downward trajectory is recorded in satirical poems that remain masterpieces of scabrous writing. The poet Andrew Marvell once said that Rochester was the one man in England in his time “that had the true vein of satire.” And gosh did he use it, often unwisely. His poem “Signior Dildo” was widely quoted in his own time, as was this passage, his epigram on the King:
We have a pretty witty king,
Whose word no man relies on.
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.
That great chronicler of the time, John Aubrey, relates in his Brief Lives that, while Rochester’s “youthly spirit and opulent fortune did sometimes make him do extravagant actions, but in the country he was generally civil enough.” Learning a little of what he was like in the country, it must have been quite something to have gone out with Rochester for a night on the town. On one occasion, Aubrey relates, a London dial-maker returned home to find his house broken into by Rochester and various friends returning from their revels. “What!” said the Earl of Rochester, “doest thou stand here to fuck time?”
Who wouldn’t want to use that phrase at least once in their life?