Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lord Rochester, part one

It seems reasonable that biographers, especially those who are essentially dabbling in biography rather than making it their career, should find in their subjects mirrors of their own preoccupations and personalities. After all, few biographers actively choose a subject whose life and opinions they find utterly uncongenial; from there it is but a small step to discovering that one's subject is, it turns out, a slightly refracted version of oneself.

Thus it is no surprise that Graham Greene, in Lord Rochester's Monkey (1974), presents a Lord Rochester whose libertinism and cynicism are born from a disappointed ideal, a sense that the world and all in it have fallen far short of what we might have been--a view that hews closely to what I would attribute to Greene himself. While Greene's ideal was born of Catholicism (which has the added benefit of ascribing nobility to suffering, however self-inflicted, and repentance, however repetitive), it is unclear where Rochester's originated, unless it was simply by analogy: what I see around me is highly praised, despite being utterly unworthy; the fact that I am perceptive enough to see that means there must be something better--a good, perhaps--that lies beyond this tawdriness. In such a world, a man who sees through the pious declarations and pretension to virtue has a choice: he can either stand strong, resist the world's temptations, and call out its failings with religious fervor, or he can succumb--to drink, lust, cynicism--and thus provide crucial support for his own contention. Rochester chose the latter, argues Greene, who, though he might not have put it so bluntly, did the same.

So Rochester, after serving bravely in naval engagements against the Dutch while still in his teens, arrived at the infamously wild court of Charles II as the greatest excesses of the Restoration were just getting underway, letting out all the wantonness that had been bottled up by two decades of war and Puritan rule. Becoming a close friend of the King, Rochester joined him and others in drunken escapades, sharing of mistresses, and all manner of generally unruly behavior (another reminder, if any are still needed, that when right-wing loonies screech about the horrors of contemporary morality, they're demonstrating yet again their willful ignorance). Rochester became embroiled in duels, attempted to kidnap his future wife, and, all the while, wrote poetry that was by turns viciously satirical and breathtakingly salacious. He turns up frequently in the diaries of Pepys, who, despite their similarly concupiscent natures, seems always a bit unsure about Rochester.

Rochester quickly became the foremost poet and wit of the Restoration court, apparently as charming as he was rackety and unreliable. As his friend George Etherege said of him, "I know he is a Devil, but he has something of the Angel yet undefac'd in him." A Mr. Waller writes,
Last night I supped at Lord Rochester's with a select party: on such occasions he is not ambitious of shining; he is rather pleasant than not: he is comparatively reserved; but you find something in that restraint, which is more agreeable than the utmost exertions of talent in others.
Another friend, poet Nathaniel Lee (who was destined to end his days in Bedlam), based a character on Rochester in a play and wrote of him,
He was the spirit of wit and had such an art in gilding his failures, that it was hard not to love his faults. He never spoke a witty thing twice, though to different persons; his imperfections were catching, and his genius was so luxuriant, that he was forced to tame it with a hesitation in his speech to keep it in view. But oh how awkward, how insipid, how poor and wretchedly dull is the imitation of those that have all the affectation of his verses and none of his wit.

More tomorrow.

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