the light fantastic

vague ramblings re: early british lit

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Satire against Reason and Mankind

John Wilmot (Earl of Rochester)'s satires weren't especially witty, unlike Dryden's. Maybe it was because Rochester's heroic couplets and three-line stanzas were written about generalities such as the Creation and the Fall and reason and Mankind, while Dryden was picking on one of his peers.

"A Satire against Reason and Mankind" had a sort of wit; there was a delicate veil behind which the poet denouced thinking past the daily necessities and how those sorts of thoughts lead to "a mite/ Think[s] he's the image of the infinite" (line 77), yet by writing he is giving evidence of someone who think past the "sphere of action [that] is life's happiness" (line 96) and who is immortalized by the literary tradition. Generally, the mocking tone would be amusing, but Rochester never shows enough of his true meaning to convey it satirically. Instead, the satire reads more like a disillusioned, silly rant for the people to continue to live without enjoying wit or intellect.

His other poems are somewhat amiss. Perhaps, everyone who knew Rochester automatically realized the absurdity of the poet's character and the poems that he wrote compared to the person Rochester actually was, but just reading the poems would have lost all satiric meaning behind them. There isn't wit (as far as I can tell); he just enjoyed using puns to create irony between the words and his real meaning...but the wordplay is rarely complex.

Maybe, he wrote his poems to be so blatantly silly and filled with puns, that the reader would enoy the poem as far as he understood, while Rochester would sit back and mock the reader for not being able to ascertain his intent. Like in "The Disabled Debauchee," there is double meaning behind war, rival, board, "able to bear arms," saucily, et al that is easily understood. The connection between conversation and conflict, a drunken wit and a dry impotence is all very well, but what of it? "The Imperfect Enjoyment" was especially coarse with none of the wit, satire or even irony. So his love is a whore since he expects ten thousand abler pricks to come and right his wrong and he's also a man-slut because his dart of love is dyed by ten thousand virgins. Was Rochester just interested in how many euphemisms for penis he could use in heroic couplets? It's certain that he wasn't interested in his love at all, since only one word is prevalent for the female genitalia.

Maybe it is shallow, but satire isn't any fun unless it is directed as a specific person. Not because of the tongue-in-cheek aspect to it, but more to see the subject's reaction to the veiled insults. Like Dryden's discourse, "A witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not... [if] a man is secretly wounded...the malicious world will find it out for him."

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