BOOK REVIEW / Poems with bottle: So idle a rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester - Jeremy Lamb: Allison & Busby, pounds 14.99
Sunday 24 October 1993
They say the dial was phallic in design, a suitable toy for one so priapic as Charles II, whose 'sceptre and his prick are of a length'. Samuel Pepys, not to be outdone by Lord Rochester, once made a similar observation. But it was Rochester who wrote more candidly in English about sex than anyone before the 20th century. Generally considered a pornographic writer, his works were to be found only in cautious anthologies of Restoration verse or wrapped in brown paper on the topmost shelves of bookshops. Graham Greene had to wait 40 years before a publisher was brave enough to accept his wonderful short life, Lord Rochester's Monkey, written in the early 1930s.
It's less quixotic to write a life of Lord Rochester now that the obscenity laws have been relaxed. To improve on Graham Greene would be difficult, but this competent biography does well to recognise Rochester as one who helped to establish the tradition of English satiric verse. While Rochester wrote countless scurrilous lampoons that caused a rumpus then but mean nothing today, he stands as one of the wittiest poets in the language. His 'Satire against Reason and Mankind', with its withering mockery of optimism and rationalism, foreshadowed Swift.
Dr Johnson was unfair to dismiss Rochester as a writer, but right (alas) to observe that he 'blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness'. Born in 1647, Rochester was drunk as two sailors for most of his short life and died, a chronic addle-pate, at the age of 33. Jeremy Lamb is keen to define the luxurious genius of Rochester solely in terms of his alcoholism. He makes the case for a genetically determined dependency (Rochester's father, a Cavalier hero, had a marked predilection for the stuff) and he shows how alcohol influenced the wild vagaries of his moods - swiveing and duelling the one day, a devoted husband the next.
Booze was certainly a factor. It was only when liquored to the scalp that he could operate as Dr Alexander Bendo, the shady Italian pathologist who trafficked in trumpery medicines. And no doubt alcohol was also responsible for Rochester's lowly attack on Dryden in Rose Alley, where the Poet Laureate suffered a beating by hired thugs.
Surely Rochester was also encouraged in his mischief by the Loyalist backlash against years of Puritan correctitude. Jeremy Lamb, though, is all agog at the demon alcohol, and his interpretation of Rochester labours under a heavy emphasis on contemporary research into the addictive mind. Sentences such as 'We will deal with the nature of Gamma alcoholism when Rochester reaches it', or the schoolmarmish 'Like most alcoholics he did not eat properly', could have done with being pruned.
In fact, Jeremy Lamb, a young actor and journalist, seems to be of the Puritan party without knowing it. Sometimes the writing is quaintly gee-whizz ('Charles II was arguably the greatest playboy the Western world had ever seen'). But there's compensation in zesty descriptions from Pepys and John Evelyn of life at the Restoration Court, with its gallery of wenches, tuppenny quill-drivers, beer-swillers and liquor- slobbers, dimber-damber fops and the whole canting crew of wags and blades from that frivolous age - all this against the apocalyptic spectacle of plague deaths, and of a country still reeling from the Civil War.
Lord Rochester's life itself can hardly fail to interest. It was one of tumultuous merriment punctuated by an almost puritanical distaste of love and lust. Lamb takes us through the high adventure - gallantry in the naval wars against the Dutch, gambling at the Newmarket races - at a handsome gallop. Rochester's affair with the captious, teasing actress Elizabeth Barry provides a rare moment of tenderness in this 'happy minute' of life. If we are to believe Jeremy Lamb, it was only in the cold light of sobriety that Lord Rochester was able to turn to Catholicism and make a death-bed repentance. This may be expected of the Gamma alcoholic, but Lord Rochester himself would have scorned any notions about the psychology of drinking; pissed or sober, he saw the skeleton beneath us all, and wrote:
Let's wisely manage this last span,
The momentary life of man;
And still in pleasure's circle move,
Giving our days to friends, and all our nights to love.
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