BOOK REVIEW / Poems with bottle: So idle a rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester - Jeremy Lamb: Allison & Busby, pounds 14.99

THE MAD prodigality of Lord Rochester, Restoration poet and rakehell, was a world away from the dandified fripperies of sword knots and side-curls. It was demonic, and totally calamitous in the foppish court of Charles II, where Rochester was chief wit. Any gallant could enjoy the broad freedom - sexual, sartorial - that flourished after the riddance of Puritan morality. But only Rochester could yell at the King's favourite sundial - 'Dost thou stand here to fuck Time?' - and then proceed to smash it up.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor