The risqué secret behind an 18th-century bestseller
Friday 04 February 2011
Had he been alive, the Earl of Rochester would probably have let slip a lascivious chuckle. The austere Earl of Roscommon? Aghast, most likely.
An Oxford University academic has discovered that the phenomenal success of a collection of poems by the two peers was fuelled by an assortment of lurid pornographic rhymes, hidden at the back of the book.
The Works of the Earls of Rochester and Roscommon was one of the 18th century's bestselling poetry miscellanies, reprinted at least 20 times. Previously its popularity had been put down to Rochester's reputation for bawdy and the sensational, or for Roscommon's high-minded musings.
That was until Dr Claudine van Hensbergen found an array of poems located at the back of the book, with separate page numbers. Named "The Cabinet of Love", there was little indication as to what kind of work it included. "To my surprise, 'The Cabinet' turned out to be a collection of pornographic verses about dildos," said Dr van Hensbergen. "The poems include 'Dildoides', a poem attributed to Samuel Butler about the public burning of French-imported dildos, 'The Delights of Venus', a poem in which a married woman gives her younger friend an explicit account of the joys of sex, and 'The Discovery', a poem about a man hiding in a woman's room to watch her masturbate in bed."
One verse of "The Discovery" reads: "Then from the Table she her Garment took/Where, in her Pocket, was a bawdy Book/Which she remov'd, and thence drew out a Tool/Much like to that with which Men Women rule/She it apply'd where I'm asham'd to tell/And acted what I could have done as well/Soon from her Womb a slimy Matter sprung."
"In later years, a celebratory poem about condoms was added, as well as several obscene botanically themed verses attributed to 'a Member of a Society of Gardeners' in which male genitalia is described as the 'tree of life'," said Dr van Hensbergen.
She said the verses made her laugh, rather than blush: "The minute I started entering the poems, I realised what it was. It wasn't shocking to me, but it made me think about the obsession with curiosity in the 18th century in a slightly different way. I emailed the digital miscellanies team and said 'we've found another interesting thing'."
"The Cabinet" first appeared in the miscellany's second edition, published in 1714. The book's high sales were driven by word of mouth and in subsequent reprintings the salacious insert was moved to the front of the book.
It was printed by Edmund Curll, a publisher with an infamous lack of scruples. He was later imprisoned for printing obscene works, and tried in the House of Lords for publishing unflattering words about peers. His name was adopted in the coining of the term "Curlicism" for literary indecency.
It is believed that the inclusion of "The Cabinet" alongside work by Rochester, whose given name was John Wilmot, helped cement his reputation as the original English libertine. The Earl's satirical and often sensational poetry frequently included obscene language and imagery, though most often his intention was to represent the dark side of society's underbelly rather than merely to titillate.
Dr van Hensbergen's research also reveals the diverse reading tastes of the 18th century. "'The Cabinet' is unusual because it shows us that people read pornographic writing directly alongside the verse of major poets. This raises interesting questions about what counts as literature and where the boundaries between high and low culture lie. These ideas were much more fluid in the 18th century than they are today."
tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Planes go hybrid-electric in important step to greener flight
- 2 Antonio Martin shooting: Police and protesters clash over teenager's death just five miles from Ferguson, Missouri
- 3 Northern Lights above Britain: Stunning Aurora Borealis illuminates Northumberland sky on Christmas Eve
- 4 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 5 Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting
Christmas Day TV guide 2014: What to watch from Strictly Come Dancing to the story of Frozen
Best underrated Christmas movies: From Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food