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This review is from: Selected Poems (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
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`He died of drink and copulation,
A great discredit to this nation.'
Those lines are actually from a hopeful self-obituary by the composer Peter Warlock, real name Philip Heseltine. Warlock/Heseltine actually died from CO poisoning, quite likely self-inflicted, after a short life largely spent in libraries. The nearest he got to notoriety was on being once arrested for drunkenness in Chelsea: however he did give us a neat epitaph for John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester.
What I am reviewing here is not the poems of Rochester but an edition of these. Rochester would have got five stars from me. The edition also has a lot to commend it. It is a selection, but a good and varied one. It is in modern spelling, thank goodness, and one nice editorial feature is the use of the small circle normally used to indicate degrees of temperature or degrees of proof alcohol to refer to notes at the back of the book. Line numbers are printed with the poems, so the references can be traced easily and they do not fatigue the eye like a plethora of numbers attached to the text. There is also a lengthy and informative academic introduction, but for all its virtues this is where I have the problems.
The editor Paul Davis seems unable to keep to one subject at a time. This shows in the four sub-chapters that he provides, namely Court, Theatre, Country and Church. These are not mutually exclusive issues, the division is artificial and the section on Country in particular has trouble finding anything to say, or at least anything relevant to Wilmot much less to his poetry. More seriously, there is the familiar curse of Introductions, the confusion between literary comment and biography. To put the matter simply, using the poems to illustrate their author is the latter and not the former. Insofar as this Introduction concerns itself with literary issues, it sometimes seems laboured and unperceptive. As one example I do not myself perceive any `gross Eucharistic parody' on page xli, only a standard poetic image, an instance not of the `singular virulence and dynamism of Rochesterian profanity' that Davis has just been talking about, but actually of the lyricism that Rochester's contemporaries seem to have found in his work, and about which Davis has little or nothing more to say. We need not go looking for dirty meanings in Rochester, for heavens sake. When he intends that kind of thing we are left in no doubt.
Taking another instance, what is supposed to be clumsy about R's translation of the opening lines of Lucretius? Apparently that it is more like Latin than like English. What, I wonder, does Mr Davis think of Paradise Lost, twelve whole books of semi-Latinity, as both Dr Johnson and T S Eliot complained. That particular burthen is light so far as I am concerned. What I miss is anything at all about Rochester's prime virtue, the quality of both his diction and his versification. A dreadful stifling fog was already overtaking English poetry, and one does not even need to think of the wince-making texts of many of Handel's oratorios: no less than Dryden could grace his libretto for Purcell's King Arthur with the majestic line
`Foreign lands thy fish are tasting.'
Wilmot's sins were many, but of this kind of vice his verse is conspicuously free, he knows how to use the right word and not the wrong one, and in particular he knows how to end on a good punch-line.
Very properly, there is a note on the text. This is based on the complete edition by Harold Love. Every poem included here is genuine Rochester, so Mr Davis assures us without much elaboration, and I am happy enough to take his assurance. He is sound in principle about textual variants, give or take his innocent discovery that `leaning on one manuscript like Hope on her anchor' is not sound method. I suspect that Mr Davis may not know Housman's Preface to Juvenal (just quoted), which once read is unlikely to be forgotten in what it has to say about decreeing any MS the best MS. Innocence also marks his admission that where Love has had to exercise judgment between several readings, Mr Davis sometimes favours another possibility. What did he expect? That's what textual criticism consists of.
Still, this edition should go a long way in bringing a major English versifier, and I would even say poet, to a wider public. By now we are hard to shock with potty-mouthing or to be excited by it, that left only the spelling as an obstacle to intelligibility, and this final obstruction has now been cleared away. I said above that Rochester knows how to write a punch-line, so I thank him for providing me with an envoi to the review
`But you are tired, and so am I. Farewell.'