Lord Rochester Keeps it Clean

The Earl of Rochester, famous as the model rak...

The Earl of Rochester, famous as the model rake. Not long before his death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here at Man Versus Poetry, I insist on surprising you with the unexpected. When I discovered a slim Penguin Classics edition of the selected works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, several years ago, I became an immediate devotee.

Eloquent smuttiness, vigorously coupled with scathing, satirical wit — that’s John Wilmot. Here’s just a brief sample of his Lordship’s nastiness. Keep in mind that this was written in the 1600s! (Footnote:  The phrase “in time of flowers” refers to menstral discharge.)

Song

By all love’s soft, yet mighty powers,
It is a thing unfit,
That men should fuck in time of flowers,
Or when the smock’s beshit.

Fair nasty nymph, be clean and kind,
And all my joys restore;
By using paper still behind,
And sponges for before.

My spotless flames can ne’er decay,
If after every close,
My smoking prick escape the fray,
Without a bloody nose.

If thou would have me true, be wise,
And take to cleanly sinning,
None but fresh lovers’ pricks can rise,
At Phyllis in foul linen.

Coming soon (a bit too soon!) – The Imperfect Enjoyment, in which Lord Rochester curses his member for betraying him in his hour of need. A poem of dismay, hilarity, and premature ejaculation.

Memorizing a Poem

from An Essay on Man

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

It’s verse like this that I recommend here at MVP. This is a famous excerpt of a much longer work by Alexander Pope, published in 1734. Honestly, I don’t know much about Pope, but I will post more as I continue my research. Most of us, however, are familiar with his memorable line, “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Yes — he said that. See Correction.

This weekend, I faced the unpleasant prospect of a long drive with a malfunctioning car stereo. On my way to a friend’s place in the country, I occupied my time by memorizing these lines.  What else was I going to do?

By the time I arrived, I had it memorized. If you’ve never committed a poem to memory before, all you need is a malfunctioning car stereo. Mine has behaved electronically glitchy ever since I spun 180 degrees in a skid on Thursday around 1:30 AM. Did I mention I used to work as a comedy defensive driving instructor?

English: Portrait of Alexander Pope attributed...

English: Portrait of Alexander Pope attributed to the English painter Jonathan Richardson (1665–1745). Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recommend memorizing a poem. Saying the lines aloud forces you to think about them, to consider their meaning,  to focus on the progression from one thought to the next, and to note repeated words and sounds. This is not an assignment, just a suggestion. Try it.

Free Verse is like Sex — without rhythm

Artistic effort is like steam. If enclosed and contained within limits, it generates power — otherwise it dissipates into nothing. A popcorn kernel pops as inner moisture struggles to express itself within an outer, restrictive shell. With no rules and no restraints, there is no lasting art.

Rules can be bent or broken, but first they need to be respected and understood.

Music requires melody, movies need plots, paintings should evoke emotion, and poetry – to be effective – should at least have some semblance of meter. One of my goals is to understand and study it. Is the poet restrained and limited by the use of meter? Well, yes – and he should be. Every artist must struggle within the bounds of his medium.

Humans aren’t abstract, so why is so much of our art?  Because it’s easier to convince others in has merit. Too often, modern art is passed off as culturally significant, when it is nothing more than empty, avant-garbage that fails to move us in any way. I feel the same way about a lot of contemporary poetry.

So let us enjoy the past, and savor poetry of lasting beauty and significance.