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Why John Wilmot’s Dirty Poems Are Actually Good
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, wrote some seriously smutty verse back in the 1600s; take these lines from his poem, “The Maidenhead”:
Have you not in a chimney seen
A sullen faggot wet and green,
How coyly it receives the heat,
And at both ends does fume and sweat?
So fares it with the harmless maid
When first upon her back she’s laid;
But the well-experienced dame,
Cracks and rejoices in the flame.
At The Spectator, Austen Saunders explains why, if not for giggles, we’re still reading Wilmot’s poetry:
‘The Maidenhead’ begins unremarkably (setting aside the title, which may not always have circulated with the poem when it was new). In fact it starts like the type of poetry popular at the start of the seventeenth century (fifty years before Rochester was born). The first stanza is reminiscent of the metaphysical poetry of writers like John Donne. Some sort of conceit is being introduced. A familiar object is described – a damp bundle of wood in a fire which steams as it dries in the flames. This is introduced through a question which draws attention to certain aspects of it. The faggot is described as ‘wet and green’, as coy and sweating.
Metaphysical poetry delights in verbal gymnastics. Conceptual summersaults yoke together apparently disparate things. The display of dexterity is itself entertaining and familiar experiences are made less familiar. Used to this kind of poetry, we can see that Rochester is setting us up for some sort of punch-line. The carefully chosen qualities the first stanza focused on are going to be applied to something completely different.
But, although we’re ready for it, Rochester still manages to surprise us. He does so through his usual technique of adopting a pose of shocking frankness. Many metaphysical poems are about the same things as Rochester’s poems (Donne’s ‘Love’s Progress’ deals with oral sex). But Rochester is original in being so explicit. Part of the point of Donne’s poem is that you have to work out what it’s about. There’s no need for that with Rochester. In ‘The Maidenhead’, obscene content outruns the reader’s imagination as Rochester springs the answer to his riddle on us before we could even begin to work it out.