Close Reading of “An Imperfect Enjoyment” by John Wilmot

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To first understand the literary motivations and influences of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, it is important to first take a look at what was going on historically during his life. Wilmot was born right before what is now called The Restoration Period. The political shifts in power along with the ever changing religious influences held great significance on his life. The Restoration Period is named quite fittingly after the reinstatement of the English monarchy. After Parliament-elected leader Oliver Cromwell’s son succeeded the throne after his father’s death, Parliament realized that familial lineage had been what determined their most recent leader. They recognized that this was no different from a normal monarchy, and made the political move to proposition Charles II, son of the executed King Charles I, to come back to England and rule as the king. Charles II was brought back in the year 1660, which marks the beginning of the Restoration period.

Charles II was a catholic man, unlike Oliver Cromwell and his son who had ruled England under a strict Puritan rule. Under their reign, the theatres had been shut down completely because they were viewed as places of sin. This was due to the fact that because plays could only be performed during the day, (as there was no electricity for lighting at night) it was thought that any individual that had the time to spend their days at something as frivolous as the theatre had to be the scum of society, such as prostitutes and those without jobs. Once Charles II was put into power, the theatres opened back up, and with them there was a literary burst in plays and poems with sex-obsessed themes.

This type of writing was John Wilmot’s bread and butter, and he became a member of Charles II’s court, writing these sexually explicit works. Wilmot became known as quite a debaucherous character, rumored to have had multiple mistresses throughout this life. One of which was said to have been a heiress named Elizabeth Malet who Wilmot trained to be a actress for the stage. His sexually charged life came to an abrupt end when he died from various venerial diseases combined with severe alcoholism. (Encyclopedia Britannica). 

To say that John Wilmot only wrote poetic erotica would be an oversimplification of his writing style and it wouldn’t permit him the credit which he deserves. His poetic works also typically have an element of satire and wit weaved within them. Although on the surface it can appear as if he is only relating crude and sexually explicit images in poetry, once his poems are dissected with a more critical eye it can be seen that there is more to his writing. “The Imperfect Enjoyment” is no exception to this claim.

One of the first elements of Wilmot’s writing style to take into account is his use of the “English heroic couplet”, which is a literary device with two successive rhyming lines in a verse which will have the same meter to form a complete thought. This literary device was heavily used during the Restoration, espeically with writers who identified themselves as neoclassical, such as Alexander Pope (PoetryFoundation.com). These poets saw their form of writing as “high brow” with a nod back to the classical styles of ancient Greece and Rome. Thematically, their writing typically had an element of wit to it in addition to contemplating human nature. It is clever of Wilmot to include such a neoclassical element of writing style into his poem because it pokes fun at the suggestion of a high brow form of writing and subject matter. As an example of one of his couplets, the line

“In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er, / Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.”
which is talking simply about premature ejaculation, not something terribly profound or philosophical. However, this is upon looking at the poems’ surface. One could make the argument that Wilmot was indeed a neoclassical poet at his core, but the way in which he approaches his contemplations with human nature are not that of the average writer of the time.
The initial part of the poem describes a speaker engaging sexually with a female partner. A high use of imagery is granted towards describing this woman’s body and the titillating foreplay the two are engaging in. One of the first few lines in which we see an allusion to something more than sexual arousal:
“Swift orders that I should prepare to throw / The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.”
What is humorous about these two lines is the double entendre of the word “thunderbolt”.  The images portrayed in these first two lines give suggestion to a god-like battle. Orders to “throw” a “thunderbolt” sound as if they allude to to classic greek deity Zeus, a neoclassical reference. However, in the context of the poem, we as reader’s know the speaker is literally referring to his genitalia, and the “swift order” is not a military order, but rather a sexual one.
Later on, Wilmot gives his reader’s the line,
“When vice, disease, and scandal lead the way, / With what officious haste doest thou obey! / Like a rude, roaring hector in the streets / Who scuffles, cuffs, and justles all he meets, / if his king or country claim his aid, / The rakehell villain shrinks and hides his head;”
This verse comes after it becomes apparent that the narrator cannot become physically aroused again after his premature incident. Initially, he is greatly embarrassed by this however his emotions soon transform from embarrassment to anger towards his partner. This expert comes after this anger has subsided and he is reflecting on the quote on quote “human nature” (wink wink) of womanizers like himself. The word “rakehell” is synonymous with “hell-raiser” and  usually associated with a man who conducts himself immorally through sinful activities such as gambling, drinking and promiscuous sex. (dictionary.com) He is essentially saying that men like him are loud and proud about their lifestyles when they are amongst their friends and fellow colleagues, but the moment that someone of a higher status insists on their “aid”, these individuals do not volunteer themselves or make themselves known for assistance. They are not the types of men that are interested in standing up for their country or their king. This is a rather political and social statement to be embedded within this poem. Reflecting on the human nature of a group of individuals does in fact line up with a neoclassical work as human nature is a thematic element present within the genre.
The final line of the poem provides an allusion that has its roots in ancient Greece. Wilmot writes:
“And may ten thousand abler pricks agree / To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.”
An “abler” is the noun for someone who is able. So he is instructing ten thousand abled men to “do the wronged Corinna right for thee”. Although it is difficult to understand exactly what Wilmot means, the name Corinna alludes to an ancient Grecian female poet. (wikiepdia.com) To reference ancient greek poetry definitely a neoclassical move. What is fascinating is that not many critics consider Corinna’s lyrical poetry to be very good. This last line remains slightly shaky when it comes to the interpretation, however the significant aspect of this line is that there is an ancient greek reference.
John Wilmot was able to take a poem that on the surface, appeared to be about lewd sexual interactions and was able to chalk it full of literary devices, themes, and allusions that gave it the necessary characteristics to be defined (technically) as a neoclassical work. This is itself is satirical because of the subject matter of the poem, which just proves to Wilmot’s brilliance. He wasn’t simply a debaucherous member of Charles II’s court, he used his wit to bring a “low brow” subject matter to a “high brow” standard.
Works Cited:
Corinna.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

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“Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

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The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.”Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Dec. 2006. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

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“John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

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Rochester, John Wilmot Earl of. “The Imperfect Enjoyment.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Image: wikipedia.com/wiki/John_Wilmot,_2nd_Earl_of_Rochester