Monday, February 13, 2006

readiest way to hell

The Post-Boy, attributed to John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester

'Son of a whore, God damn you, can you tell
A peerless peer the readiest way to Hell?
I've outswilled Bacchus, sworn, of my own make,
Oaths would fright Furies and make Pluto shake'
Witness heroic scars - look here, ne'er go -
Cerecloths and ulcers from the top to toe.
Frighted at my own mischiefs I have fled
And bravely left my life's defender dead.
Broke houses to break chastity, and dyed
The flower with murder that my lust denied.
Pox on it, why do I speak of these poor things?
I have blasphemed my God and libelled Kings;
The readiest way to Hell, boy, quick -'
Boy: 'Ne'er stir,
The readiest way, my lord's by Rochester.'
Judging from the contents of this site, I'd say this poem, if it's Rochester's, is one that's least likely to offend the Legion of Decency.

I've been reading England in the 1670s by John Spurr. There's a review on H-Net that explains the focus of the book and it's thematic approach to the subject.

Spurr has lots to say about Rochester throughout the book. In the section in which the painting that I've reproduced below appears, he's discussing the heroes and anti-heroes of the age. Here are extracts (pp 91-93):
The anti-hero - for that, surely, is what we should call them - was a recognizable literary type and one rooted in the possibility that there might really be such people in the world. ... [T]he debauched courtiers and rakes who surrounded Charles II, ... these drunkards, adulterers, duellists and scoffers at conventional morality and piety were the subject of prurient public interest as much for who they were as what they did. ... [And] it is Rochester who most completely and glaringly demonstrates both the interplay between reality and myth and the rake as archetypal anti-hero.

In 1670 rumour credited Rochester with the murder of a watchman who had dared to remark on the Earl's extreme handsomeness. ... Rochester was a 'famous hero', according to his elegists, 'truly heroic more than can be told' fighting with sword and pen; but his 'heroic virtues' were far from clear: his youthful courage had certainly been tested at the naval battle of Bergen, but thereafter his physical bravery was demonstrated principally in destroying sundials and fighting constables and his intellectual courage by a series of corruscatingly cynical or nihilistic poems. As so often, Rochester himself both raised and subverted the question. In the poem To the Post-boy, the 'peerless peer' recounts his debauchery and blasphemy, and alludes to his cowardice during the 1676 affray at Epsom when his companion was abandoned to his fate; then the poet asks the postboy which is 'the readiest way to hell', and receives the reply, 'Ne'er stir:/ the readiest way, my Lord, 's by Rochester."'

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester crowning a monkey. This portrait, says Spurr, "alludes to Rochester's disdain for human vanity and pretentions, and reflects the libertine commonplace that man is as much at the mercy of his passions and his body as are brute animals." (p 92)

Detail of the same portrait

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