G.S.STREET, ‘Rochester’, the National Observer March 1892
To a certain order of mind the contemplation of a laborious and useful life, ending full of years and deserved honours, though that life be coloured by commanding abilities, has less of attraction in it than the memory of a genius on whom, after a brief period of fitful dazzling, the gods have put the seal of their love. It is odd, then, that Rochester, who died in his thirty-fourth year, confessed pre-eminent in wit by the universal judgment of his time, and eulogised for it by a critic so antipathetic to his failings as Dr. Johnson-Rochester, the hero of so many adventures desperately wicked-should be known to most readers to-day only for a couple of moderate epigrams on Charles the Second. His coarseness occurs at once to your mind; but that can be matched in many a well-known author-in Catullus, for example, read in schools and furnished with one of the most elaborate and learned commentaries in the record of English scholarship. In the matter of circumstantial excursions on forbidden ground Rabelais beats him to nothingness. Not mere coarseness is the reason, but the fact that Rochester chooses almost invariably as his material subjects whose mention is offensive to our manners. Had he but smeared a page with ribaldry here and there, a common pair of scissors had secured him permanence. But in truth-be it that an obsession of such things was the cause, or an enjoyment of amused deprecation, or (but this is not likely) a lower pride in his daring-effects and motives on which we have agreed to silence are his usual themes; so that if you remove the coarseness you leave nothing behind-or rather his poem upon Nothing (and one or two more), which Johnson calls his strongest effort. There one may suppose with deference that the Doctor was misled by his chaste mind; for, in spite of some well-sounding lines, the thing is but a frigid result of easy ingenuity. It is rather in some of his least fastidious attempts that you find exceeding good wit, sense, and pungency; and should there come a time when all natural things shall be free of mysterious evil and reproach, so that pruriency shall be impossible and coarseness motiveless, a time when-most like it will never be-all fields shall be playgrounds for art without exception, then the dog will have his day. For ‘in all his works,’ says Johnson, ‘there is spriteliness and vigour, and everywhere may be found tokens of a mind which study might have carried to excellence.’ It is not, of course, merely a tolerance which will allow any subject to be mentioned that is required of him who would read this author, but one which will grant any subject to laughter and gibes; an absolute equality of subjects must be premised. Now and again there is a note of self-mocking pathos, and sometimes of a sæva indignatio that reads curiously real, as in the Satire on Charles, ‘for which he was banished the Court.’ And in some of his attacks on his enemies there is a quite refreshing power of abuse. But do not run to read Rochester, for he is beyond all conception ribald. By the way, he is hard to get at, and the authenticity of some of the poems even in the early editions is doubtful. Even in his own day, says Bishop Burnet, anything extraordinary in the way of satire was laid at his door.