Rochester has the reputation as the archetypal 17th-century rake and with good reason. When Charles II returned to England in 1660, Rochester was at Wadham College, Oxford. Charles' restoration inspired celebrations in the college that were so riotous that Rochester broke off his studies. He wrote a poem in praise of the new king that brought him an annual pension of 500 and from then on devoted himself to debauchery. In the short time that comprised the rest of his life - Rochester was only 33 when he died of tertiary syphilis - he loved both sexes wildly and indiscriminately; was confined to the tower for kidnapping an heiress; was released to fight a war against the Dutch; married and fathered children with his wife and his mistress; advanced the claims of Nell Gwyn; was banished repeatedly from Court for a multitude of misdemeanours; suffered the agonies of thrice being 'cured' of syphilis; and then returned in 1680, on his death bed, to the Protestant church. Yet this reckless courtier had other qualities too. Rochester's unique and exquisitely phrased love lyrics and poems on impotence, dissipation and erotic obsession are steeped in wisdom and passion. Voltaire would describe him later as 'a man of genius, and a great poet'. Cephas Goldsworthy's book considers the poetry in relation to its author's life and milieu. The result is a swashbuckling biography that throws the poet and his times into vivid relief.
Rochester remains the sexiest poet England has produced, living an exceedingly colourful life in the early years of the Restoration. Cephas Goldsworthy's The Satyr tells us, from its title, the perspective it takes on this extraordinarily talented but sex-mad poet. It is a vigorous, broad-stroke biography and as such is a very entertaining read.
The Satyrs were half goat, half men; and this biography doesn't quite distance itself from a goatishness; which is another way of saying that it is far from being a perfect book. It suffers, for instance, from the lack of any illustrations, particularly on those passages where the author tries to judge the relative beauty of Rochester's many women. The actress Elizabeth Barry, with whom he fell in love, is "a fine creature but not handsome--dark hair, light eyes, dark eyebrows and indifferently plump"; and yet a succession of powerful men fell completely in love with her. A picture would have been nice, if only to satisfy the tabloid curiosity that lurks inside all of us. Goldsworthy's book suffers, also, from a rather clipped written style; page after page of stumpily brief sentences. So, of the young Rochester: "The young Earl was ecstatic. His wit and beauty made him instantly popular. His looks according well with the seventeenth-century ideal. He was tall, graceful and well built, though slender. His wit was subtle and striking". And so on. But Goldsworthy could hardly go wrong with so fascinating a subject, and it is a hard thing to put his biography down. The publishers promise a "swashbuckling" biography, and this is largely what we find. The Satyr mixes a lubricious variety of erotic verse and Carry On sexual encounters with the tragedy of the dying Rochester. He had been poisoned by the mercury with which his physicians had treated his syphilis, a treatment which had, ironically, no effect on the disease. Weak and in an unstable mental state, and probably dying of tertiary syphilis, he renounced his hellraising life on his deathbed and embraced the Church. Goldsworthy's truncated style stresses the point. "He had caught syphilis. It appeared to have gone away, but it had not. It returned to haunt him. It rotted his body and probably also his mind". The spectacle of the lifelong atheist and individualist begging for religious consolation on his deathbed makes for a touchingly downbeat conclusion. Goldsworthy convincingly argues that his famous deathbed conversion "could well have been induced by insanity" since "neurosyphilis can produce powerful religious feelings". All-in-all, a thoroughly man-goatish read. --Adam Roberts
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