‘Rouse stately Tarse
And the lett thy Bollocks grind
Heave up, faire Arse,
And lett thy Cunt be kind
To th’ Deed.
Thrust Pintle with a force,
Spend till my Cunt overflow.’
‘ffuckadilla’s Song’ from Sodom (1684)
John Wilmot (1647-80), second earl of Rochester, was a member of the circle of fast-living wits and courtiers at the court of Charles II. Son of a Cavalier hero and a staunchly Puritan mother, and born some might have said fittingly on All Fools’ Day, he was educated as a typical contemporary aristocrat. Wadham College, Oxford, which he entered at the age of 12, preceded the Grand Tour, which in turn was followed by introduction at Court. Aged 18, after fighting sea battles against the Dutch, he abducted and married the heiress Elizabeth Malet. During one of his almost annual banishments from court, caused by a penchant for pushing the royal patience too far, he allegedly set up on Tower Hill as ‘Alexander Bendo,’ a self-styled ‘German astrologer’, offering gullible clients ‘rare secrets … for help, conservation, and augmentation of beauty.’
Rochester’s wit and erudition were paraded in his poetry, which has been cited by critics as setting him among the last of the Metaphysical poets and the first of the Augustans. He died young, and thus his output, in which he was happy to savage his own failings as acutely as those of others, was small, but it was varied and highly influential. Dryden, whose patron he briefly was, Swift and Pope were all influenced by him. For many people his subsequent reputation rests particularly on his lampoons, satires and erotic writings. He wrote, according to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, ‘more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the 20th century.’
In the words of Samuel Johnson, Rochester ‘blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness’ and Edmund Gosse called him ‘a beautiful child which has wantonly rolled itself in the mud.’ By 1680 he was seriously ill and spent his last months debating with a number of theologians; to the surprise of many, he made a deathbed conversion. He demanded that all his ‘profane and lewd writings’ be destroyed; they were duly burned, but manuscript copies, some of which it is believed were doctored to make them more obscene than they had originally been written, remained in circulation.
Poems on Several Occasions, Rochester’s collected erotic verse, was published posthumously, shortly after his death in July 1680. Given Rochester’s deathbed return to the church, it was assumed that these explicit celebrations of sex might have troubled his conscience, but once dead, he had no influence on their appearance. The verses included a number of poems that have subsequently been proved to be the work of other authors, but of those which are definitely Rochester’s work, many are magnificently lubricious and if being aristocratically penned not wide-ranging in their slang, are still unprecedented in their parade of the core obscenities. (The ritualised ‘flyting’ invectives of such as Alexander Montgomery, delivered a century earlier, were robustly scatalogical, and an earlier flyting, of 1508, gives what is still the first recorded use of fuck, but Rochester’s sexual nihilism attained quite a new level).
If Rochester used taboo terms as no-one before, it was not with any apparent pleasure. The grossness of the language may rather have underlined his overwhelming cynicism. The poems centred on the ironies of passion and the problems involved in sex rather than on any lustful celebrations. Their author had presumably used the language that he considered apposite. Others, timorous and censorious, disagreed. The Poems’ first prosecution came in 1688, when Francis Leach, a contemporary pornographic bookseller, was arrested for their publication. In 1693 Elizabeth Latham was fined five marks and imprisoned for promoting the ‘lasciviousness and vicious qualities’ of Rochester’s work. In 1698 they were subject to the first ever prosecution for the crime of Obscene Libel in the higher courts. The poems remained censored, even in those editions that were published for mass consumption, for several centuries.
Not every poem was ‘profane and lewd’, but for slang’s purposes, these were the ones that count. He appears in GDoS on just under 200 occasions, witness to what is often the early use of some 154 terms. Of these, at least to date, his is the first use on 39 occasions. His topics offer no surprises. The bulk sexual, the remainder suggesting a less than peaceful life. He offers nine ‘original’ penises: the blind boy and tall-boy, the frigger (which he also uses to indicate that hand with which one masturbates; both come from frig, standard English for rub and regularly used for both intercourse and masturbation), the limb, the ranger (in standard use a wanderer), the rector of the females (from rector, a ruler, though there may have been a play on erection), the sluice (also used for the vagina and the mouth) and still tubular, the whore-pipe (expanding the earlier pipe and featuring in the literally self-abusing poem ‘Lord Rochester against his Whore-Pipe’), as well as bringing well-hung, possessed of a large penis, into print. All in all the Works offer 32 penis references, among them tarse and pintle (both ‘modernised’ Old English) the second of which generated a number of compounds, among them pintle-bit, a mistress, pintle-blossom, a venereal chancre and pintle-smith, the surgeon who treated it.
In the Works as a whole only vagina outstrips penis, with 40 synonyms. Rochester was the first to print five of them. There is the alcove (‘this All-sin-shelt’ring Grove’), the custom house in which punning institution ‘Adam made the first entry’, the similarly ‘commercial’ exchequer so named either because it is therein one makes a ‘deposit’, or another tweak on slang’s widely found image of the vagina as a commodity, i.e. something that made its possessor money, and the feminine equivalent of well-hung, bushel-cunted. Finally, illustrative of My Lord’s inescapable misogyny, came the kennel, a term that in contemporary English meant a gutter.
Rochester’s terms for intercourse include the inevitable fuck, but also scour which suggests slang’s regular intercourse metaphor of ‘man hits woman,’ but in fact links to standard scour, to move around hastily and energetically (itself a well-used slang trope for sex). His sole first use is et-caetera, which is usually associated with the vagina (though not, despite popular belief, as used by Shakespeare in Hamlet, where it seems that the printer really meant ‘&c.’ and referred to some pre-set type). He also seems to use bone, as in ‘the bishop beside / Who made her bone his bone’ but the next example is not until 1985 and this bone may, however coarsely, mean ‘polish’. The poet is keen, as one might expect from one whose take on sex is ultimately ‘it’s disgusting’, on giving us a range of bodily fluids. Semen can be fuck, juice, slime, a snowball (also its ejaculation); salt was usually intercourse though it possibly doubled as vaginal secretions (‘The sav’ry Scent of Salt-swoln Cunt’), a form of liquid that, rather than the usual urine, a woman can piss. First uses aside, Rochester, also offers knight of the burning pestle, a man with VD, fire, the disease itself and burn, to pass it to a partner. He may also have been the author of ‘Advice to a C-monger’, which notes that while ‘Citty C–ts are dangerous sport […] Country C–ts have nasty whites,’ i.e. a gonorrheal discharge.
Not all sex is quite so direct, but it hardly vanishes. The novelist Smollett is the first to use birthday suit for the naked body, but Rochester talks of ‘an old tawdrey Birth-Day-Coat’ and while the standard definition is a coat worn at court on occasion of a royal birthday, the context – the notoriously coarse poem ‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’ – suggests the smutty pun. Other terms, all current first uses, include charms, the breasts, the Scotch fiddle, venereal disease and crabfish, a louse-ridden prostitute (slang is full of terms that equate the woman, and her vagina, with a fish, and its smell) and suck-prick, resolutely resistant of euphemism, a male homosexual.
Finally a few random terms, none of them sexual. Nokes is a fool, the word coming either from legal jargon’s John-a-Nokes who along with Tom-a-Stiles, was the precursor of John Doe and Richard Roe as a pair of generic names for otherwise anonymous plaintiffs and defendants; as used by Rochester it referred to James Nokes, a comic actor of the contemporary Duke’s Company who was celebrated for his portrayal of solemn fools. A ding boy was a thug (‘Half-Witt and Huffe, / Kickum and Ding-Boy’), sawney foolish (from zany, a fool, a laughing stock; zanies also accompanied mountebanks such as ‘Alexander Bendo’), and knight of the elbow, a card-sharp or cheating gambler. Only kick out to eject, survives.
Rochester’s . . . masterpiece is hardly the word, so let us call it his lowest depth of all, was his single venture onto the stage: Sodom: or, The Quintessence of Debauchery This play in five acts, a prologue and two epilogues, was another posthumous publication, appearing in 1684 as a play ‘by the E. of R.’ Alive, Rochester had disclaimed responsibility and for a while it was attributed to John Fishbourne, a barrister. Neither his contemporaries nor generations of scholars have been willing to accept Rochester’s disclaimer and the original Dictionary of National Biography includes it in his entry, noting it as a work of ‘intolerable foulness.’ To be fair, a number of modern scholars have supported the earl, claiming on both stylistic and chronological grounds that Rochester was innocent of the play’s authorship. Either Fishbourne did indeed write it or it was the joint production of various authors, one of whom might have been Rochester. But the play appears in the earl’s most recent ‘Complete Works’ (1999) and so be it. It is unlikely that anyone else would wish to lay a claim.
To take it, for a moment, seriously the play represents the first example of English libertine writing – for instance his contemporary Henry Neville (whose Isle of Pines is a salacious pun), Aphra Behn or the work of Thomas Shadwell, whose Squire of Alsatia (1688) did for criminal slang what Rochester did for filth, albeit with a great deal more popular exposure. The play also satirizes the literary and moral pretensions of works written in the then fashionable heroic couplet form, the form in which it appears itself. It has also been suggested that it pokes fun at Rochester’s Oxford college, Wadham where the youthful lordling had first encountered the pleasures of the bottle and the flesh..
But lit. crit. aside, what Sodom is about is filth, and the language in which it is represented. Nowhere more than in its cast list: Bolloxinion and Cuntigratia, ‘King and Queen of Sodom’; Pricket and Swivia, ‘young Prince and Princess’; Pockenello, ‘Pimp, Catamite and Favourite to the King’, Buggeranthos, ‘Generall of the Army’ and the ‘maids of honor’ ffuckadilla, Clitoris and Cunticula. That is, bollocks, cunt, prick, swive (an early synonym for fuck), syphilitic pocks or pox, buggery and fucking. Contemporary feminists doubtless approved the writer’s acknowledgement of the clitoris.
Its default mode is debauchery and all characters copulate ceaselessly. As for stage directions, Shakespeare may have had his much-loved ‘exit, pursued by a bear’, but Rochester offers: ‘Six naked men & six naked women appeare & dance. In their Dancing ye men do obeysance to ye womens C[un]ts, kissing & tonguing them often. The women in like manner do Ceremony to the mens P[ric]ks….’ That all ‘so fall to Copulacion’ comes as no surprise. The supreme pleasure, as underlined in the title, is sodomy, although such pleasures as incest are not overlooked. The play ends with the apocalyptic destruction of the kingdom and another pleasing stage direction: ‘Enter FIRE and BRIMSTONE, and a CLOUD OF SMOKE appears.’
Sodom entered no professional repertory, but it was supposedly performed once, before King Charles’ court. None of the early printed editions have survived, although there were allegedly two printings by 1707. One of these may have existed until at least 1865. Today, like everything else, one can find the script, uncut, on line (http://bit.ly/2lmXXGt)