Heroes of Slang 23: John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester


Jonathon’s latest Hero of Slang is a highly influential poet who wrote ‘more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the 20th century’. Be warned, by clicking Continue on this post you’ll be unleashing a fair torrent of 17th Century filth…

‘Rouse stately Tarse
And 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.’

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, 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 extending the king’s patience too far, he allegedly set up on Tower Hill as ‘Alexander Bendo,’ a self-styled ‘German astrologer.’

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 could 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 Margret Drabble, ‘more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the 20th century.’

In the words of Dr. 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 dirtier than they had been written, remained in circulation.

Poems on Several Occasions, Rochester’s collected erotic verse, was published posthumously in 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 as 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 unprecedented in their parade of the core obscenities.

Despite this vocabulary, the poems centred on the ironies of passion and the problems involved in sex rather than on any lustful celebrations. Their 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 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.

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 published in 1684 as a play ‘by the E. of R.’ Rochester 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 notes 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 admittedly 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 at the age of 13 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.

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 survived until at least 1865. Today, like everything else, there is an edition available on Amazon.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

17 thoughts on “Heroes of Slang 23: John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

  1. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    April 25, 2013 at 11:46

    What strikes me on reading Rochester is the frequent savagery of such poems as “A Ramble in St. James Park.” This was not a cheerful man, as he presented himself, or as you say he was interested in the ironies and problems.

  2. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    April 25, 2013 at 17:17

    I have only ever come across the ridiculous word ‘tarse’ in poems by Rochester and one or two of his contemporaries; do you suppose it was ever in general use, or just a favourite of the libertine poets because of it’s obvious utility as a rhyme word?

    I’ve just discovered that ‘tarse’ was also a name for a male falcon — any connection?

    As for Sodom, the cast list reminds me of something else I read about once — a legendary, perhaps apocryphal, work of 19th-century bawdy called The Sod’s Opera, the dramatis personae of which is said to have included Baron Tossisselfoff (“a ruined Pole”), the Brothers Bollox (“a pair of hangers-on”), and Scrotum (“a wrinkled old retainer” — geddit?). This production has been ascribed, most improbably, to Gilbert and Sullivan. I don’t know if anyone has ever seen a copy, but I do recall an absurd rumour that one was kept securely in the guardroom at St James’s Palace …

    • steveplant@orange.fr'
      April 25, 2013 at 21:27

      Perhaps “tarse” meaning male (cock) falcon is linked to “tercel/tiercel”.

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      April 25, 2013 at 23:39

      In Heart of Oak, Tristan Jones mentions a “sod’s opera” as an amusement of the enlisted ranks of the Royal Navy. I took this to mean something like miscellaneous singing, but don’t know.

      “Toby Tostoff, a ruined Pole” appears (with similarly named personae) in the work (“Every Man his Own Wife”?) projected by Buck Mulligan early on in Ulysses.

    • bugbrit2@live.com'
      April 26, 2013 at 21:01

      Both Baron Tostoff The Ruined Pole and Old Scrotum The Wrinkled Retainer appear in Vivian Stanshall’s ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’ of fond 1970s Peel Session memory. The album version is still happily available on iTunes.

  3. jgslang@gmail.com'
    April 25, 2013 at 17:41

    The only other cite I can offer, from the same period is this:

    1680 ‘Ballad on Betty Fulton’ in Wilson Court Satires of the Restoration (1976) 48: She’s always attended with ballocks and tarse, / Sweet Candish in cunt and bold Frank at her arse.

  4. wormstir@gmail.com'
    April 25, 2013 at 18:01

    Surprised Steven Berkoff hasn’t attempted to stage his own version

  5. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    April 25, 2013 at 21:38

    Eye-watering stuff by any standards.

    Johnny Depp played Rochester in a movie called The Libertine, filmed down in my neck of the woods. Alas, it’s rubbish.

    • becandben@gmail.com'
      April 28, 2013 at 01:18

      I quite liked the silver nose, though.

  6. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    April 25, 2013 at 22:00

    Talking of repetitive cussing, I’m currently watching Deadwood on DVD, which has some interesting wild west slang. ‘Hoopleheads’ – any idea what that is, Mr Slang? Is it just ‘idiots’ or some racial slur.

    Another odd one: “The next leap of the creature, they’ll be here.”

    • bugbrit2@live.com'
      April 26, 2013 at 21:08

      I didnt see the show on its original run but when Mrs. B bought me the 3 season set a year or so back I sat open mouthed to the colourful vocabulary. Doris Day’s Calamity Jane never uttered such.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      April 26, 2013 at 13:08

      Thanks JG. Dave Lull – who has read every page of the internet – also emailed me that link.

      The good thing is that now that I know that it’s is neither obscene or racist, I can call my daughters hoopleheads with impunity.

    • Worm
      April 26, 2013 at 13:30

      There’s a differing version from Quinion’s Nebraska one – the 1966 Mott the Hoople novel by Willard Manus, – wikipedia says of it:

      According to the 1966 review of the novel in Kirkus Reviews, “Hooples, to clear this up right at the beginning, ‘make the whole game possible, Christmas Clubs especially, politics, advertising agencies, pay toilets, even popes and mystery novels.’ Obviously they’re squares and Mott, Norman Mott, is certainly not….”

      Norman Mott is a misfit, a lazy rebel without a cause who dislikes work and borrows money from his girlfriend Sandra. Mott believes life is a “bad comic opera.” In order to avoid real work, he engages in various scams and gambles.
      Mott is a lousy gambler which means he must keep up his scams. His one virtue is his love for his handicapped brother, whom he tries to take care of in his fashion.
      To evade the draft and avoid being sent to Vietnam, Mott keeps on the move. He becomes a ticket seller at a state fair where he becomes involved with the denizens of the freak show and engages in various con games. When drafted, he refuses to be inducted into the Army and is sentenced to prison.
      After two years imprisonment, he is released. Back in the world, he considers becoming a “Hoople”, marrying Sandra and getting a normal job. He takes offense with the preacher Smiley Harley Gurrey (modeled after Billy Graham) whose preaching has enthralled Sandra’s mother and becomes determined to destroy his ministry.

  7. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    April 26, 2013 at 19:30

    Noticed today in Anthony Burgess’s autobiography Little Wilson and Big God:

    “That time meant nothing [in Adderbury, 1947] was made clear to me in the Red Lion, where the village postman remarked that there had been rare goings on when the old Earl were alive. He gave a vivid account of the Earl’s activities. There were proved accurate when I checked on the life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-80), the local nobleman he was referring to.”

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      April 26, 2013 at 19:31

      Read “These were”

  8. jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
    John Halliwell
    April 28, 2013 at 18:57

    Was it in 1650 that Andrew Marvell penned those knowing lines that have echoed down the centuries?

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    What was his mother doing as he was growing up? That’s what I’d like to know. And her a puritan. A bloody publican, more like. She’s got a lot to answer for. Well, the old man was away risking his all at Newcastle and Edgehill, so you can’t lay the problems at his door. So, who was she, this Anne St John? Fierce of physiognomy that’s for sure; you don’t mess with that face: “You, painter, show me as I am, warts and all, and don’t skimp on the double chin.”


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