The Imperfect Enjoyment
by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), was one of the most famous lyric poets of Charles II’s court. Rochester’s reputation declined during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, largely because of his work’s obscenity, which still has the power to startle modern readers. Scholarly interest in Rochester revived in the 1920s and again in the 1960s, when David M. Vieth produced a complete, uncensored edition of Rochester’s poems. Scholarly editions of Rochester’s works edited by Harold Love (1999) and by Keith Walker and Nicholas Fisher (2010) are now available as well.
Rochester’s poems range from tender love lyrics to savage pornographic satires. Even within a single poem, his tonal shifts can be startling, pushing the reader off-balance and straining the limits of the poem’s genre or poetic mode. In his witty and disturbing poem “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” Rochester’s writing veers from the tenderly erotic to the ferociously anti-erotic, from extravagant boasting to fierce self-loathing, from the euphemistic to the obscene. The poem’s comedy is uneasy, vertiginous, and relentlessly transgressive. It takes the reader on a wild ride, beginning as a sexy love poem and ending as something altogether different.
“The Imperfect Enjoyment” belongs to a genre of seventeenth-century English poems about impotence or premature ejaculation. Classical in origin, the poetry of sexual disappointment traveled to England by way of France. (Other examples include George Etherege’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment” and Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment.”) Most of these poems have a milder tone than Rochester’s, and their turns tend to be fewer and less abrupt. They often end with an erotic paradox, ruefully blaming the excessive beauty and modesty of the poet’s mistress for his premature climax and subsequent inability to perform. (See Carole Fabricant, “Rochester’s World of Imperfect Enjoyment,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 73, no. 3 [July 1974], pp. 338-350.)
Rochester’s “Imperfect Enjoyment” includes four major turns. Most of them are hairpin turns—sharp reversals that can leave readers shaken, shocked, laughing or gasping or shaking their heads in dismay. And these striking turns in the poem’s argument are accompanied by equally striking shifts in metaphor and diction. The speaker’s penis, for example, transforms over the course of the poem from an “all-dissolving thunderbolt” to a “dead cinder,” and is finally debased to “a common fucking-post.”
The first turn, and at first sight the most predictable, comes at the moment of the speaker’s premature sexual climax. After twelve lines reveling in the erotic pleasures he shares with his mistress, the poem reports his sexual failure—an orgasm that occurs just before the hoped-for penetration:
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
This fact, in itself, isn’t too surprising—after all, the “imperfect” nature of the enjoyment has been announced in the poem’s title. What does surprise, though, is what happens to the poem’s language. As the poem makes its descent from pleasure into failure, its language makes a parallel, and dizzyingly steep, descent from high-flown metaphors into frank obscenity. In the poem’s first fifteen lines, Rochester’s language is sexually charged, but never obscene. He couches his sexual descriptions in metaphors, some tenderly erotic, others amusingly self-inflating. His lover’s tongue is “Love’s lesser lightning,” his own penis an “all-dissolving thunderbolt.” But when he describes the premature ejaculation, his language becomes direct, even vulgar: “Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.” (“Spend” was seventeenth-century slang for “have an orgasm”—roughly the equivalent of “come.”) And in the couplet that follows, Rochester’s language is not only direct but frankly obscene: “A touch from any part of her had done’t: / Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.”
After reporting his lover’s gentle admonition (“Is there then no more?”) and her fruitless attempts to re-arouse his passion, the speaker spends twelve lines lamenting his lost ability (“Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry, / A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie”). But then we come to the poem’s second turn. In the midst of bemoaning his present sexual failure, the speaker begins boasting extravagantly about his past successes. This goes well beyond insisting, “Honey, this has never happened before.” Rochester presents his speaker as an omnivorous sexual superman. His penis is a “dart of love, whose piercing point, oft tried, / With virgin blood ten thousand maids have [sic] dyed,” a magic wand whose “art / . . . through every cunt reached every heart.” Nor is his sexual prowess limited to women: this same penis would “carelessly invade / Woman or man, nor aught its fury stayed: / Where’er it pierced, a cunt it found or made.” Rochester presents his speaker’s bisexuality as an aggressive, hypermasculine sexual overflow: he’s so much of a man, he can turn anyone into a woman.
But in the poem’s third major turn, the speaker’s extraordinary sexual ability becomes all the more reason for him to curse himself—and, specifically, to curse own recalcitrant penis, which he finds “so true to lewdness, so untrue to love.” His ability to perform sexually with any “oyster-cinder-beggar-common whore” makes his failure with the woman he loves all the more humiliating. In this final section, Rochester’s speaker turns on his penis with extraordinary loathing:
Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most,
In all the town a common fucking post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt
As hogs do rub themselves on gates and grunt . . .
In the funny and horrifying conclusion, he wishes for a series of terrible illnesses to strike the offending member: “May strangury and stone thy days attend; / May’st thou ne’er piss, who did refuse to spend.”
The poem’s final turn occurs in the last couplet, when Rochester concludes, “And may ten thousand abler pricks agree / To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.” He ends the poem with the startling suggestion that the hitherto-idealized heroine has a potential for sexual voracity that parallels the speaker’s own. If the speaker has deflowered “ten thousand maids,” his lover has the potential to devour “ten thousand abler pricks” for her own satisfaction. The poem doesn’t necessarily condemn her for this potential, the way it condemns the “whores” mentioned earlier in the poem. Instead, it presents the fantasy of “ten thousand abler pricks” relatively neutrally, perhaps even suggesting that Corinna would have as much right to her sexual expansiveness as the speaker does to his own.
Barbara J. Orton’s poems appear in journals including Ploughshares, Pleiades, and The Yale Review, and in anthologies including New Voices (Academy of American Poets, 1999), The New Young American Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), Under the Rock Umbrella (Mercer University Press, 2006), and Villanelles (Everyman’s Library, 2012). Her book reviews have appeared in Pleiades and The Lesbian Review of Books. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and is pursuing a PhD in English literature at Tufts University. She also works as a freelance editor, specializing primarily in academic writing and poetry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.