Earl of Rochester / Aphra Behn Masks Essay

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  • Subject: Literature
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Excerpt from Essay :

Earl of Rochester / Aphra Behn

Masks and Masculinities:

Gender and Performance in the Earl of Rochester's "Imperfect Enjoyment"

and Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment"

Literature of the English Restoration offers the example of a number of writers who wrote for a courtly audience: literary production, particularly in learned imitation of classical models, was part of the court culture of King Charles II. The fact of a shared model explains the remarkable similarities between "The Imperfect Enjoyment" by the Earl of Rochester and "The Disappointment" by Aphra Behn -- remarkable only because readers are surprised to read one poem about male sexual impotence from the late seventeenth century, let alone two examples of this genre by well-known courtly writers. In fact, Richard Quaintance presents ten more examples by lesser-known poets as he defines the literary sub-genre of the neo-Classical "imperfect enjoyment poem," written in imitation of Roman poems on the same subject, which is shared by Rochester and Behn (Quaintance 190). Since Rochester and Behn are working along such closely similar lines in terms of the artistic models that their own poems aim to imitate, it is therefore fair to ask the question: what are the main differences in their compositional technique within this tightly-defined literary sub-genre of the neo-Classical "imperfect enjoyment poem"? By examining features of each poem in turn -- including form (including this sub-genre they share), but also narrative voice and tone -- with some examination of the secondary critical literature on both Rochester and Behn, I hope to demonstrate that there are distinct differences in compositional technique which involve the difference in sex between these two writers. But my conclusion will attempt to problematize the very notion of an authorial sex difference by raising the concept of gender, and in particular the aspect of "performativity" -- I will show the way in which the narratives of dalliance with Corinna and Cloris are constructed so that the authors may demonstrate their fluency with Classical models, while acknowledging that -- within the courtly context of both Rochester's and Behn's poetry -- the identity of the poet is related to the performativity of the poetic persona and the first-person voice.

Male sexual impotence would seem at first to be an unpromising subject for poetry, especially poetry which could loosely be defined as "neo-Classical" and is based on compositional models from the Classical world of ancient Greece and Rome. Yet scholars such as Richard Quaintance and Claude Rawson have traced the history of a literary sub-genre within the neo-Classical tradition that does deal with male sexual impotence, whether through failure to achieve erection or through premature ejaculation. This literary sub-genre includes Restoration poems like Aphra Behn's "The Disappointment" and the Earl of Rochester's "Imperfect Enjoyment," and Quaintance in fact dubs the genre the neo-Classical "imperfect enjoyment poem" after Rochester's title. Quaintance situates both Rochester and Behn within French neo-Classical models (Quaintance 190), but actual Latin works were their ultimate models: Rawson notes that Ovid himself had written a poem on the subject in his third book of love elegies, Amores III.vii, and Petronius, the great courtier-satirist of Nero's Rome, had structured his Satyricon as a parody of Homer's Odyssey -- but where Odysseus is pursued by the wrath of Poseidon, God of the Sea, the protagonist of the Satyricon is pursued by Priapus, the God of the Phallus, who plagues Petronius's anti-hero with the inability to achieve erection (Rawson 9). Both Rochester and Behn demonstrate their awareness of these Roman models in various ways: Behn actually makes reference to Priapus by name in "The Disappointment," while Rochester (who had elsewhere in his collected works translated Petronius) signposts his affinity to Ovid's Amores here by using the same name for the woman in "The Imperfect Enjoyment" as Ovid used for his poetic mistress in the Amores: Corinna.

In one of the many touches which show how rhetorically finely-wrought Rochester's scenario is here, the woman in "The Imperfect Enjoyment" -- Corinna -- is not named until the final line. This causes the reader to make a sudden leap and re-evaluate the narrative that has just been put forth, in the first person. The breezy informality of the first person has led the reader to consider Rochester's narrator to be addressing the reader as though addressing a friend -- in other words, one man talking to another one, discreetly and privately, about an experience of premature ejaculation. If it were not anachronistic, we might even imagine the profane first-person direct address narration of these deeply embarrassing events to be addressed to a therapist or the like. But the shock of Corinna being named in the closing lines also registers a sort of shock, because this is precisely the same name as the mistress in Ovid's Amores, the source of Rochester's Classical model. It is possible that Rochester knew Ovid's poem in the notorious translation done by Christopher Marlowe -- whose version was entitled All Ovid's Elegies in advertisement of the fact that Marlowe did not shy away from translating poems like Amores III.vii into rhymed English iambic pentameter couplets, precisely the same form that Rochester uses here. The chief differences are the profanity -- which is not to be found in Ovid's original or in Marlowe's English version (although Petronius is closer to Rochester here) -- but also the action which takes place. Ovid's protagonist is truly impotent: he is unable to become erect for his Corinna. Rochester seems to improve upon his Classical model by having the protagonist ejaculate upon his mistress, purely in anticipation of congress, and then be unable to achieve subsequent erection.

The form of Rochester's "Imperfect Enjoyment" is relatively simple. The poem is written in heroic couplets -- although it might be more accurate to call them mock-heroic, for Rochester's broad (and often obscene) rhetoric veers toward the satiric. It is arguable that Rochester employs this form because infamously Christopher Marlowe had employed the form of rhymed iambic pentameter couplets to translate Ovid's earlier impotence poem, and the form is another aspect of the neo-Classicism. John O'Neill, in his essay on "Rochester's 'Imperfect Enjoyment': 'The True Veine of Satyre' in Sexual Poetry," quotes in his title Andrew Marvell's praise of Rochester and identifies the poem as satirical rather than Ovidian or erotic. But O'Neill goes on to view the poem as a seriously-intended work, written in a two-part structure with "narrative" and "commentary on the events of the narrative" (O'Neill 60). This seems to ignore the fact that the whole is one dramatic event: the second part is not so much a commentary as what Marianne Thormahlen in the chapter on "The Imperfect Enjoyment" in her book-length study Rochester: The Poems in Context terms an "expostulation," or a dramatic monologue spoken in the occasion that the first half describes (Thormahlen 84) -- although Thormahlen seems to be going a long way to avoid using the obvious term "ejaculation" here, which I suspect is part of Rochester's rhetorical point, so I would like to use the term. It is indented as though it were a new verse paragraph, which at the conclusion of a poem in couplets gives it the finality of the concluding two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet: that it is an encapsulated cry of bitter and slightly misogynistic but comically overaggerated rage, which somehow is also an appropriate emotional summation of the experience of premature emission followed by stubborn flaccidity. In other words, I think its elegance as a closing couplet lies not in its language, which is deliberately profane, but its psychological acuity, which has a dramatist's gift of graceful compression.

The chief hallmark of Rochester's poem, though, is the near violence of its expression. Rawson explains this attractively in terms of the larger context of Rochester's verse (and other poems about impotence such as "The Disabled Debauchee") by suggesting that impotence is just another kinky thing to try. As Rawson himself puts the matter: "As often as not 'impotence' is presented in Rochester as an imagined state, on a par with other erotic possibilities…The impotence is thus conceived not as a cessation of erotic energy, but as an energy in its own right, a vigour not so much diminished as gone into reverse…." (Rawson 8). This explains the excess of rhetoric, though, as when Rochester describes the moment of premature ejaculation thus:

In liquid raptures I dissolve all o'er,

Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.

A touch from any part of her had done't:

Her hand, her foot, her very look's a cunt.

("Imperfect Enjoyment" ll.15-8)

Although some readers (like Wilcoxon) are shocked by this blunt word -- which also rhymes with "blunt" -- there is no need to assume that this word retains necessarily any negative associations in Rochester's vocabulary. To some extent the crude metonymy of "Her hand, her foot, her very look's a cunt" is a simple inversion of the sort of Petrarchan blason which once dominated courtly love-poetry. "Her hand, her foot, her very look's a rose" could be…

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