For three centuries Rochester has been in and out of the pantheon of English poetry, but today we can see more clearly that the romantic image of the lyrical libertine who underwent a spectacular deathbed conversion has obscured a major poetic talent. Not that the old picture was wrong, but it was partial. The trouble has been that it is hard to fit his philosophical and religious beliefs, poetic practice and dissolute life into a whole. His death in 1680 seemed so aptly emblematic of the lack of cohesion in his character that it has claimed undue attention. The most notorious rake of his age spent the last few months of life in discussion of Christian doctrine. A poet who could not have been more urban in outlook lay dying in the depths of Oxfordshire; he had once said that he could behave only in the country, and that when he got as far as Brentford on his return to town, 'the devill entred into him and never left him till he came into the country again.' He had been surrounded by whores, ladies of the Court, and fellow rakes, but now his wife, children, his mother and her chaplain were by his bed. He was in the country, it is true, but there is an extra irony in the fact that instead of dying in the calm of his own family house a few miles away, he lay in the lodge of Woodstock Park, the scene of his sylvan debauchery, a kind of urbs in rure.
LRB 1 April 1983 | PDF Download