The Maimed Debauchee

This poem, also known as “The Disabled Debauchee,” was widely circulated in manuscript in Rochester’s lifetime, and has been popular ever since. Slyly mocking the braggadocio of some contemporary poems, it also undercuts the swaggering persona that Rochester had built up for himself.

As some brave Admiral, in former War
Deprived of force, but pressed with courage still,
Two Rival-Fleets appearing from a far,
Crawls to the top of an adjacent Hill;

From whence (with thoughts full of concern) he views
The wise and daring Conduct of the fight,
Whilst each bold action to his Mind renews
His present glory and his past delight;

From his fierce Eyes, flashes of fire he throws,
As from black Clouds when Lightning breaks away;
Transported, thinks himself amidst his Foes,
And absent, yet enjoys the Bloody Day;

So, when my Days of Impotence approach,
And I’m by Pox and Wine’s unlucky chance
Forced from the pleasing Billows of debauch,
On the dull Shore of lazy temperance,

My pains at least some respite shall afford
While I behold the Battails you maintain
When Fleets of Glasses, sail about the Board,
From whose Broad-sides Volleys of Wit shall rain.

Nor let the sight of Honorable Scars,
Which my too forward Valour did procure,
Frighten new-listed Souldiers from the wars:
Past joys have more than paid what I endure.

Shou’d any Youth (worth being drunk) prove nice,
And from his fair Inviter meanly shrink,
’Twill please the Ghost of my departed Vice
If, at my Councel, he repent and drink.

Or shou,d some cold-complexioned Sot forbid,
With his dull Morals, our Nights brisk Alarmes,
I’ll fire his Blood by telling what I did,
When I was strong, and able to bear Armes.

I’ll tell of Whores attacked, their Lords at home;
Bawds Quarters beaten up, and Fortress won;
Windows demolished, Watches overcome;
And handsome ills, by my contrivance done.

Nor shall our Love-fits, Chloris, be forgot,
When each the well-looked Link-boy strove t’ enjoy,
And the best Kiss was the deciding Lot
Whether the Boy fucked you, or I the Boy.

With Tales like these, I will such thoughts inspire
As to important mischief shall incline:
I’ll make him long some Ancient Church to fire,
And fear no lewdness he’s called to by Wine.

Thus, States-man-like, I’ll saucily impose,
And safe from Action valiantly advise;
Sheltered in impotence, urge you to blows,
And being good for nothing else, be wise.

Rochester introduction

John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester (and therefore traditionally referred to as “Rochester”) was the most famous–and notorious— writer of the Restoration period in Britain. A poet and dramatist, Rochester became as well known for the scandalous life he led as for his writing. Rochester is the period’s most notable instance of what was known as a libertine. Libertines chafed against restraints of any kind: political, religious, moral, intellectual, sexual. It’s this last category–sexuality–that is the one for which Rochester is best remembered; he was married (to a woman he had tried to abduct before their marriage) but engaged in numerous often very public affairs with partners of both genders. Equally notorious in his own lifetime were some of his drunken fights, duels, and various scandals. Toward the end of his life, Rochester said that he had done “many wild and unaccountable things” because he was “continually Drunk” for months at a time. Rochester was brilliant, handsome, charming, charismatic—and also more than a little dangerous.

He died at age 33, probably of venereal disease and the effects of chronic alcoholism. Because of Rochester’s notoriety, he became (and has in some ways remained) the face of a Restoration court culture that has been remembered as uniquely licentious.

But it is too simple to reduce libertinism to sexual licentiousness, or to think of Rochester as only a party animal, is to sell libertinism short. For Rochester and other libertines of this period, the “liber”–Latin for “free”–at the root of the word “libertine” was key, signifying the freedom that they sought from traditional, stultifying dogmas of any kind. Libertines struck out on their own, rejecting orthodox systems of morality and manners, determined to use their own minds and sensibilities to forge paths where they relied on the evidence of their own senses and on logic, rather than on belief or tradition. They wanted to question everything–religious dogma, political orthodoxy, the moral systems they inherited from the past. This was the era, too, when experimental science was taking off, and Rochester and other writers of the period were intent on describing the world in realistic terms; the frank sexuality of Rochester’s poetry comes in part out of a desire to name things accurately and directly rather than euphemistically. There is a great deal that is admirable about a stance like this, and a lot that should sound familiar to us; they saw themselves as modern, breaking the chains of tradition and striking out in new directions. Sexuality was a big part of libertinism, but only a part.

Rochester’s poetry is thus suitably bold, funny, satirical, and sharp. His poem “A Satyr upon Reason and Mankind” is an aggressive attack on the human impulse to follow orthodoxies of any kind, and is one of the great testimonies of a thinker who is willing to follow his belief in reason untainted by dogma to its logical conclusion. And “The Imperfect Enjoyment” makes a hilarious, theatrical scene out of a bout of impotence. At the heart of most of Rochester’s poems is a narrator who is in some ways like, in some ways unlike, Rochester himself.

Like Katherine Philips, Rochester was a coterie poet, though in his case the coterie was the court of Charles II. In the court culture that Rochester moved in, writing poetry was a was of gaining attention, of demonstrating one’s intelligence and taste. It is plausible, in fact, that some of Rochester’s outrageousness has something to do with this coterie environment, since saying outrageous things was a way to stand out and gain the King’s favor (it was also a way to lose the King’s favor when you went too far, as Rochester did on a few occasions). Rochester’s poems circulated in manuscript well before they ended up in print, and, like Philips, he was not at all eager to see his works printed, since that kind of “publication” would make his writing available to the vulgar masses. He never authorized an edition of his own works. Rochester’s poems thus present a kind of nightmare to textual editors trying to figure out the authentic text, which is in many cases a hopeless task. Some of his poems were group efforts, with several members of the court contributing various parts, or with Rochester adding his own ideas to a poem that was started by someone else. Some poems may have been begun by Rochester but were revised by others, or perhaps revised by Rochester himself; one example of this is “A Satyr on Reason and Mankind,” for which Rochester added the final paragraphs as a kind of afterthought. And, to complicate things much further, there are many poems that have been attributed to Rochester that he certainly did not write. An example of this is “Monsieur Dildo,” which is still often wrongly attributed to Rochester. We include it here in a kind of homage to the way that “Rochester” came to refer less even in his own lifetime not so much to an individual man but to a kind of myth of the model libertine, the kind of person who could be expected to have written such a poem, and who therefore might as well be considered to be its “author.”

Horace, Ode II.20, translated by Samuel Johnson

Johnson translated this ode of the Roman poet Horace as a school exercise, probably some time in his mid-teens. In itself, this was not a sign of his being very precocious; all students in English schools in this era would have done many translations of Latin poetry, and Horace was particularly popular. Still, it’s an interesting poem, not only for what Johnson does to the Horatian original, but because it is about the desire to become a famous writer; even at a young age, Johnson was ambitious. Johnson would continue to be fond of Horace’s Odes and would translate them into English verse from time to time for the rest of his life.

The poem was never published in Johnson’s lifetime. The manuscript is now in the Hyde Collection of Johnsoniana at Harvard University; the first page is reproduced below. The poem was not published until 1941.

Horace, Odes Book II.XX (Johnson)

Now with no weak [expand title=”unballast” targclass=”highlight”]unballast: referring to a ship that does not have the ballast, or weights, designed to stabilize it; “unballast” was already an archaic spelling by Johnson’s time[/expand]wing
A poet double-form’d I rise,
From th’envious world with scorn I spring,
And cut with joy the wondering skies.
Though from no princes I descend,
Yet shall I see the blest abodes,
Yet, great [expand title=”Maecenas” targclass=”highlight”]Maecenas, a Roman nobleman, was a patron of many poets, including Horace[/expand] shall your friend
Quaff nectar with th’immortal Gods.
See! how the mighty change is wrought!
See how what’re remain’d of man
By plumes is veil’d; see! quick as thought
I pierce the clouds a tuneful swan.


Swifter than Icarus I’ll fly
Where Lybia’s swarthy offspring burns,
And where beneath th’inclement skis
The hardy Scythian ever mourns.


My works shall propagate my fame,
To distant realms and climes unknown,
Nations shall celebrate my name
That drink the Phasis or the Rhone.


Restrain your tears and cease your cries,
Nor grace with fading flours my hearse.
I without funeral elegies
Shall live forever in my verse.

[Hear an audio recording of Johnson’s version] Audio file


Here is a version of the poem in a modern translation by A. S. Kline

A poet of dual form, I won’t be carried
through the flowing air on weak or mundane wings,
nor will I linger down here on earth,
for any length of time: beyond envy,
I’ll leave the cities behind. It’s not I, born
of poor parents, it’s not I, who hear your voice,
beloved Maecenas, I who’ll die,
or be encircled by Stygian waters.
Even now the rough skin is settling around
my ankles, and now above them I’ve become
a snow-white swan, and soft feathers are
emerging over my arms and shoulders.
Soon, a melodious bird, and more famous
than Icarus, Daedalus’ son, I’ll visit
Bosphorus’ loud shores, Gaetulian
Syrtes, and the Hyperborean plains.
Colchis will know me, so will the Scythians,
who pretend to show no fear of Italian
troops, and the Geloni: Spain will learn
from me, the expert, and those who drink Rhone.
No dirges at my insubstantial funeral,
no elegies, and no unseemly grieving:
suppress all the clamour, not for me
the superfluous honour of a tomb.


And here (for the truly hardcore) is the original Latin by Horace

Non usitata nec tenui ferar
penna biformis per liquidum aethera
uates neque in terris morabor
longius inuidiaque maior
urbis relinquam. Non ego pauperum
sanguis parentum, non ego quem uocas,
dilecte Maecenas, obibo
nec Stygia cohibebor unda.
Iam iam residunt cruribus asperae
pelles et album mutor in alitem               10
superne nascunturque leues
per digitos umerosque plumae.
Iam Daedaleo ocior Icaro
uisam gementis litora Bosphori
Syrtisque Gaetulas canorus
ales Hyperboreosque campos.
Me Colchus et qui dissimulat metum
Marsae cohortis Dacus et ultimi
noscent Geloni, me peritus
discet Hiber Rhodanique potor.
Absint inani funere neniae
luctusque turpes et querimoniae;
conpesce clamorem ac sepulcri
mitte superuacuos honores.


1. Maecenas was Horace’s patron.