England's First Pornographer


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.

John Wilmot, the frolicsome Earl of Rochester, loved a debauch with all his heart. No man was more typical of his age, and his age was the polished era of Restoration libertinism in the profligate court of King Charles II. It was an era when men — and women — had the courage to fulfil their lust through whimsy.

Born in 1647 in Ditchley, Oxfordshire, Rochester grew up accustomed to Cavalier bravado, and though he read his Seneca, he also studied his Ovid and Petronius at Oxford. At the age of seventeen he was already the center of the circle of Court Wits, including such men as Sedley, Suckling, the Earl of Dorset, Etheredge, Buckingham, and others, some of whom were bisexual in order to give wider reign to their pleasures. In 1665 Rochester abducted the pretty heiress Mistress Malet, spiriting her away in a coach-and-six from Charing Cross, only to be apprehended at Uxbridge and confined for several weeks to the Tower.

Upon his release (due to a wink from Charles), he gallantly volunteered for service in the Second Dutch War, but in due course found himself back in his proper environment as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the King, whereupon he married pretty Mistress Malet and had her appointed Groom of the Stole to the Duchess of York. They enjoyed a happy marriage, resulting in four children, but it is likely that she was the excuse rather than the inspiration for his bawdy heterosexual love lyrics.

The Bawdy "Ballers"

Rochester also consorted with a number of minor wenches of the evening, and had two regular mistresses: Jane Roberts, whom he shared with the King, and the great actress Elizabeth Barry. And he was the confidant and trustee of the King's infamous mistress Nell Gwyn. In tribute to her, he composed the dirtiest heterosexual limerick ever written:

She was so exquisite a whore
That in the belly of her mother,
Her cunt was placed so well before,
Her father fucked them both together.

Rochester was wont to frequently engage in fisticuffs and sword-play, to write naughty invective, and to attend the theater and urinate over the balcony upon the crowd below. He admitted to a friend that "for five years together I was continually drunk," though he did not mention that his bottles were improved with opium. There were rumors that he and his friends, a group which called themselves "The Ballers," liked to cavort stark naked in Woodstock Park.

He no doubt got it off with the Duke of Buckingham and other gays in the nobility, as well as a host of stable-boys et al., and on occasion even disguised himself as a woman, for Rochester eschewed none of the pleasures of either sex. Unfortunately libertinage is not always liberating, and by his own account he seems to have become impotent:

Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.
This dart of love, whose piercing point, oft tried,
With virgin blood ten thousand maids have dyed;
Which nature still directed with such art
That it through every cunt reached every heart —
Stiffly resolved, 'twould carelessly invade
Woman or man, nor ought its fury stayed
Where'er it pierced, a cunt it found or made.

The Trick Worth Forty Wenches

A superficial reading of Rochester's work might suggest that he was an indiscriminate bisexual. The following lines are often quoted to support this view:

Nor shall our love-fits, Chloris, be forgot,
When each the well-look'd linkboy strove t'enjoy,
And the best kiss was the deciding lot
Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy.

(A linkboy lights the street lamps at night with his "link," or torch.) But on a more careful reading we discover that he may have been both an antifeminist and predominantly gay:

Love a woman? You're an ass!
'Tis a most insipid passion
To choose out for your happiness
The silliest part of God's creation.

Let the porter and the groom,
Things designed for dirty slaves,
Dredge in fair Aurelia's womb
To get supplies for age and graves.

Farewell, woman! I intend
Henceforth every night to sit
With my lewd, well-natured friend,
Drinking to engender wit.

Then give me health, wealth, mirth, and wine,
And, if busy love entrenches,
There's a sweet, soft page of mine
Does the trick worth forty wenches.

These lines explicitly declare a preference 40-to-1 in favour in gay sex — way off the Kinsey scale, and hardly evidence of "bisexuality"! This last stanza is brilliant, and prompts me to forgive Rochester's anti-feminism, but it should also be pointed out that this is an artificial anti-feminism designed to shock the conventional-minded (in real life he seems to have done no great harm to women), and it is not the usual sort of anti-sexual misogyny typical of heterosexual puritanical writers. I also forgive him out of pity, for he died a syphilitic lecher at the early age of thirty-three.

The Quintessence of Debauchery

And I forgive him, lastly, because he wrote the finest erotic satire of any age, which happens to be a paean to the joys of buggery, and happens to be the very first literary work ever to be censored in England on the grounds of obscenity: Sodom; or, The Quintessence of Debauchery (1684). The work was published anonymously, and some critics still claim that Rochester was not the author; but no alternative author has been suggested, and it seems to me to have the hallmarks of Rochester's wit. Inconceivable as it may appear, the play is said to have been actually performed on a single occasion, before a private audience at the Court.

The dramatis personae of this superb Restoration drama itself reads like a bawdy lyric:

  • Bolloxinion, King of Sodom ["bollocks" are "balls"]
  • Cuntigratia, Queen
  • Prince Pricket
  • Princess Swivia ["swive" is slang for "fuck"]
  • Buggeranthos, General of the Army
  • Prince Pockenello ["pox" is slang for the clap, i.e. VD]
  • Borastus, Buggermaster-General
  • Pine and Twely, two Pimps of Honour
  • Fuckadilla, Officina, Cunticula and Clytoris, four Maids of Honour
  • Flux, Physician to the King
  • Vertuoso, Merkin and Dildo-Maker [artificial cunts and cocks]
  • Boys, Rogues, Pimps and various other attendants, many appearing naked on stage.

The curtain rises on Act I, and we behold an antechamber hung with tapestries depicting all the possible positions for copulation. King Bolloxinion delivers a royal proclamation setting his nation free:

My Pintle [penis] only shall my scepter be;
My laws shall act more pleasure than command
And with my Prick, I'll govern all the land.

But, a tyrant in his own way, he goes on to declare that sodomy shall be the rule of the realm, and that heterosexuality shall be regarded as the abnormal perversity:

Let conscience have its force of Liberty.
I do proclaim, that Buggery may be us'd
Thro all the land. . . .
To Buggeranthos, let this charge be given
And let him bugger all things under heaven.

Borastus, seeing how things go, persuades the king to abandon Queen Cuntigratia for Pockenello or Pine:

It could advise you, Sir, to make a pass
Once more at loyal Pockenello's arse.
Besides, Sir, Pine has such a gentle skin,
'T would tempt a Saint to thrust his Pintle in.

(I must say that these remarkable heroic couplets are as finely turned as any by Alexander Pope or John Dryden, which is one reason I would ascribe the work to Rochester.) Bolloxinion chooses Pockenello to be his mate:
His arse shall for a moment be my spouse.

And Pockenello accepts the kind offer:

That spouse shall, mighty Sir, tho it be blind,
Prove to my Lord, both dutiful and kind,
'Tis all I wish, that Pockenello's Arse
May still find favour from your Royal Tarse.[penis]

Act II opens upon a pleasant pastoral garden with naked men and women posing as classical statues. In the middle of the group is "a woman representing a fountain, standing upon her head and pissing upright." The women, like those in Aristophanes' Lysistrata — though for quite the opposite reason — have gathered together to lament their case and to make plans for revenge. Their "unhappy cunts" have been abandoned by this new "proselyte to Pagan-fuck." (The same charge was levelled against gay men from the 1890s through the 1990s.) They find some release in mutual masturbation, the use of dildoes, and even bestiality. The statues come to life, and this Act, too dirty to sully this page with its description at greater length, ends in a heterosexual orgy.

What tho the Letchery be Dry . . .

Act III is taken up with Prince Pricket and Princess Swivia comparing their genital anatomies and engaging in the forbidden games our mothers feared. Pricket's comment upon Swivia's vagina is a gem of poor taste:

It has a beard too, and the mouth's all raw.
The strangest Creature that I ever saw.

Bolloxinion and Cuntigratia confront one another in Act IV, but the King is obdurate:

Since I have bugger'd human arse, I find
Pintle to Cunt is not so much inclin'd.
What tho the letchery be dry, 'tis smart;
A Turkish arse I love with all my heart.
. . . the brawny muscles of its side
Tickling the nerve, their rowling Eyes do glance,
And all mankind with vast delight intrance.
May as the Gods his name immortal be
That first receiv'd the gift of Buggery!

Bolloxinion's brother King Tarsehole, ruler of nearly Gomorrah, sends him a present of forty young striplings to celebrate the national peace. The curtain falls as he leads one offstage:

Come my soft flesh of Sodom's dear delight,
To honoured lust thou art betray'd this night.
Lust with thy beauty cannot brook delay —
Between thy pretty haunches I will play.

Meanwhile the women, grown tired of their dildos, begin to quarrel amongst themselves, and begin to plot rebellion while Bolloxinion sports.

The curtain rises on Act V, revealing a grove of cypress trees cut like topiary in the shape of penises. Like over-reaching Satan, Bolloxinion plans to bugger the gods out of heaven and to drain their immortalizing ambrosia. The King's physician rushes in to report an epidemic of venereal disease, the rotting away of the nation's private parts, and prophesies the end of procreation. Queen Cuntigratia has died; Pricket has the clap; and Swivia has gone insane (somewhat like Ophelia). But Bolloxinion perseveres in his madness. Demons rise from the front of the stage, singing their song of doom:

Bugger, bugger, bugger
All in hugger-mugger,
Fire doth descend;
'Tis too late to amend.

The ghost of Queen Cuntigratia slips in from the wings, and promises to torment Bolloxinion in hell. And finally the curtain falls for the last time, on the orgasmic fire and brimstone consuming the fair cities of the plains.

Of course it is only a play, and three actors reappear on stage to deliver the moral of the tale. Cunticula argues that the male members of the audience should heed the dire warning and therefore renounce masturbation and buggery. Fuckadilla comes on to praise only the longest penises. And Swivia sings a lovely ditty, "In the Praise of Her Cunt." None of the arguments are particularly convincing.

The play was not generally available in unexpurgated editions until the 1990s, though it is rather more fun than the comparatively dull Restoration comedies we are taught in the classroom. It is a brilliant play, and stands up well to even the most severe literary criticism, and it is a superb example of serious political satire. It should be noted that this play is not a defence of bisexuality or libertinage in general, but of homosexuality in particular: clearly the author and his audience had a concept of "the homosexual" in mind long before that category was supposedly "invented" in the late nineteenth century.


Copyright © 1974, 1998 Rictor Norton.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "England's First Pornographer", A History of Homoerotica, 1974, 1998; updated 19 January 2007 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/wilmot.htm>.


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