Full gorged at another time
With a vast meal of slime
Which your devouring cunt had drawn
From porters' backs and footmen's brawn,
And Sedley wrote:
Love still has something of the sea,
From whence his Mother rose;
No time his slaves from doubt can free,
Nor give their thoughts repose.
This should illustrate the difference both of taste and talent. But - Oh miserable but! - when Sedley had died and the first complete edition of his verse was published, several obscene poems were wrongly included.
This didn't matter much at the time as nobody minded obscenity very much. Sedley and Rochester continued to be popular all the way through the eighteenth century, which T.H.White rightly called The Age of Scandal, until they were both stopped dead by the Victorian period. Rochester, chock full of cunts and cocks, disappeared from the bookshops and bookshelves of the respectable. He vanished from the canon. And poor Sir Charles, with those obscene verses wrongly ascribed to him, vanished too.
Then came the twentieth century. Freud rose, feminism rose, sex revolved, love was free (or at least cheap), and academia became home to a bunch of puerile, giggling, sex-obsessed idiots. In ivy-clad quadrangles pasty-faced dons studied Rochester and squealed with delight because he had used a rude word. 'Look!' they cried. 'He said a naughty thing! Now I'm going to get to say a naughty thing in a lecture! I'm going to be able to write a book paper called The Gilded Vagina: Constructions of the female pudenda 1672-1705 and I'll get to print a dirty word!'
Unfortunately, if you swear as much as I do, it's hard to get excited about the occasional fuck*, and I have never been able to discern any further merit in Rochester's verse.
And Sedley? At the beginning of the twentieth century somebody worked out that the obscene poems had been misattributed. So the verses that had destroyed his reputation under Victoria were no longer there to revive it the period of the New Puerility.
And that is why you have never heard of him. You can still find scraps here and there. He has, quite justly, a couple of poems included The Oxford Book Of English Verse, one of which is called A Song To Celia. I am not sure of this (as I can't be bothered to read the anthology cover to cover) but I think that Song To Celia may be the only poem in the collection without a single simile or metaphor. There are occasional metaphoric uses of words - tied or afford - but other than that the purity and directness of the lyric is astonishing. Here it is in full:
Not, Celia, that I juster am
Or better than the rest.
For I would change each hour, like them,
Were not my heart at rest.
But I am tied to very thee
By every thought I have;
Thy face I only care to see,
Thy heart I only crave.
All that in woman is adored
In thy dear self I find,
For the whole sex can but afford
The handsome and the kind.
Why then should I seek further store,
And still make love anew?
When change itself can give no more,
'Tis easy to be true.
And if, dear reader, you are now minded to run out and buy yourself a copy of his complete poems, I should warn you that they are very hard to come by, although up on the net here. My own copy (a birthday present from Mrs Malaprop and Everet Lapel) was printed in 1707. There does seem to be some sort of reprint available on Amazon, but as Sir Charles himself said:
Justice has bid the world adieu,
And dead men have no friends.
*It should, perhaps, be noted that Sedley's life was utterly scandalous and debauched, he's most famous for starting a riot by washing his penis in a glass of wine (he was also Speaker of the House of Commons, although I don't think we should hold that against him). This post is poetical and cares not a whit for biography.
P.S. For any North London readers, Sedley lived next door to the Steele's in Chalk Farm.
P.P.S. I honestly didn't realise when I wrote this post that today is the 350th anniversay of the Restoration. I was thinking along the lines of yesterday's post on simplicity of expression.