Sunday 30 May 2010

Sir Charles Sedley

Sir Charles Sedley wrote some of the most beautiful poems in English; and you, dear reader, have never heard of him.

There's a reason for that. Sedley was a Restoration poet and a contemporary of Rochester (of whom you have no doubt heard, there was even a film about him with John Depp). At the time both were famous, much printed, and much read. The difference between the two was that Rochester wrote obscene poems and Sedley wrote beautiful ones. Rochester wrote:

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.

Except me.


*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.


  1. The Antipodean30 May 2010 at 16:18

    Vanished from the cannon, hmm? Probably wasn't very comfortable there anyway.

    One suspects a little gloating at the end there, more Gollum-like than Stalky-like. Fortunately that link is more than enough recompense.

    The biographical intrudes a little, perhaps, as with the subtitle of one of the pieces: WHOM HE FELL IN LOVE WITH AT A PLAY-HOUSE. There really isn't enough of that in poetry any more.

  2. He was, of course, fired from the cannon, my precious.

  3. "Cunt" is such a deliciously vulgar word.

  4. There are 100 poets in my copy of The Best Poems of 1924 (Small, Maynard & Company) - as selected by the editors of The Observer, The Atlantic Review, Vanity Fair, The Golden Hind, the Literary Review etc etc.

    Only nine of them are ever referred to these days. Is it all that surprising that some fall by the wayside?

    Enlarged and free, the wings of Rhyme
    Cannot outreach its purple air;
    The generations of all Time
    And all the lovely dead are there.

    - Oliver St. John Gogarty (Who he?)

  5. The Antipodean31 May 2010 at 14:34

    A friend of mine employs the term 'delightfully crass,' and I admit I considered applying it to 'chock full of cunts and cocks.'

    Unfortunately I've just read the rest of Rochester's A Ramble in St James Park, and apart from feeling the need to shower, the words are no longer quite so delightful.

    Which says something of its power, I suppose. That verse should've served as warning, but I thought the rest of it couldn't be as bad.

  6. Moptop,
    Oliver St John Gogarty was stately, plump Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. He wrote a good poem called something like "The Ballad of Jesting Pilate", although I can't remember the title exactly/find it on the internet.
    He also once said that "Nobody swims in Dublin Bay, they just go through the motions."

    I'm slightly concerned that Blogger will start making this an adults-only blog. I may start st*rring my expletives. Does anybody know the rules?

  7. Thank you, Dogberry. That's ten poets of note, then. Shall I list the other ninety?

    Gamliel Braford, Herschell Bek, Walta Karsner, Fredegond Shove ... with names like that, how could they be anything other than poets?

    As for your expletive-ridden posts: haven't we established they are Anglo-Saxon culinary terms?

  8. I studied Rochester at uni ten years ago. I can still remember the relish with which my tutor read out the poems. I think he only chose Rochester so's he could say all those words in front of young women. Lost on me, because I was 38.

  9. The Antipodean1 June 2010 at 06:46

    Well, thanks to the internet and a lurgi which has confined me to my couch, I now know that Aldous Huxley wrote a travel book called "Jesting Pilate." Apparently the title is a reference to himself, travelling the world asking 'What is Truth?,' but I suspect that's not what you were after.

    I think it's probably this:
    The Song of the Cheerful (but slightly Sarcastic) Jesus.
    I do like the line: "what's bred in the bone cannot fail me to fly." I also like the idea of a cheerful (but slightly sarcastic) Jesus. As with much that is mildly blasphemous, it is also mildly catechetical.

    Among other things, Gogarty also write a short play called 'A Serious Thing,' which I rather enjoyed. Irish political commentary meets Life of Brian, or, in this case, Lazarus.

  10. Thank you, Antipodean. I was misremembering the alternative title: Japing Jesus and mixing it up with Bacon/Huxley's Jesting Pilate.

  11. Was there not that unfortunate business about Charlie Sedley getting his todger out at Oxford Kate's, urinating in a wine glass & toasting the King's health with it in 1663?

    1. There was. Rather puts our modern parliamentarians to shame.

  12. How are others interpreting the lines "For the whole sex can but afford, the handsome and the kind"