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By John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

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1 By John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
A Song: ‘Absent from thee I languish still’ By John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

2 A Song: ‘Absent from thee I languish still’
What do we understand from the title of the poem?

3 Absent from thee I languish still,
Then ask me not, When I return? The straying fool ’twill plainly kill To wish all day, all night to mourn. Dear, from thine arms then let me fly, That my fantastic mind may prove The torments it deserves to try, That tears my fix’d heart from my love. When, wearied with a world of woe, To thy safe bosom I retire, Where love, and peace, and truth does flow, May I, contented, there expire. Lest once more wandering from that heaven, I fall on some base heart unblest, Faithless to thee, false, unforgiven, And lose my everlasting rest.

4 AO3: Context

5 The Restoration In 1660, after 19 years of exile, Charles II took the throne and the monarchy was restored. Historian Roger Baker argues it was, “as though the pendulum [of England's morality] swung from repression to licence more or less overnight.” Theatres reopened after having been closed, Puritanism lost its momentum, and the bawdy ‘Restoration comedy’ became a recognisable genre. In addition, women were allowed to perform on the commercial stage as professional actresses for the first time. Charles was popularly known as the Merry Monarch, in reference to both the liveliness and hedonism of his court and the general relief at the return to normality after over a decade of rule by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. Charles had no legitimate children but acknowledged over a dozen illegitimate offspring by various mistresses, including Nell Gwyn – also a mistress of Rochester!

6 John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Restoration poet and rake John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester John Wilmot rarely met his father but did inherit his title – his father had been a loyal servant to the King in exile and had saved his life, so John also inherited the King’s goodwill and indulgence. The second Earl of Rochester was the embodiment of the new era, becoming as infamous for his wild behaviour as he was celebrated for his poetry. Andrew Marvell described him as “the best English satirist”. His life was divided between domesticity in the countryside and a riotous existence at court, with his behaviour leading to his reputation as ‘the wickedest man in England’. He died, aged 33, from the effects of venereal disease and alcoholism. He was reported to have recanted his atheism and libertinism on his death bed.

7 Rochester’s ‘extravagant frolics’
His wild behaviour included: the abduction of a wealthy heiress whom he wished to marry (3 weeks in the Tower) – he later married her; being drunk for 5 years, leading to such ‘extravagant frolics’, lewd pantomimes, genital exposure and drunken violence at court that he was banished, then recalled; accidentally giving Charles a satirical verse that criticised him for being sex-obsessed at the cost of his Kingdom (banished from court, then recalled); smashing Charles’ treasured and extravagant glass sundials in drunken ‘rant’ (fled from court, then recalled); disguising himself as a ‘Doctor Bendo’ who specialised in curing fertility issues in women – he also disguised himself as ‘Mrs Bendo’ so he could examine women without raising their husbands’ suspicions; fleeing the scene after a scuffle with the watch ended with his friend dead, killed by a pike-thrust – this gave him a reputation for cowardice, despite recorded bravery during war; boxing the ears of the King’s jester – an act of treason (got away scot free much to Samuel Pepys’ disgust).

8 AO2: Language and Imagery

9 Absent from thee I languish still, Then ask me not, When I return?
What does the speaker not want to be asked? What does this language suggest about his feelings regarding his infidelity? Absent from thee I languish still, Then ask me not, When I return? The straying fool ’twill plainly kill To wish all day, all night to mourn. The theme of the poem is established – he will ‘stray’ when he is ‘absent’ from her. Scrutiny = rhetorical question/drawing attention the unheard female who is asking when he will return. The idea of male fidelity is again addressed. Languish/fool/mourn etc – he recognises that he is a fool to stray, he ‘languishes’ – uses the language of pain and suffering – when he does. He casts himself as the victim of his own infidelity. He is weak and foolish, but he cannot help himself. She should not ask him when he will return, because he has no control over when this will be. What is the poet saying here? What links can we make to ‘The Scrutiny’ in this first stanza? Does the speaker feel in control of his own actions?

10 Dear, from thine arms then let me fly,
This term of endearment begins a passionate exclamation Dear, from thine arms then let me fly, That my fantastic mind may prove The torments it deserves to try, That tears my fix’d heart from my love. In this sense, fantastic means subject to fantasies or sudden changes of mood/ behaviour Note the idea of a violent separation from his ‘love’ – almost as if he has no control over his actions! The consequence of infidelity is torture – he ‘deserves’ it; but still he claims he cannot help himself – his mind is capricious. There is something sadomasochistic about these ideas. What is the poet saying here? How do ‘torments’ and ‘tears’ continue the idea of a man in pain? Why does his mind ‘deserve’ these torments?

11 When, wearied with a world of woe, To thy safe bosom I retire,
Stanza 3 offers a romantic image of a wanderer reunited with his lost love… How does the imagery of faithfulness contrast with the imagery of infidelity in the previous stanzas? When, wearied with a world of woe, To thy safe bosom I retire, Where love, and peace, and truth does flow, May I, contented, there expire. Alliteration slows the line down, creating a sad tone What is the poet saying here? What is the effect of the alliteration in the first line of this stanza?

12 May I, contented, there expire.
The word ‘may’ suggests he is wishing for this, but not that he is actively choosing it. Is this hypothetical romantic scenario likely? 1. He can breathe easily 2. He can die happy 3. Connotations of sexual climax How do these possible interpretations add to our understanding of the speaker’s argument?

13 Lest once more wandering from that heaven,
What is the significance of the phrase ‘once more’? ‘Lest’ means ‘in case’ Lest once more wandering from that heaven, I fall on some base heart unblest, What connotations does ‘heaven’ have when referring to his true love? 1. This language creates a sense of sin 2. It also holds a connotation of sexually transmitted infection How does this compare with the ‘safe bosom’ in stanza 3? ‘once more’ suggests this is a recurring weakness ‘heaven’ suggests her purity and faithfulness In this final stanza the speaker presents the alternative life he will lead if he fails to return to his true love.

14 Faithless to thee, false, unforgiven, And lose my everlasting rest.
The harsh ‘f’ sounds are almost curse-like – does this reflect the self-loathing of the speaker? This is the final consequence of his infidelity. He will lose: The contentment of being with his true love His afterlife in heaven How does this compare with the freely-chosen death in stanza 3? Is death in her arms his only way of avoiding infidelity? N.B. The speaker never considers the possibility his true love may reject him! It seems that constancy is possible – just not for him. How does this compare to The Scrutiny?

15 The language in the poem is ultimately ambiguous – the speaker argues his infidelity is foolish and that it causes him mental torture and ultimate damnation but he also suggests he is unlikely to change and that he is choosing to act this way. Do we feel his suffering is real? “His mind possesses no power to keep him off certain misery and it obviously unlikely ever to gain such strength; in other words, only death can stop his straying.” (Marianne Thormahalen, 2000). Does you agree? Does this view add to our understanding at all?

16 AO2: Form / Structure

17 Can you identify the rhyme scheme?
ABSENT from thee I languish still, Then ask me not, When I return? The straying fool ’twill plainly kill To wish all day, all night to mourn. Dear, from thine arms then let me fly, That my fantastic mind may prove The torments it deserves to try, That tears my fix’d heart from my love. When, wearied with a world of woe, To thy safe bosom I retire, Where love, and peace, and truth does flow, May I, contented, there expire. Lest once more wandering from that heaven, I fall on some base heart unblest, Faithless to thee, false, unforgiven, And lose my everlasting rest. Can you identify the rhyme scheme?

18 A ABSENT from thee I languish still,
B Then ask me not, When I return? A The straying fool ’twill plainly kill B To wish all day, all night to mourn. A Dear, from thine arms then let me fly, B That my fantastic mind may prove A The torments it deserves to try, B That tears my fix’d heart from my love. A When, wearied with a world of woe, B To thy safe bosom I retire, A Where love, and peace, and truth does flow, B May I, contented, there expire. A Lest once more wandering from that heaven, B I fall on some base heart unblest, A Faithless to thee, false, unforgiven, B And lose my everlasting rest.

19 So… where’s the bawdiness?
A ABSENT from thee I languish still, B Then ask me not, When I return? A The straying fool ’twill plainly kill B To wish all day, all night to mourn. This form is standard for a Restoration song: Quatrains ABAB Iambic tetrameter So… where’s the bawdiness?

20 AO4/5: Links and Interpretations

21 (Marianne Thormahalen, 2000).
Rochester has taken a standard form and filled it with language designed to offend. We have already noted the deliberate ambiguity of the language. Now recognise that much of the romantic and religious language relies on cliché – for example: Romantic: “from thine arms” Religious: “lose my everlasting rest” The use of religious language and imagery throughout the poem means that “the relationship between the speaker and his addressee resembles the one between an errant sinner and God.” (Marianne Thormahalen, 2000). So, it is clear whether he is talking to God or to a whore? Remember that he was writing in a society where most people were religious and some puritanically so. A contemporary audience would be shocked in a way that simply wouldn’t occur to a modern audience, i.e. us! Once religion is a choice and that denying God takes no great act of courage, the poem doesn’t work in the same way.

22 Examine the view that Rochester presents the speaker in this poem as having an inconstant attitude to love. Think about: The characteristics of love The representation of the people involved The feelings of the speaker Any imagery or language used The way the structure and form reflects this

23 Fill in your CLIFS sheet for this poem
Fill in your CLIFS sheet for this poem. Remember, this will be a revision aid!


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