Writing obscenity: from Lady Chatterley to the Earl of Rochester

Jacob Huysmans

Writing obscenity: from Lady Chatterley to the Earl of Rochester

The judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover used in the landmark 1960 obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s famous novel is to be sold at auction in October. The paperback copy will be sold with a fabric bag, hand-stitched by the judge’s wife Lady Dorothy Byrne so that her husband could carry the book into court each day while keeping it hidden from reporters. The lot includes the notes on significant passages that Lady Byrne had helpfully marked up on the book for her husband, and a four-page list of references she had compiled on the headed stationery of the Central Criminal Court.

After six days of evidence and only three hours of deliberations, the jury found in the favour of Penguin Books, its verdict allowing the publisher to print copies of the novel for the first time. The trial was seen as a victory for liberal ideas over the old establishment. In literary terms, it signalled the opportunity for authors to write with a new type of language and freedom.

First edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1060. Twospoonfuls via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC

But was Lawrence really the first writer to use obscenity in literature? And were liberal readers of the 1960s the first to appreciate the literary potential of obscene words and sex scenes? In short, the answer is no. The literary world which Lawrence and his fellow modernist writers inherited was that of the Victorian establishment. An establishment that had silenced earlier writers who, like Lawrence, used obscenity for literary ends.

One of the most important writers to be wiped from the publishing record during the 19th century was the poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Even today, we continue to find the obscene language and images found in Rochester’s poetry shocking. Take, for example, his A Satyr on Charles II a critique of the monarch as a man governed by his penis:

‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e'er did swive,
The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.
Though safety, law, religion, life lay on ’t,
'Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

Following his death in 1680 publishers scrambled to produce editions of Rochester’s poems – correctly perceiving the public appetite for his verse. An initial run of pirate editions of Rochester’s poetry was quickly supplanted with an authoritative collection, produced in 1691 by the leading literary publisher of the day, Jacob Tonson. Tonson is credited with popularising John Milton’s (up to that point, fairly unsuccessful) poem Paradise Lost and also producing the first footnoted editions of William Shakespeare’s collected plays.

So why did a respectable publisher such as Tonson take the gamble of printing Rochester’s verse? The answer lies in the recognition of Rochester’s poetry as literature rather than obscenity. Just as with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we need to read past the obscene language and images of the work to understand what Rochester is really saying.

The animal in human skin

Rochester is a poet of the human condition. He strips man down to his barest drives and desires to see the animal lurking underneath. In this way, he was much like the contemporary philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously pronounced that life was “nasty, brutish and short” and that underneath it all man was a beast like any other.

For Rochester, the sexual realm is just another place where we see (and feel) this stark reality. Rochester strips away all sense of love and romance from his depicted sexual encounters. And there are many of them. His images are those of the mechanics of sex, its failures, disappointments and disease. Take his notorious poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment, a work that opens with a scene indicating the sexual promise to come:

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms …

Quickly, this promise is destroyed. The poem’s speaker prematurely ejaculates:

But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore. A touch from any part of her had done ’t: Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.

The speaker’s lover encourages him to try again, but to no success:

Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.

The obscene language Rochester employs in The Imperfect Enjoyment – and the sexual act on which it focuses – led generations of readers to view the work as pornographic. But this is to misread the poem. The clue is in the title: the poem portrays the ultimate failure of desire. The emptiness of human experience. And its cold, clinical and obscene language (sperm, spend, pore, cunt) is contrasted throughout the poem with phrases that point to the scene’s absent romance (the sexual act “should convey my soul up to her heart”, but it doesn’t).

The beast within

Rochester is often seen as a dangerous or obscene writer in the way he glamorised the licentious world of the Restoration court. But when we read his poetry more closely, we find little glamour in the language expressed. His verse exposes human feeling and behaviour, showing the superficiality of our social world with all its polite manners and codes of behaviour. And the use of obscene language is key to that project. As Rochester succinctly phrased it in his correspondence, “Expressions must descend to the Nature of Things express’d”.

The Victorians couldn’t cope with Rochester’s poetry, and there were no editions of his work published in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1963, in the wake of the Chatterley trial, that American scholar David M. Vieth began work on a modern uncensored edition. Vieth gave us back the real Rochester and made it possible for readers to access his poems once again.

Obscenity might not make for comfortable reading, but that’s often its point. The purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us. For Lawrence this involved using a new language that cut across class and gender in celebrating the sexual act – for Rochester it involved looking into the mirror and confronting the beast within.

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