Lord Rochester's Monkey
Those who know the Graham Greene of the critical essays he was writing in the Thirties will remember a sound thing he wrote about Sterne and Fielding, and his remarks on their “shell-shocked” Puritan predecessors in the revolutionary seventeenth century. (He was playing with an epithet he had taken from Trotsky in a very different context.) These readers will not be altogether surprised to hear that Greene had written a study of the most “shell-shocked” of all, John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, a real example of the “burned out case.” The surprise is that the book was a substantial biography; that it has been lying for years unpublished in the library of the University of Texas.
This Life is, I believe, Greene’s only attempt at biography, and it has the originality, thoroughness, and alertness to affairs of conscience that one finds in his fictional manhunts. The manuscript had been rejected by his English publishers who feared the prosecutions for obscenity that angered writers in the Thirties: the vogue for the Restoration poets had begun, but the police and the customs officers were fouling it. He reminds us that John Hayward’s Nonesuch edition of Rochester’s verse had escaped only because it was issued to subscribers in a small limited edition; even so it was seized by the New York customs. Greene had enough trouble on his hands and lost heart.
Now he has looked again with some fondness at the manuscript and has not cared to make many revisions. He had admired the Life by Prinz (1927). He has since read Professor Pinto’s Enthusiast in Wit (1962) but has “no wish to rewrite my biography at Professor Pinto’s expense”—a scrupulous decision and a sound one, for Greene’s book has the tone of the Thirties. He had noted that the periods following violent upheavals in society have a common experience of disillusion and spleen. The writers of the Thirties, like those of the Restoration, knew what it was like to inherit the sins of their violent fathers and to be torn by conflicting tastes for the moral and the scabrous.
For Greene particularly, Rochester had the attraction of the gifted, tormented sinner, the man of split nature, divided between lust and love, familiar with remorse in his own self-sought ruin and unable to apply the salve of hypocrisy to a raw conscience. “Half devil, half angel,” a handsome dissipated charmer and fine poet, Rochester was a character of great complexity who offers dramatic guesses to any biographer. Greene saw a key in the conflicts of Rochester’s political inheritance. His Puritan mother had been married first to a Parliamentarian. He died. Her second husband, Rochester’s father, was in the other camp—a successful Royalist leader who had defeated the Roundheads in battle and was drinking hard in exile in Cromwell’s reign.
In anarchic times when the males are either killing one another or conspiring…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.