Libertinism is the term used to describe the philosophical outlook that began to be adopted by some northern Europeans in the 17th century, predominantly in England and France. Libertines placed a great emphasis on the pleasures that could be enjoyed in life, such as sex and alcohol, holding a cynical view toward anything that could not be physically experienced. Religiously the ‘sinful’ living that many libertines carried out meant they instantly clashed with the views of the established church and while many libertines would have held atheistic or nihilistic views on life, this is not to say that all libertines were without religion.
When considering why libertinism evolved it is important to remember that this change in people’s thinking was set against a changing political backdrop. The Restoration certainly had a knock on effect, for starters, the celebratory atmosphere would defiantly have been accompanied by much drinking and carousing. Perhaps it was the sudden change from being ruled by the strict religious line of Cromwell to a monarchy that had been famously living a lavish party lifestyle while in exile that caused this surge of libertinism (Daiches, 538).Even the theatre, the setting where more liberal ideas that might oppose the moral code of the puritans could be presented, was re-opened following the restoration. One could even point to the influence of the scientific revolution that was taking place at this time.
With a new focus on trusting empirical evidence only people were challenging firmly established beliefs, as well as authoritative opinion, allowing for people to develop their own ideas and philosophies (Smith, 78).A major influence on libertine thought was the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Many of Hobbes influential ideas such as his views on social and political order and the notion of the rights of the individual were concepts that underpinned the liberal, unrestricted thought of the libertines. In particular I feel Hobbes’ liberal interpretation of law – that people are free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid, allows for more liberal thinking about how societal and personal boundaries could be expanded (Manet, 38).When comparing the poetry of Aphra Behn and John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, two influential libertine writers, naturally enough much of the discussion will inevitably gravitate around gender issues. In an almost completely male dominated environment of the literary world Aphra Behn managed to become the first female to earn a living by writing. Her gender unavoidably affected her work, in that she had somewhat less freedom to explore certain issues than men would have, however it did not stop her from expressing her feelings and from giving a real female perspective in her poetry.
In this sense it could be argued that perhaps the poetry of Behn is equally as radical and controversial as the notoriously provocative work of Rochester. The poem “The Disappointment”, by Aphra Behn and Rochester’s’ “The Imperfect Enjoyment” give us the perfect opportunity to analyse both writers together as in these poems deal with the same subject – a premature sexual encounter. The first most obvious difference is of course the fact that Rochester is describing the experience from his own perspective with his use of ‘I’ throughout his description of the events.The use of this personal pronoun gives the reader a sense that this is a genuine experience of the authors; however it means that this poem is almost exclusively concerned with the male point of view, with no empathy shown for the woman’s feelings. In Aphra Behn’s poem on the other hand we are given the female perspective of an encounter between Lysander, a shepherd and Cloris, a maid.
The style and tone of each poem is noticeably different.While Rochester shows no shyness in getting straight to the gritty, graphic and often crude details of the encounter, Behn, while by no means completely innocent, makes reference to notions of virtue and love. She discusses “Their bodies, as their souls”, with mentions love throughout. While Rochester initially uses the woman’s seductive nature as an excuse, believing that ‘A touch from any part of her had done’t’, as the poem progresses an element of self-doubt emerges when he begins to feel that perhaps his own performance is to blame.He displays his frustration and anger with his body’s inadequacies with his use of war metaphors, conveying the obvious shame he feels by depicting his penis as a cowardly instrument. Behn on the other hand cites the lovers overly passionate attraction to one another, “Pleasure which too much love destroys”, as the cause for their overly hasty meeting. This is a good example of the fundamental difference that exists between the two poets outlook on love, Rochester is a cynic while Behn appears to look beyond mere physical realities.As to the misogynistic nature of Rochester’s poetry it is difficult to argue against the assertion that he viewed women as much more that sexual objects.
He displays his low opinion of women throughout his work, barring moments where he appreciates women for their aesthetic beauty. When discussing Rochester’s misogyny we must take into consideration social attitudes and also the fact that it was a time where London was rife with prostitution; however this does not excuse his clear distain for the entire female gender. His poem ‘A Ramble in St.James Park’ depicts the sexual undercurrent that existed in London at the time. Here Rochester conveys the ethereal feeling of awe that a particularly attractive woman can have – ‘The proud disdain she cast on me, through charming eyes, he would have swore, she dropped from heaven that very hour’. Unsurprisingly though only lines later Rochester shows his true sentiment saying that women are creatures that are “infinitely vile, when fair! ”, perhaps Rochester’s own deep seeded feelings of lust and jealously being the cause of this.
In his poem “Song” Rochester professes woman’s inferiority to men, “Love a woman! y’are an Ass, ‘Tis a most insipid Passion, To choose out for your happiness The idlest part of god’s creation! ”. This could be perhaps be interpreted as Rochester expressing his preference for homosexual relations but nonetheless he views women as idle creatures and is unmistakably misogynistic. One can point to countless examples where Rochester uses derogatory language to convey his feelings about women, commonly referencing women as ‘whores’ and depicting them as meaningless sexual objects.There is reason to think that Rochester’s renowned misogyny may be closely linked to his philosophical views. His cynical, materialistic outlook on life leaves him fixated with the physical mechanics of sexuality, as Marianne Thormahlen observes “At the centre of Rochester’s poems on love, there is an empty space” (Cambridge Companion, 208). I think it is this shallowness that leads Rochester to become increasingly frustrated with women and therefore women inevitably incur the same damming condemnation that Rochester seems to inflict on every subject that he discusses.