Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A pretty, witty poet


I read Graham Greene’s Lord Rochester’s Monkey, his biography of John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, arguably the greatest poet, satirist and wit of the age of the Restoration, when I was seventeen. From this I moved to the poetry, much of it gloriously obscene and utterly delightful. So, I liked Wilmot before Johnny Depp, taking on the part of the great libertine, announced at the beginning of The Libertine, a 2004 movie based on his life, that I would not like him, meaning I would not like the poet as a man as opposed to not liking the actor as the poet. Phew!

Seventeenth century England, particularly the period following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, is my area of particular expertise. The disadvantage in this is that I tend to find historical dramas set in the time immensely irritating, usually because of the cavalier treatment of basic facts (I know, I know; it’s such a bore!). I absolutely hated To Kill a King, set in the Civil War. I did not, therefore, have high expectations of The Libertine, which I saw recently on DVD for the first time.

Surprise: I liked it: I liked Johnny Depp as Wilmot, a first class performance, one of tremendous depth; I liked the feel of the movie, I liked its depiction of Restoration London and Restoration manners. I liked it so much that I was even able to overlook the howling liberties (a syphilitic Wilmot swaying opinion in the Lords during the Exclusion debate!) The script, adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his play of the same name, was raw and uncompromising, as was the camera work, showing an unremittingly grimy London, corruption and filth in the streets, corruption and filth in the most elevated social circles.

I had fun looking at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, most of them carping and negative, most of them mired in incomprehension. Directed by Laurence Dunmore, the film felt like the play from which it emerged, the emphasis being on words and language than action for the sake of action, the first point on which the critics seem to have stumbled. The second was probably their incomprehension over Depp’s performance, not at all what one expects from a Caribbean pirate! But he was so good as Rochester, obnoxious, self-destructive and unremittingly cynical, the perfect mirror of an imperfect age.

He was Rochester as I imagine him, a complex character, loveable and yet not easy to love, angelically satanic, a troubled genius before people knew what a troubled genius was; a Marquis De Sade with intelligence. His life was his art and his art his life. I see him showing signs of existential nausea, a disease of the spirit that really only became fashionable in the last century.

Were I a spirit free, to chose for my own share
What sort of flesh and blood I pleas’d to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey or a bear,
Or any thing but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational.


Wilmot, if you had seen Depp in your shade you would, I feel sure, have been beguiled and amused. You might even – I hope this is not a step too far – have begun to like yourself.

48 comments:

  1. He only live until 33 years old, he die of syphilis and was an alcoholic and a depressed man, it is sad, but the people have his poems, I am interesting in the movie, I saw many of Deep, it is the first time that hear about this movie, Rochester is all a character, I like these type of people to know about it, a fast life in the hell and he was rich and smart. I want to say that I love Graham Greene and the book must be great, i want both, the movie and the book, I will wait, all things come in the right time, a good information. Mario

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  2. Mario, you can catch it on line. Try Project Free TV for starters.

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  4. I am not used to download movies, I fear virus that can get my computer when download movies and I can not wait an hour o more waiting for the movie because I have occupations to do in the day, only can do it with a secure, easy and quick download . Thank you for the advice. A big kiss. Mario.

    PD: In the place you say has not the movie The Libertine.

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  5. I think many people my age might identify aspects of The Restoration with the 1960s: an outburst of chaotic exuberance following a time of grim repression; then, the harsh light of day . . .

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  6. Adam, I’ve seen that too. Superb acting by Sir Alec Guinness and Richard Harris coupled by a dreadful script based on the worst kind of historical inaccuracies. A proto-democrat Cromwell was not!

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  7. Mario, no, don't download unless you know how to recognise viruses. Stream instead. You are not breaking any laws that way. As I say begin with Project Free TV.

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  10. Calvin, the interesting thing is that the laws of physics might also be said to apply to history, that for ever action there is an equal and opposite reaction – the hedonism of the Restoration for the Puritanism of the Commonwealth and Protectorate; the fun-loving Roaring Twenties for the sacrifices of the First World War; the Swinging Sixties for…for what exactly? :-)

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  12. Counterpoint to WW2, Korea, the Iron Curtain & the threat of Doomsday . . .

    The Forties and Fifties were grim.

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  13. Adam, did I deride Churchill? Not that I'm aware. I think the Sixties were grossly overrated; that's all.

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  14. Calvin, always, for some reason, in shades of brown. :-)

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  16. Adam, sorry, I missed your point about the movie. It made Charles look treacherous, a counter-point to Cromwell's saintliness. What knowledge is it that I share with that awful vulgarian Cherie Booth. :-)

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  18. But that's not the same as deriding Churchill. He was past his best by this time, taking little or no interest in domestic matters. I can only look at the 60s and 70s as history. I cannot say if they were 'good' or not. The times of one’s youth are always good, I suppose, no matter subsequent judgement of history.

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  20. Keynesianism, the greatest of all the economic delusions! Rather ironic you link this with Churchill considering The Economic Consequences of Mister Churchill. :-)

    Adam, Ike has responded to you on Nigger Jim. I have to post on his behalf because of technical difficulties.

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  22. Keynesians always end by spreading the most awful flu virus; it's called inflation. :-)

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  25. No they are not, not at the price of genuine economic health and prosperity; artificial jobs, jobs created by the state, unproductive and wasteful. Keynesianism is a dead end, leading to the awful stagflation of the 1970s. High wage demands means the export of real jobs. That's what 'your lot', state socialists and welfare bods of all sort, will never understand,

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  27. Adam, I think your understnding of France is- how shall I say? -less than complete. :-) Thank goodness Heathco went to the grave, along with it the shibboleth that there was nothing worse than unemployment. Jobs are good; employment is good, but it has to be meaningful and productive.

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  29. Adam, have you not been following Sarkozy's attempts to reform the long-lunch economy? I guess not. I have no intention of being a labourer anywhere. My argument is practical, not inhumane. We have to find solutions for contemporary problems, not forever looking back to some unworkable ideal.

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  31. I certainly don't 'love' labourers! Yes, the real France shall rise again, the sans culottes in a new Reign of Terror, wheeling out the guillotine, or simply murdering people in the streets, a little like Greek anarchists. Workers of the world unite; you have your bogus, state-funded jobs and your long lunch breaks to lose. :-))

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  33. Adam, who, exactly, did I refer to as a communist? You were the one who made reference to the French ‘rising’; I merely drew a parallel with the Revolution of 1789. They are not ‘fighting’ to defend first world living standards; they are fighting for lazy complacency and restrictive practices; for over-priced jobs, shorter and shorter working days and earlier and earlier retirement. The economy for these people is like a golden goose, ready for evisceration. If France ever descends into second and third world standards it will be thanks to the stupidity of the ‘labourers.’ Communist dictator, eh? I’ll add that to my collection. :-)

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  35. I do no such thing. These standards have to be earned; they do not exist by divine right. They can just as easily be exported elsewhere, once France and the rest of the 'developed' world is reduced to penury by trade unions and other social neanderthals.

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  37. I refer to trade unions and trade unionists as I please and I need no amendment to the libel laws to do so.

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  39. Yes yes he led an ignominious life but he also wrote such gems as 'Ancient Person of my Heart.' Read it and if it doesn't melt your heart.

    Ana, have you read Harrison's poems 'Laureate's Block' and 'A Celebratory Ode on the Abdication of King Charles III'?

    I saw The Libertine a few years ago when it came out. Didn't really do it in the box office but I thought it was a superb and really well-made film.

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  40. Rehan, I so agree. No, not as yet, but I will. Yes, I thought so too. Have you seen Black Swan? I haven't yet but some of my friends are raving about it.

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  41. The poems are in his Collected. I think you'll like 'em. I have seen posters of Black Swan not the film as of yet. Will try to watch it at some point because your friends are watching it. I am thinking of Auden's line about weeping 'because another wept.'

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