Absent from thee I languish still; Then ask me not when I return.JOHN WILMOT, EARL OF ROCHESTER
Why, hello there and welcome to another A Level Poetry blog from Beyond: Advanced. This time, we’re taking a close look at the slightly-suggestive and satirical poem Absent from Thee, by the Earl of Roch himself, John Wilmot. We’ll be walking you through:
- About the Author
- Quick Summary
Right, we’re off…
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Absent from thee is a satirical approach to the traditional love poetry, which gently mocks and makes light of the genre. The speaker ruminates on his serial unfaithfulness, all the while admitting that while he does love his partner, he also has desires he cannot ignore. Beneath the humorous tone, there is a sense of struggle; the speaker is potentially unhappy with some of his life choices, how he frequently indulges with ‘unblest’ hearts and only finds true peace and contentment with his real love.
About the Author
John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester (1 April 1647 – 26 July 1680) was an English poet and courtier of King Charles II’s Restoration Court. The Restoration Court reacted against the ‘spiritual authoritarianism’ of the Puritan era, which previously banned theatres, public houses, and many types of different literary genre. No one embraced the new libertine ethos as wholly as John Wilmott himself. Scholarship now considers Wilmott to be the most remarkable of the Restoration poets, with at least 75 unique Rochester compositions, his outlandish behaviour often overshone the quality of his prose and poetry.
Rochester’s contemporary Andrew Marvell called him ‘the best English satirist.’ During his lifetime, Rochester published his poem A Satyr against Reason and Mankind, and he is still known for it today. His poetry displays an impressive range of learning and influences, though his subject matter can often be rather rude! He adapted works from Petronius, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and others. Alongside poetry, Rochester was also interested in the theatre. His best-known dramatic work Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, has never been successfully attributed to him, although in 2004 some of the last surviving copies of Sodom were auctioned at Sotheby’s for over £45,000. Even to this day, the plot is considered to be rather near the mark.
However, Rochester’s rakish reputation often overshadowed his considerable artistic talent. He cultivated a reputation for drunkenness, public brawls and his exploits with women just as much as he did for his radical writing style, continually falling out of the king’s favour for his increasingly outrageous behaviour at court. Even today, Rochester is famous more for his scandalous lifestyle than his creativity. Samuel Johnson called him a worthless rake, though Andrew Marvell and Horace Walpole have both eulogised Rochester’s talent, calling him ‘the only man in England who had the true vein of satire.’ He died as he lived; at the age of 33, from complications arisen from venereal disease, most likely syphilis or gonorrhoea.
Absent from thee is considered a song, due to its tidy use of iambic tetrameter and neat quatrain structure. Yet this is where its traditionalism ends – Absent from thee is cheeky, satirical and rather witty. Here, a speaker (possibly Wilmott himself but who is to say?) openly admits that he has ‘torments,’ or desires, that plague him. And while he loves deeply, he needs to ‘fly’ to give into these desires. He accepts that he is on a one-way path to self-destruction but he just can’t help himself.
As stated in Form, Absent from thee is a song. It follows the neat rhythm of iambic tetrameter and a contained quatrain structure. Each quatrain uses two split rhyming couplets. There are some variations in the structure – Wilmott uses caesura to focus the reader’s attention on certain points, and there is at least one example of enjambment.
As identified in ‘Form,’ Absent from thee uses a mostly consistent iambic tetrameter rhythm, (unstressed-stress) which is a standard feature of songs (you will have heard a similar rhythm in Robert Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss, though for entirely different purposes). As this poem is played solely for laughs, the jaunty rhythm works well to create a light-hearted ditty. Each quatrain follows the rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF etc.
Wilmott originally only intended to share this among his close friends, so it intended to both amuse and shock. The language is both witty, and a little bit melodramatic. Though the speaker (Wilmott?) is compelled to follow his ‘torments,’ and give into whatever desires his ‘fantastic mind’ conjures, he laments that this hedonistic lifestyle might leave him ‘weary’d with a World of Woe.’ The alliterative ‘w’ sound here slows down the rhythm, so the reader is as weighed down by Wilmott’s guilt as he is. Yet he shows no intention to stop. He readily admits he will ‘fall on some base heart,’ the ‘base heart’ no doubt belonging to other sinful characters, ‘faithless to thee,’ so again admitting that he will stray again, risking losing the only genuine love he knows.
The imagery is relatively simple in this poem, as it is more for an intended message than a deep metaphorical dive into Wilmott’s psyche. However, there is some interesting juxtaposition. Wilmott likens sexual desires to ‘torments,’ which imply Hell, sin, suffering and damnation. That creates a fascinating relationship between sex and the forbidden, which certainly would have intrigued the contemporary reader. Wilmott was already infamous for his shocking writing style. Attitudes towards sex were beginning to soften, mostly thanks to the new pleasure-seeking reign of Charles II. In contrast, Wilmott compares his true love to ‘Heav’n,’ and all its celestial qualities; she is ‘safe,’ and for him, she represents ‘Love, Peace, and Truth.’ Doesn’t stop him from his bad behaviours though. These are all traditional images associated with love poetry of this era; what is unusual is that Wilmott plays them for laughs, not sincerity.
This poem is less about love and more about a man giving into his ‘needs’. A feminist interpretation might suggest that this is a prime example of male toxicity; it’s certainly indicative of the era’s attitudes towards love and sex. Wilmott displays no concern for his professed true love, in fact he tells her ‘ask me not when I return?’ implying that she is passively accepting of his behaviour and he is free to indulge as he sees fit. Male sexual appetites were considered more prevalent than a woman’s, which made adultery and extra marital affairs more acceptable for a man, but risqué and scandalous for a woman. The theme is always ‘love through the ages,’ so it could be argued that Wilmott’s love is separate to his sexual desires and that he is entirely comfortable in distinguishing between the two.
- Absent from thee is a satirical approach to the traditional love poetry, which gently mocks and makes light of the genre.
- Beneath the humorous tone, there is a sense of struggle; the speaker is potentially unhappy with some of his life choices.
- John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester (1 April 1647 – 26 July 1680) was an English poet and courtier of King Charles II’s Restoration Court.
- Rochester’s contemporary Andrew Marvell called him ‘the best English satirist.’
- His poetry displays an impressive range of learning and influences, though his subject matter can often be rather rude!
- Absent from thee is considered a song, due to its tidy use of iambic tetrameter and neat quatrain structure.
- It follows the neat rhythm of iambic tetrameter and a contained quatrain structure.
- Wilmott likens sexual desires to ‘torments,’ which imply Hell, sin, suffering and damnation.
- This poem is less about love and more about a man giving into his ‘needs’.
Absent from Thee Revision from Beyond: Advanced
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Faithless to thee, false, unforgiven, And lose my everlasting rest.JOHN WILMOT, EARL OF ROCHESTER
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