This book summary was written by my colleague Karl Persson of Signum University. Karl has an MA from the University of Regina with a focus on Early Modern literature (Milton) and a PhD in Old English literature from the University of British Columbia. His primary scholarly interests are Old English wisdom literature and intersections of literature with theology and the historical reception of the Bible. His dissertation was on the reception of Ecclesiastes and Job by Anglo-Saxon authors/readers and these books’ function as contexts for the development of the Old English wisdom tradition.
Review of Rochester by Charles Williams
When we think of the Inklings and their sources, a number of historical periods come to mind. The medieval period goes without saying, and the Renaissance and classical literatures were particularly important for Lewis. The Victorians were their fathers, and the Inklings were writing after a time when so-called Victorian doubt had stirred things up just enough shake the shallow and simpering complacence of the Austenian Mr. Collins and produce rather more interesting figures of faith, such as George MacDonald, Cardinal Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Christina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Even the quasi-pagan romantics have their place in Inklingsian mythopoeia, as attested by the deep love of nature and the wilds in Tolkien, and the title of Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, cribbed from Wordsworth. What is however relatively absent in this list of probable sources is the long Eighteenth Century; to be sure, Lewis seems to have been fond of Dr. Johnson, and presumably members of a group as well-read and educated as the Inklings also read and appreciated to a degree Eighteenth Century works. But though a separate and exhaustive study would be required to determine the exact degree of influence, I think I am safe in saying that the influence of the Eighteenth Century and the Inklings’ conception of this period are evident more in absentia than concretely.
This of course makes sense, as there is a certain incompatibility between Eighteenth Century literature and the better-known productions of the Inklings. The Eighteenth Century impetus toward rationalist demythologization is, generally speaking, counter to the Inklings’ search for mythopoeic beauty, and the prevalent literary mode, satire, has little tolerance for the kind of seriousness and earnestness at the heart of much Tolkien and Lewis. These features, as well as the era’s presumed optimism and enthusiasm regarding progress in some quarters, are probable reasons for the difficulty of imagining Eighteenth Century influence on the Inklings’ work, and likewise the reason that those attracted to the Inklings and their work may have particular difficulty appreciating Eighteenth Century literature. This is interesting because, of the historical periods that have preceded us, ours is perhaps most like the Eighteenth Century, an age marked by reason and satire. Yes, we like to rail against Enlightenment rationalism etc., but functionally we place an immense amount of faith in the fruit of reason, technology. And generally speaking, the typically accepted counter to this is satire, irony, and a certain kind of gossipy voyeurism – ours is an age of Jon Stewart, Russell Brand, and the Kardashians.
For some interested in the Inklings, then, their inherited response to the modern age is to create an alternate, more sincere culture –a laudable endeavour, I would argue, on the basis of Tolkien’s defence of subcreation against the critique of naïve escapism. And yet one also wonders if there might not be alternative approaches, not contradictory, per se, but complementary; might there not be a possibility of discovering the mythopoeic impulse lurking somewhere amidst these strange milieux, whether they be the paper wars of Grub Street or the meme wars of Facebook? There are those of us who may know Narnia and Middle Earth as our native homes, yet who may also recognize a certain kind of Ecclesiastean darkness, fracture, and absurdity more aptly named in its triviality and banality by the likes of Jonathan Swift. There are those of us who love Lewis and Tolkien for their myth-making and insights on faith, and who also love Stephen Colbert as one of the greatest living Christian satirists. How does one make sense of this?
Enter Williams, with his interpretation of the notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Implicitly writing with an awareness of the Augustinian restless heart and its many manifestations, Williams proceeds to explain Rochester’s colourful and often scandalous shenanigans as the result of a mysticism thwarted by the constrained imaginations of the long Eighteenth Century. Lacking the cultural and religious supports that might otherwise have allowed him to inhabit the lofty and (comparatively) holistic worlds of poets such as Donne and Milton, Rochester turned a frustrated genius to the exploration of wit, sensuality, and scandal. In Williams’ view, these subjects were a sort of secondary option, a settling for something that was not the God the poet unwittingly yearned after. Where a Freudian would suggest that poets often talk about God and really mean sex, Williams takes the converse approach: Rochester thought he was talking about sex and really meant God. Williams doesn’t say it in so many words, but implicitly he suggests that works such as Rochester’s (in)famous poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment, is as much about the frustration of faith as it is about male impotence; to play on the saying commonly misattributed to Chesterton, who searches for Viagra may in fact be searching for God.
Much of the book is Williams’ delineation of the various scandals and not always innocuous exchanges of wit in which Rochester was involved; with Williams, we follow Rochester around as we might the Shakespearean fool, in the favours of King Charles II one day and banished for excessive ribaldry the next. In flavour, Rochester’s story is uncannily like much that passes as interesting amidst celebrity culture today: who is on the in (or outs) with whom, who can be cleverest or flashy, who is hooking up with whom. For Williams, however, these are not complete banalities, but the movements and interests of a restless heart that eventually finds – if not rest – then perhaps the beginnings of rest in Rochester’s notorious deathbed conversion.
Our exact knowledge of this conversion is disputed, since Rochester’s story became a popular matter for tracts exhorting conversion to Christianity, and it can be difficult to distinguish hagiographic flourishes from historical fact. However, Williams does take Gilbert Burnet’s Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honourable John, Earl of Rochester as largely factual, if perhaps filtered through a mind less clever and interesting than that of Rochester himself. Of course, even with historical facts in place – even in the presence of a living person – it can be difficult to discern the spiritual nuances of a given situation, and the same can be said of Rochester’s conversion; though Williams certainly believes his conversion to have been real, he also discerns in its crises-ridden drama the spectre of Rochester’s penchant for theatricality – hardly a bar to real belief, of course, but perhaps not the neat and tidy faith a more staid latitudinarian temper like that of Burnet would have preferred.
A further study would be required to discern more fully the exact nature of Rochester’s conversion, and such a study would be useful in evaluating Williams’ account of Rochester’s Augustinian longing exhibited in rakish restlessness; indeed, his account throughout the book depends largely on the anticipation of this conversion. Yet I would suggest that, regardless of the exact nature of the conversion, there is still something to be taken from the book, and that is Williams’ insight into the absurdities, excesses, and satires of the Eighteenth Century as products of spiritual frustration, a longing turned in on itself because the public social imaginary no longer supported a metaphysic allowing it to turn upward. Such is indeed evident in authors other than Rochester – for instance, Jonathan Swift was a frustrated Anglican priest – and Williams’ theoretical arch thus offers a hermeneutic for processing the relation of faith to the often apparently surface and trite productions of the long Eighteenth Century.
Beyond this hermeneutic strategy for approaching the Eighteenth Century, this biography may also help shed some light on the life of Williams and the excesses of our own age. As we are well aware, Williams’ own life was complicated by his questionable relationships with women outside his marriage, and it may be in this light that we can read his comment to Anne Ridler that the work:
shall not be about John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. It will be about me.
Speculation must necessarily be perilous to the critic – particularly in matters like this – but one wonders if Williams in part wrote the biography in the hope that it might also be his biography – in the hope that all the frustrated, imperfectly filled, and questionably expressed desires might at the end of things find their rest in God. Which, perhaps, leads to a nice transition into what this book might have to offer us now, precisely the same hope. For many of us too are creatures of shallowness, frustration, and mockery, shells and husks of persons receding from increasingly lost cultures and times in which earnestness was possible. Part of the answer to this dilemma is, as Lewis and Tolkien noted, to rebuild, but there are times when fracture can seem too deep, and recovery impossible. In these times it can be encouraging to know that not even a Rochester, a Williams, or we ourselves are beyond the grace and mercy of God, as this biography suggests.