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Gender And Performance In The Earl Of Rochester’s Imperfect Enjoyment

1547 words - 6 pages

Literature of the English Restoration offers the example of a number of writers who wrote for a courtly audience: literary production, particularly in learned imitation of classical models, was part of the court culture of King Charles II. The fact of a shared model explains the remarkable similarities between “The Imperfect Enjoyment” by the Earl of Rochester and “The Disappointment” by Aphra Behn—remarkable only because readers are surprised to read one poem about male sexual impotence from the late seventeenth century, let alone two examples of this genre by well-known courtly writers. In fact, Richard Quaintance presents ten more examples by lesser-known poets as he defines the literary sub-genre of the neo-Classical “imperfect enjoyment poem,” written in imitation of Roman poems on the same subject, which is shared by Rochester and Behn (Quaintance 190). Since Rochester and Behn are working along such closely similar lines in terms of the artistic models that their own poems aim to imitate, it is therefore fair to ask the question: what are the main differences in their compositional technique within this tightly-defined literary sub-genre of the neo-Classical “imperfect enjoyment poem”? By examining features of each poem in turn—including form (including this sub-genre they share), but also narrative voice and tone—with some examination of the secondary critical literature on both Rochester and Behn, I hope to demonstrate that there are distinct differences in compositional technique which involve the difference in sex between these two writers. But my conclusion will attempt to problematize the very notion of an authorial sex difference by raising the concept of gender, and in particular the aspect of “performativity”—I will show the way in which the narratives of dalliance with Corinna and Cloris are constructed so that the authors may demonstrate their fluency with Classical models, while acknowledging that—within the courtly context of both Rochester’s and Behn’s poetry—the identity of the poet is related to the performativity of the poetic persona and the first-person voice.
Male sexual impotence would seem at first to be an unpromising subject for poetry, especially poetry which could loosely be defined as “neo-Classical” and is based on compositional models from the Classical world of ancient Greece and Rome. Yet scholars such as Richard Quaintance and Claude Rawson have traced the history of a literary sub-genre within the neo-Classical tradition that does deal with male sexual impotence, whether through failure to achieve erection or through premature ejaculation. This literary sub-genre includes Restoration poems like Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment” and the Earl of Rochester’s “Imperfect Enjoyment,” and Quaintance in fact dubs the genre the neo-Classical “imperfect enjoyment poem” after Rochester’s title. Quaintance situates both Rochester and Behn within French neo-Classical models (Quaintance 190), but actual Latin...

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