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Renaissance and Revolution 101: Sex and Desire in the Restoration


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?

This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.

This series will be divided into eight articles:

  1. Renaissance and Revolution 101: A Literary and Historical Overview

  2. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Religious Contexts of the English Civil War

  3. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Jacobean Culture and Shakespeare’s Othello

  4. Renaissance and Revolution 101: The Cavalier Poets

  5. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution I – John Milton

  6. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution II – Andrew Marvell

  7. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Radical Voices

  8. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Sex and Desire in the Restoration

With his return to the throne in 1660, Charles II was eager to reconcile the nation, produce stability, and regain public support for the monarchy which had become definitively negative as the 17th century progressed. It is significant to consider that “the nation which summoned Charles back in 1660 differed considerably from the realm over which his father had once attempted to rule” (MacLean, 1995, p. 4). The nation had been rocked by years of resistance, strife, conflict, and political upheaval, and the return of the monarchy did not immediately revoke the tensions, debates, and conflicts that had come to characterise the century. As Bliss (2005) remarks, “after two decades of civil strife and changing regimes, Englishmen wanted political quiet and stability and hoped to find both in monarchy” (p. 1).

Amidst tensions and struggle, the majority of the population welcomed the return of the monarchy, which for many heralded a return to normality after years of turmoil. But it must be considered that the final decades of the monarchy were tumultuous, and the nostalgia for the relative stability of England under monarchical reign was not so easily reconciled with the dissent and conflict that had demarcated the reign of Charles I. As such, whilst the Restoration offered much hope for the nation, it was “a deeply contradictory affair, the product of an already divided society” (Harris, qtd. in Maclean, 1995, p. 4).

Figure 1: Charles II (Simon Verlest, c. 1677-85).

Literature emerged as a vehicle through which to promote the stability and restoration that the return of the monarchy offered. There was in the seventeenth century a “dramatic expansion of the output of the printed press […] starting with the breakdown in censorship on the eve of the Civil War” (Harris, 2006, p. 2). Whilst restrictions were reinstated in the 1650s with the introduction of the Protectorate, though they were never entirely effective, especially by the time of the reintroduction of the monarchy to the nation. As such, the shaping and articulating of public opinion, at a time when many were eager to share their views on the politics of the contemporary situation, was a predominant social concern.

It must be considered that even though the monarchy was a constitutional structure that had survived in England for the majority of its history, the 17th century was marked by its departure into unprecedented territory. The monarchy had been destroyed, a new form of government was attempted, and then the monarchy was restored. With hopes for stability, the public was still cautious as to the turmoil that might linger ahead, and many did not know how to process the restoration when the past few decades had been demarcated by tension, conflict, and turmoil. Even with relatively low levels of literacy, Harris (2006) is keen not to dismiss the “political awareness of the mass of the population” (p. 4). Harris (2006) considers how “even when we are dealing with written materials, we have to recognise that often their content came to be transmitted orally” (p. 4). As such, when considering the literature and poetry of the Restoration period it is significant to understand that it carried with it the potential to impact and articulate public opinion, at a cautious time when opinion held significance in political outcomings.

Figure 2: Charles II entered London after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 (Unknown. n.d.).

As such, literature was commonly employed to rally the masses to an air of stability, order, and acceptance. As Maclean (1995) suggests, within this period:

“everyone wanted peace and order: satire flourished to translate disruptive anger and hostility into either companionable irony and innudeo or partisan indignation, the public theaters reopened to entertain an urban public [and] poets started writing in heroic couplets that structurally replicated principles of social order and civic harmony” (p. 6).

Just as Charles II returned to court to face a nation that was significantly changed by both his fathers and his grandfathers, literature had also altered its identity dramatically at the beginning of the century. As Maclean (1995) attests, “when Charles arrived in England, literature was already thoroughly politicised in ways that would have been unthinkable at his grandfather’s court” (p. 10). As we have seen throughout this series of articles, the Civil War was as much an ideological war as a physical conflict, harbouring an unprecedented relationship between literature and politics. As such, writers had for decades now enjoyed an assumption of “freedom and authority to comment in public upon the personal lives and policies of national leaders in the hopes of guiding opinion” (p. 10).

Figure 3: The departure of Charles II from Scheveningen to England (Nicolaes Visscher, 1660).

This was a prevalent concern in Charles II’s return to the throne, for the recovery of the monarchy was Royal recovery “related in crucial ways to the crown’s ability to win back public opinion” (Harris, 2006, p. 2). The “characteristically political” (Maclean, 1995, p. 11) nature of Restoration literature, in the sense that it commonly addressed “social and political issues with an irreverent attitude toward established authority” (p. 11), would either cement public support for the monarchy or come to ruin it.

Warren Chernaik (1995) takes an interesting line of argument that states: “with nothing to rebel against, no taboos to be transgressed, blasphemy would lose its power to shock” (p. 1). Using this argument, Chernaik (1995) interprets the literature of two leading writers of the Restoration period under this lens. He writes:

“In […] the careers of the Earl of Rochester, Aphra Behn and other writers of the Restoration period, the dialogue between the felt need for order and the compulsion to rebel cannot be resolved in a single predictable pattern” (p. 2).

Figure 4: Aphra Behn, a leading Restoration poet (Unknown, c. 1670).

Taking Chernaik’s line of understanding, it becomes important to consider that the nation had become somewhat accustomed to the turmoil, and adjusting to an assumed air of order was not so necessary as simple a transition as people, and the monarchy had perhaps hoped. The public mood of the nation and the reputation of the newly restored monarch are important factors to consider in understanding the literature that emerged from the period. The Restoration era has become characterised by its “excessive mirth and jollity” (Harris, 2015, p. 162). Charles II’s reputation “fitted in with the mood of the nation” (p. 162), as he became known as the “playboy monarch”, who prioritised “urbanity, tolerance, good humour, and the pursuit of pleasure above the more earnest, sober, or martial virtues” (p. 162).

The mood in the nation was a sense of freedom, following the repressive constraints of the mid-century Puritan revolution, and its population were keen to celebrate the supposed “sense of release” (p. 162). However, as the initial optimism towards the return of the monarchy began to dwindle, the immorality and loose morals of the court came under fire as a predominant cause for the monarchy’s slipping support and stability. The shift in opinion toward the monarchy and its crumbling stability was owed to a variety of factors and the supposed immorality of the court did little to foster faith in its ability to sustain control in the nation, particularly as the excitement at the prospective freedom began to lose its shine. Furthermore, “the triple misfortunes of the plague of 1665, the Great Fire of London of 1666, and the Medway disaster of 1667” (p. 163) did little to increase support for a court that had been perceived as slipping into “moral degeneracy” (p. 163).

Figure 5: The Great Fire of London (JLieve Verschuier, c. 1670-1700).

To analyse the literature of the Restoration period, then one must consider all of the above factors, and understand how the “controversy that emerged over the degeneracy of the age and libertinism of the court and the court wits” (p. 164) was articulated within and expressed by the literature of the age.

Restoration Literature

The sexual focus of many of the poems of the Restoration period is explained by the perceived promiscuity of the King – the notorious playboy of the country. Sexual incompetence in poetry, as a symbol of the decline of male authority, came to represent the perceived decline of the monarchy as it scrambled to foster public support amongst growing concerns about its degenerating morals and respect. This link is supported by Weber (1990), who argues:

“So visible and productive of anxiety were the king's sexual antics that considerations of sexual power became inextricably linked with matters of monarchical authority” (p. 196).

Figure 6: Charles II dancing at The Hague (Gonzales Coques, 1660).

As such, as opposed to the literature of the 1660s, which sought to articulate order and encourage support for a monarchy that promised stability, the literature that will be examined below represents the new anxieties toward monarchical authority and the moral and political stability of the new regime.

A Ballad Called the Haymarket Hectors (1671) “And he, our amorous Jove, Whilst she lay dry-bobb’d under, To repair the defects of his love, Must lend her his lightning and thunder; And for one night prostitutes to her commands Monmouth, his life guards, O’Brien, and Sandys” (lines 19-24).

Earlier in this poem, the anonymous poet explicitly mentions “King Charles the Second” who “stoop’d from the Queen infecund / to a wench of orange and oyster“ (lines 7-10). Directly attacking the “inequality of class” (Weber, 1990, p. 194) between the King and his infamous lover Nell Gwyn, a poorer woman of the lower class, one can see the libertine disrespect for authority characterise of Restoration literature. The above extract portrays Charles’s sexuality as a weakness, figured as a “form of sexual incompetence” (p. 195) deconstructs the fallacy of male power, and places strength in the feminine. Weber (1990) interprets the scene as a transferral of power, as the lightning and thunder, symbolic Olympian male authority, “becomes hers, transforming a prostitute into a commander” (p. 195). Undermining not only male authority but also the authority of the king, what appears a treasonous offence is actually a commonplace criticism of the period. The King’s desire is explicitly described within the poem, exhibiting the boldness of Restoration literature in its commentary and articulation of the perceived moral looseness of the new court. The deterioration of male authority in the form of sexual incompetence, as they fail to fulfil their desires, comes to represent the perceived degeneration of the moral and political authority of the court. As Weber (1990) explores, there were “few satires directed against the king before 1666” (p. 195). It was only with the “disenchantment of the 1670s that attacks on the monarchy began” (p. 195), and the shift in literature to explicit attacks on the monarch’s reputation and authority manifested.

Figure 7: John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (Peter Lely, 1677).

The Earl of Rochester takes a similar approach to representations of sexual authority and male incompetence as a commentary on political weakness and monarchical power.

The Imperfect Enjoyment (1680) by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester “But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive, To show my wished obedience vainly strive: I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive. Eager desires confound my first intent, Succeeding shame does more success prevent, And rage at last confirms me impotent. Ev’n her fair hand, which might bid heat return To frozen age, and make cold hermits burn, Applied to my dear cinder, warms no more Than fire to ashes could past flames restore. Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry, A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie” (lines 25- 36).

The explicit and overtly sexual scenes of the above poem were a certainly shocking feat for 17th-century literature, encapsulating the relaxed morals of the nation under its ’playboy’ king, and the libertine, reckless values of the court of the Restoration era. That Rochester is comfortable with so explicitly addressing the sexual act within his poem, encapsulates the libertine and Restoration mindset to write with an “irreverent attitude toward established authority” (Maclean,1995, p. 11). The bitterness of tone within The Imperfect Enjoyment encapsulates the focus of the poem upon failure. The desperation of the speaker to fulfil their desires is continuously obstructed by their physical impotence. Desire, and the subsequent failure of fulfilment, is a prominent motif in the poetry of the period, and this very impotence that obstructs desire comes to embody a weakened male identity, power, and authority.

As Carole Fabricant (1974) elaborates, “Rochester’s writings deal less with orgasm than with its obstruction; less with sexuality than with the failure of sexuality” (p. 339). It is interesting that Fabricant entitles her article “The World of Rochester’s Imperfect Enjoyment”, encapsulating the consuming nature of sex and desire to the Restoration literary scene, as the morals of the king and court seeped into the values of the nation as they embraced the supposed freedoms of the post-Puritan Revolution era. Tensions of masculine power, explored through the failure of the sexual act, draw inspiration from “Ovidian dramatic narrative[s] about a male lover’s inability to sexually perform at the critical moment” (Wynhoff, 2014, p. 1).

Figure 8: The Wench (Jan Steen, c. 1660-62).

The Ovidian poetic conventions drawn upon by Wilmot respond to Ovid’s Amores which feature unsatisfied female lovers, and frustrated male counterparts who cannot enact their supposed authority through the sexual act. In the Third Book, the speaker exclaims “I could get no more from my exhausted parts” (Wynhoff, 2014, p. 2), as the poem then sinks into a “despair at the failure of masculine virility” (p. 2). Just as the Restoration era poets used sexual impotency as an allegory for the political state of the nation, so did Ovid. Wynhoff (2014) explores how “Ovid’s impotency narrative becomes a means of expressing a failed masculinity that corresponds to a failure, or [...] [an] unwillingness to respond to certain civic and political duties” (p. 3). As such, Wilmot’s intentions of the poem clearly draw from his Ovidian template: to relate ideas of sexual impotency to contemporary notions of power and authority within the restoration period. Anna Bryson’s exploration of the relationship with sexual impotency poems illuminates this argument: “the libertine reversion to lewd and uncivil excess was not a subversion of courtesy with the intention of destabilizing systems of civility, but was rather an expression of anxiety at changing codes of manners” (Qtd. in Wynhoff, 2014, p. 8). As such, the restoration tendency to express burning desire, only to deconstruct and undermine this desire to depict a scene of impotence and unfulfillment, reflects the anxieties, concerns, and tension at the changing attitudes to sexual and social morality in the period.

Interestingly, Wilmot utilises the same Olympian, male authority imagery as the anonymous poet above, referencing “lightning”, and the speaker’s preparedness to “throw the all-dissolving thunderbolt below” (lines 7-10). Wilmot first introduces an imagery of god-like commandment and power, then undermines it entirely as the woman cries, unimpressed by the sexual encounter: “is there then no more?" (line 22). As the poem progresses, all signifiers of male authority vanish, the speaker addresses himself as the “most forlorn, lost man alive“ (line 25), as he is confirmed “impotent” (line 29). Illusions of power disintegrate, and the male speaker becomes defined by his inability to enact his desires and please his love interest. The agency and power provided to the woman, who commands the ability to “bid heat / return to frozen age” (lines 31-32), works to undermine and further signify the failure of masculine authority. In this subversion of gender roles, the impotency of the male is made explicit. Male identity comes to rest perhaps solely upon the male’s ability to perform sexually, as the speaker of the poem laments that his phallus is the “worst part“ of himself. As such, the failure of the male to act upon their sexual desires becomes increasingly exaggerated once it is revealed that this failure undermines the very essence of masculine authority and power. It is significant to consider the female figures of Wilmot’s poem as “the projections of male desire and male fears” (Chernaik, 1995, p. 7). The empowered women then, come to serve as a representation of the fall of male authority and the loss of grip on their once-presupposed power.

Figure 9: Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus (Angelica Kauffman, 1774).

The allegorical connections between Wilmot’s poem and tensions of power and authority within the contemporary political nation are multifaceted. At once representing the new monarch’s failure to maintain authority and appease public opinion, at once a representation of the “disproportion between“ the “desires“ of the public for the restored monarchy and their “fulfilment“ in political actuality. The poem also speaks to the King’s own “sexual career“ (Coltharp, 1997, p. 38). This latter allegorical connection is illuminated by a consideration of another of Wilmot’s poems, A Satire on Charles II:

“This you'd beleive had I butt Tyme to tell you The Paynes itt Cost the poor laborious Nelly Whilst shee imployes, hands, fingers, mouth and thighs E're shee can raise the Member she enjoys” (lines 22-31).

The evocation of the intimate second-person narrative here evokes a conversational tone, suggesting an “insider’s knowledge of Charles’s sexual career“ (Coltharp, 1997, p. 38). It is significant, in our consideration of Wilmot’s explicit addresses of sexuality, to recognise Wilmot’s position as Gentleman of the Bedchamber, a post that “positioned him at the very scene of Charles’s sexual indulgences“ (p. 38). With this knowledge, it would certainly be plausible for Wilmot’s poems to be read both as an allegory for authority within the contemporary nation in general, as well as a direct address of Charles II’s personal and political failures and shortcomings as king. Coltharp’s (1997) understanding that “Charles’s promiscuity threatened his patriarchal stature, because it inserted him into the patterns of sexual circulation and social scrutiny at the Restoration Court“ (p. 38), illuminates Wilmot’s reasoning for the explicit sexual encounters of his poems.

Figure 10: Nell Gwyn (Sir Peter Lely, c.1600s).

The Restoration Court was an unprecedently scandalous scene, with royal mistresses publicly displayed in a way never seen before. An example of this was Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s infamous mistress, directly evoked in Wilmot’s satirical poem against the king. The strict Puritan ethos of the previous decades was swiftly forgotten, with Charles II having declared “he did not think God would punish him for a little pleasure taken out of the way“ (Stone, 1992, p. 511). The issue however, as Wilmot would explore in his satire against the king, was the ways in which Charles’s sexual exploits were prioritised at the expense of the nation. It is significant to note that the Earl of Rochester was banished from Court for several months following the publication of his poem, though he was soon permitted a return to court, perhaps again undermining the authority of the king and encouraging satires and poetry that could be written against authority with little consequence. In his “anti-monarchical satires“ (p. 38), then Wilmot is enacting the failure of monarchical authority that stems directly from the monarch’s explicit sexuality and promiscuity, a desire that led to the unfulfillment of his desires to control the nation as a respected king. By this very notion, Wilmot deconstructs the authority of the king by the exploitation of the monarch’s own sexual endeavours, lamenting the reputation of the king as the source of his inability to command and positively influence public opinion.

The proliferation of explicitly expressed desire within Restoration poetry, is owed to the apparent freedoms and looser morals of the Restoration Court under Charles II. Coltharp (1997) recognises how Wilmot “populates his poetry with unruly, ungovernable subjects“ (p. 39), here representing the libertine poets who rejected respect for authority, represented by the active women of the poem. Coltharp (1997) continues to argue that this “very autonomy refutes all claims“ by the king, by the court, “to dominate the world“ (p. 39). No matter how much Charles II desires to control and respect, his social actions undermine the fulfilment of this desire – just as the men of the poem cannot enact their desires due to physical shortcomings. By this, the critic seeks to position the allegorical nature of Wilmot’s poetry as a political commentary, as the loose morals of the court and the king, at first a promise of freedom, came to doom their authority and undermine the respect they wished to command.

The Restoration period, notorious for its loose morals, sexual exploits, and increased freedoms under Charles II, encouraged a proliferation of satires, political commentaries, and poetry. Restoration poets articulated the morals of the court, and the prominence of sexual impotence to the literature of the period enacts the tension between a celebration for the increased freedoms following strict Puritan rule, and a concern for the crumbling respect, authority, and political promise of the monarchy.

Bibliographical References

Bliss, R. (2005). Restoration England: Politics and Government 1660-1688. Routledge Press.

Chernaik, W. (1995). Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature. Cambridge University Press.

Coltharp, D. (1997). Rivall fopps, rambling rakes, wild women: Homosocial desire and courtly crisis in Rocgester’s poetry. The Eighteenth Century, 38(1), 23–42.

Fabricant, C. (1974). Rochester’s World of Imperfect Enjoyment. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 73(3), 338–350.

Harris, T. (2006). Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685. Penguin.

Harris, T. (2015). Sexual and religious libertinism in Restoration England. In M. C. Augustine & S. N. Zwicker (Eds.), Lord Rochester in the Restoration World (pp. 162–183). chapter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacLean, G. (1995). Culture and Society in the Stuart Restoration: Literature, Drama, History. Cambridge University Press.

Unknown. (1671). “A Ballad Called the Haymarket Hectors“. Charles II, George Pines, and Mr. Dorimant: The Politics of Sexual Power in Restoration England, Harold Weber, 1990.

Weber, H. (1990). Charles II, George Pines, and Mr. Dorimant: The Politics of Sexual Power in Restoration England. Criticism, 32(2), pp. 193-219. JSTOR.

Wynhoff, C. (2014). The Potency of Impotence: Political and Social Negotiation in Rochester’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment”. Thinking Gender, University of California, Los Angeles Press.

Wilmot, J. (1697). A Satire on Charles II. The Potency of Impotence: Political and Social Negotiation in Rochester’s The Imperfect Enjoyment, Wynhoff, 2014.

Wilmot, J. (1680). “The Imperfect Enjoyment“. Reading Rochester, St Martins Press, 1995.

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Ella Fincken

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