This week my honors tutorial students read three poems by John Wilmot, earl of Rochester (“Satire against Reason and Mankind,” “Love and Life,” and “The Imperfect Enjoyment”), William Wycherley’s play The Country Wife, and Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment,” making libertinism our theme for the week.
I’ve taught all of these texts fairly frequently in my regular eighteenth-century lit courses. The students in those classes almost always love Rochester’s use of explicit sexual language and frank discussion of sexuality. They are usually able to move beyond the language and sexuality to see something deeper. We can move to Wycherley and Behn to see how Rochester’s contemporaries responded to his poems.
I was a little surprised, therefore, by my HTC students’ general responses to his poetry. Few, if any, expressed any real enthusiasm for his work, and the majority seem to want to dismiss him as simply a misogynist or a pervert. They generally had better things to say about Wycherley’s play and Behn’s poem. And I was definitely pleased that some of them were able to see the comedy of China scene and appreciate Wycherley’s genius. They all seemed to enjoy Behn’s poem, with many of them writing their papers on her this week.
What struck me about this was the fact that these students generally feel more comfortable talking and writing about aesthetics than they do issues of gender and sexuality, which is the reverse of the students in my regular eighteenth-century classes. As long as we’re talking about Behn’s use of classical mythology or religious imagery, they can participate quite effectively, but as soon as I ask them about her (or, heaven forbid, Rochester’s) construction of the female body, they don’t have the experience to do so effectively.
I understand that this is largely a factor of their inexperience in discussing such frank representations of sexuality in the classroom — most of my students in this class are freshmen and sophomores and have not yet had the literary theory course or courses on gender and/or sexuality in literature, all of which would provide them with a critical vocabulary for approaching such works. So, I’m going to have to adjust a bit. This is my first time teaching in the program, so I’ll have to think about how and whether to continue pushing them to deal with issues of gender and sexuality. Next week we’re reading Oroonoko, Fantomina, and The Female Husband, so we won’t be able to escape these issues. But I will perhaps have to reframe the ways in which I talk about these texts.