Wit at War: The Poetry of John Wilmot and the Trauma of War
Abstract

To read Rochester’s poetry as reflecting the trauma of war troubles the dominant narrative of his literary legacy. That the persona of those poems often presents a “fragmented self” and the world described is a chaotic, deeply disordered one are givens. To read these poems in the context of trauma studies can compromise two current truisms about his work: its honesty and its wit. For, if trauma narratives are largely significant for their “slippages,” for what they leave “unexpressed,” Rochester’s work, by contrast, is celebrated for its willingness to name what others refuse to. Rochester’s famed obscenity points to his courage to speak the unspeakable, to say what others can and will not. Rochester’s reliance on wit means his poetry operates according to principles of association rather than the troubling disassociation connected to trauma. Reading Rochester’s poetry as reflecting the trauma of war then complicates its status as poetry that critiques its culture—that names its excesses—rather than poetry which is so compromised by those atrocities as unwittingly to hide them.


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