“Signior Dildo” is a poem written most likely by the libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester in 1673. The poem is divided into twenty-three rhyming stanzas, with rhyming couplets. The meter is irregular and the theme of the poem is one of a “satirical lyric” (Vieth 54). The primary subjects of this satire are arguably James, Duke of York and Mary of Modena, who were married in 1673. However, the subject of the poem could also be Wilmot, who was a notorious philanderer: “how lusty a swinder is Signior Dildo” (line 28). Critics have argued that the poem highlights Wilmot’s ethics of virtue (Blincoe 125); yet, the poem instead shows Wilmot as a promoter of female sexual expression through masturbation. The poem also demonstrates Wilmot’s value of debauchery and hedonism in a time of burgeoning libertinism.
Melissa E. Sanchez, in her article Libertinism and Romance in Rochester’s Poetry, states that Signior Dildo is a tool for “female pleasure” (Sanchez, P.1). Sanchez also argues for the “virtue of libertinism,” adhering to a moral standard (Sanchez 1) in Wilmot’s “Signior Dildo.” Yet, Wilmot is unconcerned with issues of virtue, but rather with those of desire in the moment: “but when you his virtuous abilities know,/ you’ll fall down and worship Signior Dildo” (16). The lines, while personifying an object of masturbation, are literal, and Wilmot expects women to seek immediate pleasure rather than virtue. When Wilmot mentions virtue in line 37: “the pattern of virtue, Her Grace of Cleveland,” he compares virtue with a promiscuous woman who is undiscerning in her choice of lovers. Although author Noel Blincoe, in his article Rochester and Virtue, believes that Rochester “has admiration for moral virtue” (124), Wilmot is instead promoting the actions of unchaste women, as a route to the fulfillment of sexual needs.
The Earl of Rochester promoted a loose sexuality through his actions as well: “Rochester amused himself at the flurry among Court ladies by their excitement to the introduction of Italian dildos” (Johnson 179). Thus, Wilmot through his actions is not arguing for virtue or chasteness among ladies of the court, but rather the opposite.
In his writing, Wilmot promotes a laissez-faire attitude towards sexuality and desire: “you ladies all of merry England…pray, did you lately observe in the show/ a noble Italian called Signior Dildo” (1-4). Wilmot is inviting more women to seek sexual pleasure in the absence of lovers, by naming ladies of the court who are familiar with Signior Dildo such as the Lady Suffolk, the Duchess of Cleveland, and Nell Gwyn. Therefore, Wilmot is not arguing for the bounding of sexual passions as stated by Blincoe (127), but instead for sexual experimentation and the gratification of sexual needs.
“Signior Dildo” is a poem in which Wilmot laughs at virtue and instead promotes a sexual loosening of morals where right and wrong in regards to sexuality are irrelevant. Instead, importance is placed on sexual fulfillment in the moment, whether through self-gratification, or in the lusty arms of another. Promiscuous and unchaste himself, Wilmot’s action, and writings offer and encourage readers to seek sexual indiscretions, rather than evaluating sexual right or wrongs.
Blincoe, Noel. “Rochester and Virtue.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles,
Notes, and Reviews 23.2 (2010): 124-30. Print.
Johnson, James W. A profane wit: the life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Rochester:
University of Rochester Press, 2004. 179. Print.
Love, Harold. “A Restoration Lampoon in Transmission and Revision: Rochester’s
“Signior Dildo”.” Studies in Bibliography 46 (1993): 250-62. Print.
Sanchez, Melissa E. “Libertinism and Romance in Rochester’s Poetry.” Eighteen-Century
Studies 38.3 (2005): 441-59. Print.
Vieth, David M. The Complete Poems of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. N.p.: Yale
University, 2002. 54-59. Print.