Built to reproduce the pure landscape of the countryside in the city, the St. James's Park ironically becomes known for its sexual depravity. Narain suggests that London built parks and gardens to bring the pastoral into the city. She quotes Johnson’s argument “that in the eighteenth century, London parks and gardens acquired acute significance as substitutes for an ordered, aestheticized, and fast receding, ultimately unattainable, countryside” (558). The goal was to recreate the serene countryside as a respite from the bustling city. In many ways, the park did serve this purpose. People, during daylight hours, could roam the park in relative peace and take in simple pleasures. However, once night came, the park took on a different role. As Rochester describes in his poem, the park becomes a notorious place for seeking sexual pleasures.
An additional layer of irony comes from the revelation that the land now occupied by St. James's Park was originally a meadow. Henry VIII destroyed actual pastoral land to create his own version of the pastoral (Walford).
This change reminded me of London’s perverting influence, which we have discussed in previous weeks. You can bring the unpolluted rural into London, but it will soon take on the same character as the rest of the city. A strange dichotomy is seen in Rochester’s “A Ramble in St. James’s Park” where we read of the beautiful setting playing host to some decidedly unbeautiful visits. Rochester's lines play with the two sides of the park - the romantic and the depraved - as seen in the first stanza where his picturesque descriptions are punctuated with vile acts:
Poor pensieve lover in this place,
Would frig upon his mother's face;
Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise,
Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies.
Each imitative branch does twine,
In some loved fold of Aretine.
And nightly now beneath their shade,
Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made. (92; emphasis mine)
In his poem, Rochester mimics the beauty of the park hiding the sinful acts by prefacing his vulgar lines with lines describing the attractions of the park. On the surface, the park appears to recreate the countryside in the city, but on a closer reading it has become as corrupt as the rest of London.
A picture of St. James's Park and the surrounding countryside from The Map of Early Modern London.
Narain, Mona. "Libertine Spaces and the Female Body in the Poetry of Rochester and Ned Ward." ELH. 72 (2005): 553-576.
Walford, Edward. "Westminster: St. James's Park." Old and New London: Volume 4. 1878. 47-60. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45182&strquery= Date Accessed: 25 February 2009