|John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester|
Portrait of Wilmot from the National Portrait Gallery
|Born||1 April 1647
Ditchley, Oxfordshire, England
|Died||26 July 1680 (aged 33)
Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England
|Occupation||Writer of satirical and bawdy poetry.|
Rochester was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. His father, Henry, Viscount Wilmot, a hard-drinking Royalist from Anglo-Irish stock, had been created Earl of Rochester in 1652 for military services to Charles II during his exile under the Commonwealth; he died abroad in 1658, two years before the restoration of the monarchy in England. His mother, Anne St. John, was a Royalist by descent and a staunch Anglican.
At the age of twelve, Rochester matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, and there, it is said, he "grew debauched". At fourteen he was awarded the degree of M.A. by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, who was Chancellor to the University and Rochester's uncle. After carrying out a Grand Tour of France and Italy, Rochester returned to London, where he graced the Restoration court. Later, his courage in a sea-battle against the Dutch made him a hero.
Thence to my Lady Sandwich's, where, to my shame, I had not been a great while before. Here, upon my telling her a story of my Lord Rochester's running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoke to the lady often, but with no successe [sic]) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower.
Rochester's life was divided between domesticity in the country and a riotous existence at court, where he was renowned for drunkenness, vivacious conversation, and "extravagant frolics" as part of the Merry Gang (as Andrew Marvell called them). The Merry Gang flourished for about 15 years after 1665 and included Henry Jermyn; Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset; John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave; Henry Killigrew; Sir Charles Sedley; the playwrights William Wycherley and George Etherege; and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Much of Rochester's poetry suggests that he was bisexual.
Rochester was fascinated by the theatre and was the model for the witty, poetry-reciting rake Dorimant in George Etherege's The Man of Mode (1676). According to an often repeated anecdote, his coaching of his mistress Elizabeth Barry began her career as the greatest actress of the Restoration stage.
In 1674, Rochester wrote a satire on Charles II (variously known simply as "Satyr" and by its first line, "In the Isle of Britain"), which criticised the King for being obsessed with sex at the expense of his kingdom. Charles reacted by briefly exiling Rochester from the court. During his brief exile, Rochester appears to have spent time at his estate in Adderbury and perhaps also posing as a merchant in London's old city. He then returned to his seat in the House of Lords after an absence of about seven weeks.
Rochester fell into disfavor again in 1676. During a late-night scuffle with the night watch — a scuffle probably provoked by Rochester himself — one of Rochester's companions was killed by a pike-thrust. Rochester was reported to have fled the scene.
Following this incident, Rochester briefly went underground, impersonating a quack physician, "Doctor Bendo." Under this persona, he claimed skill in treating "barrenness," i.e. infertility, and other gynecological disorders. Gilbert Burnet wryly noted that Rochester's practice was "not without success," implying his intercession of himself as surreptitious sperm donor. On occasion, Rochester also assumed the role of the grave and matronly Mrs. Bendo, presumably so that he could inspect young women privately without arousing their suspicions.
By the age of 33, Rochester was dying, presumably from syphilis, gonorrhea, other venereal diseases, as well as the effects of alcoholism. His mother had him attended in his final weeks by her religious associates, particularly Gilbert Burnet, who later became the Bishop of Salisbury. A deathbed renunciation of atheism was published and promulgated as the conversion of a prodigal. This became legendary, reappearing in numerous pious tracts over the next two centuries. Because the first published account of this story appears in Burnet's own writings, some have disputed its accuracy, suggesting that he shaped the account to enhance his own reputation. However, other sources, including documents signed by Rochester, confirm that in his final months his thoughts turned towards religion and the afterlife. In the early morning of 26 July, 1680, Rochester died 'without a shudder or a sound'. Rochester was later buried at Spelsbury Church in Spelsbury, Oxfordshire.
Because his interest in poetry was not professional, Rochester's poetic work varies widely in form, genre, and content. He was part of a "mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease", who continued to produce their poetry in manuscripts, rather than in publication. As a consequence, some of Rochester's work deals with topical concerns, such as satires of courtly affairs in libels, to parodies of the styles of his contemporaries, such as Sir Charles Scroope. He is also notable for his impromptus, one of which is a teasing epigram of King Charles II:
To which Charles is reputed to have replied:
His poetry displays a wide range of learning, and a wide range of influences. These included imitations of Malherbe, Ronsard, and Boileau. Rochester also translated or adapted from classical authors such as Petronius, Lucretius, Ovid, Anacreon, Horace, and Seneca.
Rochester's writings were at once admired and infamous. A Satyr Against Mankind (1675), one of the few poems he published (in a broadside in 1679) is a scathing denunciation of rationalism and optimism that contrasts human perfidy with animal wisdom.
The majority of his poetry was not published under his name until after his death. Because most of his poems circulated only in manuscript form during his lifetime, it is likely that much of his writing does not survive. Burnet claimed that Wilmot's conversion experience led him to ask that “all his profane and lewd writings” be burned; it is unclear how much, if any, of Rochester's writing was destroyed.
Rochester was also interested in the theatre. In addition to an interest in the actresses, he wrote an adaptation of Fletcher's Valentinian (1685), a scene for Sir Robert Howard's The Conquest of China, a prologue to Elkanah Settle's The Empress of Morocco (1673), and epilogues to Sir Francis Fane's Love in the Dark (1675), Charles Davenant's Circe, a Tragedy (1677).
The best-known dramatic work attributed to Rochester, Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, has never been successfully proven to be written by him. However, supposed posthumous printings of Sodom gave rise to prosecutions for obscenity, and were destroyed. On 16 December 2004 one of the few surviving copies of Sodom was sold by Sotheby's for £45,600.
Rochester has not lacked distinguished admirers. His contemporary Aphra Behn lauded him in verse and also based several rakish characters in her plays on Rochester. Anne Wharton wrote an elegy marking Rochester's death, which itself came to be praised by contemporary poets. Horace Walpole described him as "a man whom the muses were fond to inspire but ashamed to avow". Daniel Defoe quoted him in Moll Flanders, and discussed Rochester in other works. Tennyson would recite from him with fervour. Voltaire, who spoke of Rochester as "the man of genius, the great poet", admired Rochester's satire for "energy and fire" and translated some lines into French to "display the shining imagination his lordship only could boast." Goethe quoted A Satyr against Reason and Mankind in English in his Autobiography. William Hazlitt commented that Rochester's "verses cut and sparkle like diamonds" while his "epigrams were the bitterest, the least laboured, and the truest, that ever were written". Referring to Rochester's perspective, Hazlitt wrote that "his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity."
Two plays have been directly written about Rochester's life. Stephen Jeffreys wrote The Libertine in 1994; it was staged by the Royal Court Theatre. Craig Baxter wrote The Ministry of Pleasure, which was produced at the Latchmere Theatre in London, in 2004.
The film The Libertine, based on Jeffreys's play, was shown at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival and was released in the UK on November 25, 2005. While taking some artistic liberties, it chronicles Rochester's life, with Johnny Depp as Rochester, Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry, John Malkovich as King Charles II, and Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth Malet. Michael Nyman set to music an excerpt of his famous poem, "Signor Dildo" for the film.
Henry Wilmot, 1st Earl of Rochester
|Earl of Rochester
Charles Wilmot, 3rd Earl of Rochester
My Pains at least some Respite shall afford
While I behold the Battles you maintain
When Fleets of Glasses sail about the Board,
From whose Broad-sides Volleys of Wit shall rain.
Is, or is not, the Two great Ends of
And, true or false, the Subject of Debate,
That perfect, or destroy, the vast Designs of Fate.