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John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-80)

Life and Works

Thought to be Rochester, by Peter Lely

Born on April Fool’s Day, 1647, he lived to be thirty-three. One misfortune, besides being born into great privilege, was having the equivalent of a war hero for a father who was constitutionally incompatible with the woman he married, Rochester’s mother (Anne St. John). She remained religious for her entire life, surviving her only child by some years. Henry, Viscount Wilmot, was named First Earl of Rochester in 1652, as partial reward for helping the then-Prince Charles escape the New Model Army by hiding in the Boscobel Oak after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651. Upon his father’s death, John assumed the earldom. He attended Wadham College, Oxford, for two years and was awarded the M.A. at the age of fourteen by his uncle, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. No one is certain when he took up poetry, developed his love of reading and study, and began his prodigious episodes of drinking and wenching, or why any of this happened, but some think it occurred during the early years of the Restoration, 1660-66. He was a companion of the king’s, and enjoyed his favor at court, which included many indulgences of bad or inappropriate behavior: drunkenness, debauchery, and the writing of scurrilous and satirical poetry. There are many, many different accounts of Rochester’s misadventures, so there is no need to rehearse them here. The anonymous painting of him now in the National Portrait Gallery epitomizes a certain construction of him: he offers the laurel to a monkey, who is tearing apart a book or journal that he has written. Both ape and man seem indifferent to the proceedings, though the true subject of the piece seems a bit heartbroken as he looks out at us, with an expression that asks, Why am I doing this?


Rochester was no clown, regardless of his self-destructive and unfortunate behavior. Like his father, he proudly served in the military (navy), and posed in his armor in the Lely portrait from the Victoria and Albert Museum. He saw combat in the Second Dutch War at the Battle of Vågen (Norway) on 1-2 August, 1665, during the height of the last great outbreak of plague back in London. The night before the real hostilities began, he made a pact with two of his friends: if one of them were killed, that gentleman would come back from the dead and tell the other two what the afterlife was like. 2013GA4531_2500The next day, one of these two friends was blown apart by a cannonball as he stood next to Rochester, who was obviously traumatized by the event, wearing a good part of his mate’s remains for the rest of the battle. During this time and afterward, and perhaps because he studied Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, he became an advocate of atheism and libertinism, and not just for the license these pseudo-philosophies appear to allow us to enjoy ourselves. He was the subject of at least two plays: Aphra Behn’s The Rover and George Etheredge’s The Man of Mode, both of which are subtly critical of him and his ethos, which he probably appreciated, given his subversive sensibility. He was well known to the important playwrights and poets of the time, such as Wycherley, Etheredge, Dryden, Behn, Tate, Southerne, and Buckingham. He feuded with John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, and most famously with the king’s first real official mistress, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, Lady Castlemaine, a formidable, frightening person whom no one would want to anger without understanding the possible consequences of doing so. He was passionate about the theater, attended frequently, allegedly wrote epilogues, prologues and scenes, and may have acted on occasion. Also, he seems to have loved his wife, the former Elizabeth Mallet, very much, having abducted her before marriage as a kind of prank in which she may have colluded. She, along with his mother, attended his deathbed. It is hard not to be charmed by the line, “Yielding to your fair Bum the Breeches,” in the lyric “To his more than Meritorious Wife,” apparently his recipe for marital harmony. However, his most enduring relationship was with the Restoration actress Elizabeth Barry, whom he may have tutored early in her career. (She played the first Mris. Marwood in Congreve’s The Way of the WorldPortraits of her depict a plain-looking woman, not the sort of trophy-mistress one would expect from someone of his reputation. Many of his letters to her survive.) His farce known as SodomOrthe Quintessence of Debauchery, whose studied attempts at offending one and all is not recommended reading, may nevertheless be admired for its pornographic ingenuity. Some of his lyrics are remarkably obscene, but almost always highly amusing and self-deprecating. He understood the poetic conventions of his own time and of the previous age, in many instances seeming to critique the courtly cavalier ethos as personified by Jonson, Herrick, and Waller, all of whom he admired fervently. Authors as diverse as Behn, Anne Wharton, Marvell, Voltaire, and Hazlitt praise him extravagantly. A most unlikely champion and protector was Alexander Pope, who corrected negative appraisals of Rochester in print, and who wrote a poem, “On His Lying in the Same Bed Which Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Used at Atterbury, a Seat of the Duke of Argyle’s in Oxfordshire, 9 July 1739.”

The Rochester canon is by no means an agreed-upon body of work. For reasons that are still mysterious, he did not collect or try to edit his own poetry in his lifetime, the usual causes given for this not entirely credible: e.g., aristocrats did not care about publication; the obscenity of the verse; Rochester himself was too addled by Signor Gonorrhea or drunkenness to care one way or the other. The attempt to establish this canon, however, has been a fascinating scholarly project over the last half-century that challenges us to ask how and why we attribute works to various poets, and whether we know what we are talking about when we do so. The landmark study, which led to the first true scholarly edition of Rochester (1968), is David M. Vieth’s Attribution in Restoration PoetryA Study of Rochesters “Poems” of 1680 (1963). Poets such as he did not always think of their work as taking a final form, since there could be multiple editions of a given work passed around in manuscript, so-called scribal publication. Two great poems in 1680, “The Disappointment” and “On a Juniper-Tree,” are not Rochester’s at all, but masterworks by Aphra Behn, who claimed them for her own in her collection (1684). The discussion and controversies continue, as do the editions. For some of these, see the links in the spry menu above. If you would rather not negotiate these, here is an easy link from the Luminarium site devoted to his work. One of my favorite poems is “A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover.” Enjoy!

The Libertine (1994 / 2006)

Stephen Jeffreys’ play (1994) was originally performed at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, with John Malkovich in the title role. The film version, directed by Laurence Dunmore (2006), features Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton (Elizabeth Barry), Malkovich (ironically cast as Charles II), and Rosamund Pike (Elizabeth, Lady Rochester). LibertineThe question that both the theatrical production and the screenplay cannot answer is: why? What drove Rochester to dissipate himself so completely so that he became a clownish, useless bore intent on swandiving into the abyss? Apparently, in the spirit of “Upon Nothing,” the answer is: nothing. The series of fragments collected into this story is supposed to speak for itself. And there are many fine moments, some of which serve as the illustration of a method, especially the one in the stagecoach between Rochester and his wife that begins the film. That first scene is, to put it mildly, a doozy.

Gilbert Burnet, Some Passages (1680)

I have always thought that a marvelous film could be made out of the encounter memorialized in this biography of Rochester, with this celebrated churchman (1643-1715) at the Earl’s deathbed as the film opens, the entire middle of the film a flashback of his short but eventful life, and at the end a return to the sickroom, with a twist at the finish. No one knows, of course, how true any of Some Passages actually is, but it would have been in Burnet’s interest to portray himself as a benevolent father-confessor who would preside over the final conversion of such a terrible sinner. Born in Scotland, he earned his M.A. in philosophy by the age of thirteen and doctorate in divinity at eighteen, and eventually became proficient in Dutch, French, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He was even (briefly) holder of the chair in divinity at the University of Glasgow. rochesterbkpltEventually, he came down to London and became a staunch advocate of Whiggery in all its forms. A true-blue Protestant, he engaged in pan-European intellectual controversies, such as the efficacy and morality of the Reformation, about which he published his most celebrated work, a three-volume history of that movement. Oxford was impressed enough with the first volume so that this institution also awarded him a doctorate in divinity, whereby he was generally known as Dr. Burnet, and this is when he was called to the bedside of Rochester. On the accession of James II in 1685, he went into exile and corresponded with William of Orange and Princess Mary, eventually taking up residence at The Hague. He opposed the king on the matter of the Test Act, which angered James enough to make him persona non grata, charge him with high treason, and request his extradition from Holland back to England. The Glorious Revolution, then, was a truly felicitous occasion for Burnet, as he accompanied William to England at that moment, and was given the high honor of preaching his coronation sermon in April, 1689. Soon after, at Eastertide, he was consecrated Bishop of Salisbury, and made chancellor of the Order of the Garter. During the reign of Queen Anne, he fell out of favor, but maintained his living and his wide circle of contacts, as well as the great respect of the wise men and women of England until his death in 1715. Behn’s Pindaric on him suggests that he was motivated more by self-interest than by sound morality, perhaps not an unjust assessment.


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