John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (April 1, 1647?July 26, 1680) was an English libertine, a friend of King Charles II, and the writer of much satirical and bawdy poetry.

He was the toast of the Restoration court and a patron of the arts. He married an heiress, Elizabeth Malet, but had many mistresses, including the actress Elizabeth Barry.
Rochester was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. His mother Anne St. John, Countess of Rochester was a Royalist by descent and a staunch Anglican. His father Henry Wilmot, a hard-drinking Royalist from Anglo-Irish stock, had been named 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.

At age twelve, Rochester matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, and there, it is said, "grew debauched".[1] At fourteen he was conferred with 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.

In 1667 he married Elizabeth Malet, a witty heiress whom he had attempted to abduct two years earlier. Samuel Pepys describes the event in his diary for 28 May 1665:

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.[2]

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[3] (as Andrew Marvell called them). The Merry Gang flourished for about fifteen 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.

In 1674, Rochester wrote A Satyr on Charles II, which criticised the King for being obsessed with sex at the expense of his kingdom. Instead of handing a poem Charles requested, Rochester handed him this libel. Consequently, Rochester fled from the court. In hiding, Rochester set up as "Doctor Bendo", a quack physician skilled in treating 'barrenness' (infertility). His practice was, it is said,[citation needed] 'not without success,' implying his intercession of himself as surreptitious sperm donor. He was involved with the theatre and was the model for the witty, poetry-reciting rake Dorimant in 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.

By the age of thirty-three Rochester was dying, presumably from syphilis, other venereal diseases, and 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. This story is however suspect because the publisher of this "conversion" was Burnet, who had often criticised Rochester during his life and may have used a false conversion to further his own goals. Rochester was later buried at Spelsbury Church in Spelsbury, Oxfordshire.

[edit] Works
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",[4] 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,[5] one of which is a teasing epigram of King Charles II:

God bless our good and gracious king,
Whose promise none relies on;
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
To which Charles is reputed to have replied:

"That is true; for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers."[6]
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. Before his death, Burnet claimed Wilmot experienced a religious conversion recanting his past, and ordering ?all his profane and lewd writings? burned, though this story is highly suspect given the rivalry between the two. It is possible that Burnet used this "conversion" to suppress Wilmot's anti-religious work.

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.[citation needed]

[edit] Criticism and influence
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 in itself became a poem praised by contemporary poets[7]. Horace Walpole described him as "a man whom the muses were fond to inspire but ashamed to avow".[8] Daniel Defoe quoted him in Moll Flanders,[9] and discussed Rochester in other works. Tennyson would recite from him with fervour.[citation needed] 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."[10] Goethe quoted A Satyr against Reason and Mankind in English in his Autobiography.[11] William Hazlitt commented that Rochester's "verses cut and sparkle like diamonds"[12] while his "epigrams were the bitterest, the least laboured, and the truest, that ever were written".[13] Referring to Rochester's perspective, Hazlitt wrote that "his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity."[13]

[edit] In drama and film
The witty amoral nobleman Dorimant in Rochester's friend George Etherege's Restoration Comedy The Man of Mode is based on the Earl.

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.

It has also been suggested[citation needed] that the libertine character in Aphra Behn's The Rover, Willmore, is based on John Wilmot.

[edit] Notes
^ Google books Thomas Hearne, Philip Bliss, and John Buchanan-Brown, The Remains of Thomas Hearne: Reliquiae Hearnianae; Being Extracts from His MS Diaries (London: Fontwell (Sx.) Centaur P., 1966). 122. Accessed May 5, 2007
^ Diary of Samuel Pepys ? Complete 1665 N.S., available at Project Gutenberg. Samuel Pepys, entry for 26 May 1665, Diary of Samuel Pepys May 28, 1665. Accessed May 5, 2007
^ Google books Charles Beauclerk, Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King (New York: Grove, 2005), 272. Accessed May 15, 2007
^ Alexander Pope, "First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace", line 108.
^ Rochester composed at least 10 versions of Impromptus on Charles II
^ A thorough discourse concerning this epigram and the king's response can be found from the 19th to 21st paragraph of the Forward of the "The Tryal of William Penn and William Mead" [1]
^ Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the Yale University
^ Horace Walpole, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, 1758.
^ Moll Flanders, available at Project Gutenberg. Daniel Defoe, The Life And Misfortunes of Moll Flanders
^ Great Books Online, François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694?1778). "Letter XXI?On the Earl of Rochester and Mr. Waller" Letters on the English. The Harvard Classics. 1909?14,, Accessed May 15, 2007
^ Notes and Queries, No.8, Dec 22, 1849, available at Project Gutenberg. Goethe quotes Rochester without attribution.
^ William Hazlitt, Select British Poets (1824)
^ a b William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets, available at Project Gutenberg.

[edit] Further reading
Greene, Graham (1974). Lord Rochester's Monkey, being the Life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. New York: The Bodley Head. ASIN B000J30NL4.
Lamb, Jeremy (New edition, 2005). So Idle a Rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester. Sutton, 288 pages. ISBN 0-7509-3913-3.
Johnson, James William (2004). A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Rochester, NY.: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-170-0.
Wilmot, John (1999). The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Ed. Harold Love.. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198183674.
Wilmot, John; David M. Vieth, ed. (New edition, 2002). The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 256 pages. ISBN 0-300-09713-1.
Wilmot, John (2002). The Debt to Pleasure. New York: Routledge, 140 pages. ISBN 0-415-94084-2.

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