By Dave Davis, 2012.

Restoration England’s most famous wit, John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, looked at his world while holding a knife to its throat. Some of his poems were brutal, some were gentle love lyrics. All had simple rhymes and rhythms, and most of them showed his scorn. In his love poems, Rochester wrote with skill, while cheerfully springing surprises.

Reading his poems quickly, they seem to be lewd, sarcastic doggerel that any talented, drunken pen could produce. But looking more closely, a reader finds brilliant poems that are fresh and frank.

Rochester found most of his subject matter in the world he’d been dropped into. Rochester’s poems described an English world that was conceited and foolish: writers, aristocrats, patrons of the arts, all the people who should know better. According to Rochester’s poems, each of them was childish, filled with self-love.

Like William Hogarth, an English artist of slightly later times, Rochester exposed the lewd, selfish, scheming world that flourished all around him. One of his poetic themes: Restoration England’s sexually depraved aristocrats. He turned the knife on himself as well, describing his bisexual lust and his ‘pleasant’ sexual encounters from barracks and streets. Rochester wrote of himself as a ridiculous, trapped man. Many others, he said, saw themselves as privileged, entitled to anything.

Rochester’s scalpel sets him apart from earlier great poets (like John Donne) and Rochester’s own contemporaries. Rochester’s craftsmanship included descriptive pairs of words — for example, ‘narrow jealousy,’ ‘frivolous pretence,’ ‘huffing honesty’ — that were musical and important for putting his unusual philosophy into poems.

John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, was born in 1647 to an aristocratic family in England. However, when his father died in debt, young Rochester was left ‘half-educated’ and completely dependent on King Charles II, the greatest rake of the day. Rochester abducted Elizabeth Mallet, heiress and poet; they married and she controlled his finances. He was never financially secure or independent. They wrote one book of poems. He wrote hundreds of poems and satires. John Wilmot died in 1680, at 33.

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Jeannine  •  Link

John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (commonly referred to as Lord Rochester) was one of Charles II's "Merry Gang" of debauched court companions. He is noted for his profane wit, his outrageous antics/escapdes and his obscene and satirical poetry and plays. He had a sharpness and bite to his words, made all the more stinging due to the fact that he exposed many a truth that most wished never to be made public. During his peak in his career he managed to make his targets cringe at the thought of what he may reveal about them. He reportedly had a "spy" who he sent out to gather "private" information which he could use as the material for his writing.
He is famous for his kidnapping of a young heiress (who he eventually married) and for his love affair with Elizabeth Barry, whom he developed into one of the most famous actresses of the time.
He lived life to the lowest, a depraved alcoholic, full of syphillis and/or other disease and for one last surprise, repented and was welcomed back into the church before his early death at age 33.
The following urls list information about his life and the first one also includes some of his poems (many of which may are extremely sexually explicit, so be forewarned).

Also below are some articles about Rochester's character and essays about his works.

Jeannine  •  Link

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
posted here as some biographical information is presented

Lord Rochester, Everyman’s Poetry, edited by Paddy Lyons

Lord Rochester’s poetry is NOT for the bashful reader and explicitly reflects his lewd debauched lifestyle and biting satiric wit. The poems presented in this collection reflect a sense of unsettling restlessness ranging from jaw dropping comical exaggerations right up to vindictively cruel and downright nasty statements about the people, politics, mistresses/whores and monarchy of the time, all of which he embraced and despised at the same time. Interspersed between the obscenities and somewhat hidden from the initial shocking impact of reading the poems is the underlying talent and genius of the man who chose to live a rather sad and wasted life while at court, all of which he presented without any pretense and without any of the flowery hypocrisy of the time. In spite of the crudeness, it’s impossible to dismiss Rochester. He is often ranked second in his time only to Dryden, but remains unexplored in colleges and universities due to the crass obscenity and vulgarity of his expression. Also of interesting note, although he wrote with a bite and attacked without mercy, he still maintained an appreciation of the good in other people and remained an idealist buried beneath the seedy court of a cynical monarch.
Amazon US

Amazon UK

Lord Rochester’s Monkey by Graham Greene

Greene’s book, which was banned from being published in the 1930’s for fear of prosecution for obscenity follows the life and wildly erotic escapades of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. Rochester by far was among the most notorious of all of Charles Merry Gang of rakes. Along with the wild sexual exploits that he set up for himself and other (including pimping for Charles II), Rochester was a practical joker, a scandalous courtier and a dissolute drunk. His poetry is intertwined into Greene’s presentation of Wilmot and helps to reveal the conflicts that this wildly intelligent and talented wit of a man struggled with throughout his short and debauched life. This book will truly show a side of the Court of Charles II that no other writer besides Rochester would dare to expose with such bite and honesty.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was born April 1, 1647 and died at age 33. As a young man, he basically “had it all” (sans money) including a titled life, a fine position in the Restoration Court, marriage to a witty heiress and great potential in terms of looks, wit, bravery and ability. His short life was the culmination of a downward spiral of alcohol, sex, disease (syphilis) and depravity which began around the time he entered into the court of Charles II and became one of Charles’ “Merry Gang”. Within the gang, he established himself as a controversial and highly obscene satirist, playwright and poet and managed to one by one attack and alienate just about everyone that had ever supported him. His ongoing stream of mistresses/whores, extravagantly outlandish escapades and adventures, banishments from court were consistently over the top. He dug into places and subjects usually hidden behind closed doors and meant to be private and blew the top off of the secrets of Charles II’s Court, comrades, mistresses, etc. He employed has footman as a well positioned spy to provide him with outlandish insider material and gossip upon which he drew to create his works.

Rochester lived two distinctly separate lives. His private life was spent in the country was spent with his wife and 4 beautiful children. The darker Court side, which led to his downfall, consisted of drunkenness, extravagant frolics, raunchy and lewd sex, a highly visible affair with actress Elizabeth Barry, who he developed into a famous stage actress. Rochester’s behavior and satiric nature caused him to see the cynical world of Charles’s court and to basically take any relationship within that court and attack it with a sharp satiric bite. Nobody was safe from his profanity and banishment was a common event in his life. In one wildly famous episode Rochester disguises himself as Dr. Bendo who famously offered out physic and provided “infertility assistance” to poor unsuspecting females. Greene provides and ample and sensationalized view of Rochester’s antics.

Finally at the end of his life, while dying (most likely from syphilis and/or other related disease), he surprises all once again with an even more “outlandish” scandal, when through his relationship with Gilbert Burnet (not a totally accurate or unbiased source of information here) he repents his sins and re-establishes himself with the church. Although not an “easy” read due to the obscenity and profane subject matter, it is interesting in the larger perspective of Charles II’s court, the arts, the artist and the man. It was, however a “lighter” version of the life of Wilmot, a little softer on his flaws and not necessarily as highly documented as the book review that follows (“Profane Wit”).

Amazon US

Amazon UK

A Profane With by James William Johnson

This is a magnificent piece of work by Johnson and peels apart the life of John Wilmot in a surprisingly dignified manner. Johnson extensively presents not only the life of Wilmot but the factors and experiences that seem to have influenced his choices and his dismal life. Johnson’s extensive notations and biography are brilliant in detail and breadth. He adds a level of detail into Wilmot’s life and provides a clear understanding of his struggles and his genius. Johnson does not sensationalize Wilmot and his antics (as does Greene in many ways) but holds him “accountable” for his actions and his omissions in his life. Johnson’s explores the influences of Wilmot’s writing and his behaviors with a finely detailed manner, bringing into consideration his lesser known role as a husband and father as well as his role in the politics and Parliament. He also explores Wilmot’s bi-sexual tendencies and ponders the psychological issues that affected his life choices. Reading this in conjunction with the poetry offers a totally different perspective then reading the poetry alone without having some understanding of the man.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

“Some Account of the Life and Death of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester who dies July 26, 1680” By Gilbert Burnet

Burnet was a contemporary of Rochester and the Lord Bishop of Sarum. He spent time with one of Rochester’s amours as she lay dying of venereal disease (probably something she gave with Rochester) and he helped her come to peace with her spiritual side. Rochester, hearing of his work for his former amour, and dying himself, desired to meet Burnet and perhaps “debate” his issues with Christianity and God. Burnet, seeing the potential for reclaiming this highly lost and wayward soul took up the challenge and visited Rochester during the last few months of his life to discuss religion, Rochester’s past sins, etc. Out of those meeting came a transformation where Rochester recognized his sinful ways and as Burnet claims wished to have his story shared in order to benefit others who have taken the sinful path. Burnet records the history of Rochester very discreetly and doesn’t go into any lurid details as he doesn’t wish to harm any of those family members living or to disgrace others mentioned to him by Rochester. He then presents the arguments and conversations that the two men shared as Rochester’s disease progressed and he finally died. The interesting thing is I was never sure if this book was more about Burnet’s view of his persuasive talents than about Rochester’s truly opening himself to God. Expensive to buy so searching a library may be the best bet.

Used Book Market

jeannine  •  Link

From Grammont's footnotes

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; "a man," as Lord Orford observes, "whom the muses were fond to inspire, and ashamed to avow; and who practised, without the least reserve, that secret which can make verses more read for their defects than for their merits "(Noble Authors, vol. ii. p. 43); was born, according to Burnet and Wood, in the month of April, 1648; but Gladbury,in his almanac for 1695, fixes the date on April 1, 1647, from the information of Lord Rochester himself. His father was Henry, Earl of Rochester, better known by the title of Lord Wilmot. He was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and, in 1665, went to sea with the Earl of Sandwich, and displayed a degree of valour which he never shewed at any period afterwards. Bishop Burnet says, he "was naturally modest, till the court corrupted him. His wit had in it peculiar brightness, to which none could ever arrive. He gave himself up to all sorts of extravagance, and to the wildest frolics that wanton wit could devise. He would have gone about the streets as a beggar, and made love as a porter. He set up a stage as an Italian mountebank. [For a copy of his speech on this occasion, see note 142.] He was for some years always drunk; and was ever doing some mischief. The king loved his company, for the diversion it afforded, better than his person; and there was no love lost between them. He took his revenges in many libels. He found out a footman that knew all the court; and he furnished him with a red coat and a musket, as a sentinel, and kept him all the winter long, every night, at the doors of such ladies as he believed might be in intrigues. In the court, a sentinel is little minded, and is believed to be posted by a captain of the guards to hinder a combat; so this man saw who walked about and visited at forbidden hours. By this means Lord Rochester made many discoveries; and when he was well furnished with materials, he used to retire into the country for a month or two to write libels. Once, being drunk, he intended to give the king a libel he had writ on some ladies, but, by mistake, he gave him one written on himself. He fell into an ill habit of body, and, in set fits of sickness, he had deep remorses, for he was guilty both of much impiety and of great immoralities. But as he recovered, he threw these off, and turned again to his former ill courses. In the last year of his life, I was much with him. and have writ a book of what passed between him and me: I do verily believe, he was then so changed, that, if he had recovered, he would have made good all his resolutions." -- History of his own Times, vol. i. p. 372. On this book, mentioned by the bishop, Dr. Johnson pronounces the following eulogium:-- that it is one "which the critic ought to read for its elegance, the philosopher for its arguments, and the saint for its piety. It were an injury to the reader to offer him an abridgment." -- Life of Lord Rochester. see note 109

Terry F  •  Link

The Libertine (2004)
Directed by Laurence Dunmore
Stephen Jeffreys (play, screenplay)

Tagline: He didn't resist temptation. He pursued it.

Cast overview, first billed only:
Johnny Depp .... Rochester
Samantha Morton .... Elizabeth Barry
John Malkovich .... King Charles II

Plot Outline: The story of John Wilmot (Depp), a.k.a. the Earl of Rochester, a 17th century poet who famously drank and debauched his way to an early grave, only to earn posthumous critical acclaim for his life's work. (view trailer )

jeannine  •  Link

Rochester -as presented by Grammont.
The Memiors of Grammont were actually written by Anthony Hamilton and were considered highly scandalous as they depicted the Court of Charles II in such an unfavorable and seedy light. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature states that in regards to its accuracy "It must be admitted that Hamilton produced a book which is too much a work of art to be entirely trustworthy, and the subject-matter is often arranged for effect, which would scarcely have been allowed if strict accuracy had been the main object."
With that in mind, and for readers who may enjoy an entertaining, although less than sterile biographical representation of the court wit, the link below leads you to chapter IX and then allows you to screen ahead to chapter X.

jeannine  •  Link

More links

Essay on some of his poems

Famous little sayings of Wilmot

Samuel Johnson's Life of John Wilmot

An essay on Wilmot as a "model" for another famous Rochester

His portrait

This site has a movie review and portrait of his wife

Bill  •  Link

John, son of Henry Wilmot, earl of Rochester, held the first rank of the men of wit and pleasure of his age; and he will ever be remembered for the extreme licentiousness of his manners and his writings. He had an elegant person, an easy address, and a quickness of understanding and invention almost peculiar to himself; and, what may now perhaps seem improbable, he had natural modesty. He entered, with blushes in his face, into the fashionable vices of this reign; but he well knew that even these vices would recommend him, and only be considered as so many graces added to his character. His strong and lively parts quickly enabled him to go far beyond other men in his irregularities; and he soon became one of the most daring profligates of his age. He was in a continual state of intoxication for several years together; and the king who admired his sallies of wit and humour, was more delighted with his company when he was drunk, than with any other man's when he was sober. He was ever engaged in some amour or other, and frequently with women of the lowest order, and the vilest prostitutes of the town. He would sometimes, upon these occasions, appear as a beggar, or a porter; and he as well knew how to assume the character, as the dress of either. After he had run the giddy round of his pleasures, his eyes were open to conviction, and he became the Christian and the penitent. His repentance began with remorse and horror, but ended with hope and consolation.
---A Biographical History of England. J. Granger, 1779.

Bill  •  Link

ROCHESTER, (John, Earl of) a witty profligate poet in the reign of Charles II. was born in 1648. He was very perfect in the Latin language, of which he was extremely fond; and, if we believe Andrew Marvel, he was the only man in England who had a true vein of satire. He led such a life of drunkenness and gross sensuality, as to wear out his constitution before he had attained his thirty-fourth year. Mr. Walpole calls him "a man whom the Muses were fond to inspire, and ashamed to avow." In his last illness he grew serious, and though he had been an avowed infidel all his life, the perusal of the 53d chapter of Isaiah, converted him to Christianity, and he died perfectly resigned, and full of faith and penitence, in 1680.
---Eccentric biography. 1801.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.




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