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.