Thursday, April 1, 2010

Happy Birthday John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester "The Libertine"

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

Poe Forward's John Wilmot Poetry Page

He was the toast of the Restoration court and a patron of the arts. He married an heiress, Elizabeth Malet, and had many mistresses, including the actress Elizabeth Barry.


Rochester was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. His father, Henry, Viscount 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. 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".[1] 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.

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 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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'.[8] 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",[9] 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,[10] 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."[11]

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.[12]


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.[13] Horace Walpole described him as "a man whom the muses were fond to inspire but ashamed to avow".[14] Daniel Defoe quoted him in Moll Flanders,[15] 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."[16] Goethe quoted A Satyr against Reason and Mankind in English in his Autobiography.[17] William Hazlitt commented that Rochester's "verses cut and sparkle like diamonds"[18] while his "epigrams were the bitterest, the least laboured, and the truest, that ever were written".[19] Referring to Rochester's perspective, Hazlitt wrote that "his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity."[19]

In drama and film

Wilmot served as the model for the witty, amoral nobleman Dorimant in George Etherege's Restoration Comedy The Man of Mode.

The libertine character in Aphra Behn's Restoration comedy The Rover, Willmore, was assumed by contemporaries to have been modeled on John Wilmot.[20]

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.

Rochester's work and background figures centrally in "Last Bus to Woodstock", an episode of the British TV crime drama Inspector Morse.


1.^ 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
2.^ Diary of Samuel Pepys — Complete 1665 N.S. at Project Gutenberg Samuel Pepys, entry for 26 May 1665, Diary of Samuel Pepys May 28, 1665. Accessed May 5, 2007
3.^ Google books Charles Beauclerk, Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King (New York: Grove, 2005), 272. Accessed May 15, 2007
4.^ Johnson, Profane Wit, 182-83
5.^ Johnson, Profane Wit, 250-53
6.^ Timbs, John. Doctors and patients, or, Anecdotes of the Medical World and Curiosities of Medicine. London: Richard Bentley and Son (1876), p.151.
7.^ Alcock, Thomas. "Epistle Dedicatory" to Lord Rochester, _The Famous Pathologist or The Noble Mountebank._" Ed. and introd. Vivian de Sola Pinto. Nottingham: Sisson and Parker Ltd. (1961), pp. 35-38
8.^ Johnson, Profane Wit, 327-43
9.^ Alexander Pope, "First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace", line 108.
10.^ Rochester composed at least 10 versions of Impromptus on Charles II
11.^ 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]
12.^ IN BRIEF: Trump picks new 'Apprentice'; Bawdy 17th century play auctioned
13.^ Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the Yale University
14.^ Horace Walpole, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, 1758.
15.^ Moll Flanders at Project Gutenberg Daniel Defoe, The Life And Misfortunes of Moll Flanders
16.^ 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
17.^ Notes and Queries, No.8, Dec 22, 1849 at Project Gutenberg Goethe quotes Rochester without attribution.
18.^ William Hazlitt, Select British Poets (1824)
19.^ William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets at Project Gutenberg
20.^ Diamond, Elin, "Gestus and Signature in Aphra Behn's The Rover." English Literary History (ELH), Vol. 56, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989): 528.

Further reading

Some Account of the Life and Death of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Gilbert Burnet (Munroe and Francis, 1812)
Greene, Graham (1974). Lord Rochester's Monkey, being the Life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. New York: The Bodley Head. ASIN B000J30NL4.
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.
Lamb, Jeremy (New edition, 2005). So Idle a Rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester. Sutton. pp. 288 pages. ISBN 0-7509-3913-3.
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. pp. 256 pages. ISBN 0-300-09713-1.
Wilmot, John (2002). The Debt to Pleasure. New York: Routledge. pp. 140 pages. ISBN 0-415-94084-2.

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