The Character And Works Of John Wilmot
Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)
From 'The Court Poets' by Charles Whibley — "The Cambridge History Of English Literature"

John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, the one man of undisputed genius among them (the Court Poets), will ever be memorable for the waywardness and complexity of his character, for the vigour and energy of his verse. Few poets have suffered more acutely than he from the flattery of friends or the disdain of enemies. The lofty adulation offered at his youthful shrine was soon turned to a violent malignity, and, in the clash of opinions it is not easy to disengage the truth. He was born in 1647 at Ditchley near Woodstock, the son of the pleasure-loving, wary, ambitious Henry Wilmot who fought for his king, and who, after Worcester, shared the wanderings and hardships of Charles II. Educated 'in grammar learning' at Burford, in Oxfordshire, he entered Wadham college in 1659, was created a master of arts in 1661, at which time he, and none else, was admitted very affectionately into the fraternity, by a kiss on the left cheek from the Chancellor of the University (Clarendon), who then sat in the supreme chair to honour that Assembly. 'A veritable child of the muses' he lisped in numbers. At the age of twelve, he addressed a respectable copy of verses 'to his Sacred Majesty on his Restoration,' and mourned in English and Latin the death of Mary, princess of Orange. Having taken his degree, he travelled in France and Italy, and, at eighteen, returned to England and the court, a finished scholar and an accomplished gentleman. None of the courtiers who thronged Whitehall made so brilliant an appearance as Rochester. All the gifts of nature were his.

"He was a graceful, well-shaped person," says Burnet, "tall and well made. He was exactly well-bred, and what by a modest behaviour natural to him, what by a civility become almost as natural, his conversation was easy and obliging."

He had a talent of intimacy and persuasiveness, which none could resist. Even when his words lacked sincerity, they won the hearts of his hearers.

Il entre dans vos goûts, said a woman, who was not in love with him, dans tous vos sentiments; et tandis qu'il ne dit pas un seul mot de ce qu'il pense, il vous fait croire tout ce qu'il dit.

He gained an easy ascendancy over the court and assumed all the freedoms of a chartered libertine. Once upon a time, as Pepys tells us, he had a difference with Tom Killigrew, whose ear he boxed in the presence of the king.

This barbarous conduct, says the diary, do give such offence to the people here at court, to see how cheap the king makes himself, and the more, for that the king hath not only passed by the thing, and pardoned it to Rochester already, but this very morning the, king did publicly walk up and down, and Rochester I saw with him as free as ever to the king's everlasting shame, to have so idle a rogue his companion.

Not even the people at court could for long harbour a feeling of resentment against the insolence of Rochester. Charles himself was ever ready with a pardon. Though he banished Rochester many times from his presence, he as often recalled him. The truth is that, in Burnet's words, 'the King loved his company for the diversion it afforded him.' Little as Charles appreciated the bitter satires upon 'Old Rowley,' he could not but forgive the satirist.

Though Rochester professed a hatred of the court, it was the only place in which his talents found a proper freedom, and he always returned thither, so long as his health lasted. Nor was it only the licence of his speech that involved him in disgrace. At nineteen, to repair the sole deficiency of his lot, he had seized upon Mrs Mallett, a great beauty and a great fortune, 'by horse and foot men,' put her 'into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her,' and carried her away. The king, who had tried in vain to advance the match, was 'mighty angry,' and sent Rochester to the Tower. But the triste héritière, as Gramont calls her, did not long withstand the fierce suit of her lover, and Rochester, as his letters show, made a reasonably fond husband. Indeed, though after the adventure what most strongly attracted him was the lady's fortune, he honourably repented of his greed, and presently tells her that her money

'shall always be employed for the use of herself and those dependent on her... so long as he can get bread without it.'

Adventure, in truth, was the passion of his life. When he could not seek it in the field of battle, he must find it perforce in the tamer atmosphere of the court. He had a perfect genius for disguise, and delighted to assume the likeness now of a porter now of a beggar. Like the true histrion that he was, he neglected no part of his craft, and entered into the very skin of the character he chose to impersonate.

"Sometimes to follow some mean amours," says Burnet, "which for the vanity of them he affected, at other times merely for diversion, he would go about in odd shapes, in which he acted his part so naturally, that even those who were in the secret and saw him in these shapes could perceive nothing by which he might be discovered."

In one of his banishments, he and the duke of Buckingham, also in disgrace, found an inn to let on the Newmarket road. Entering into the joyous spirit of masquerade, they took the inn, and each in turn played the part of landlord. Less with the purpose of selling their ale than to get what sport they might out of the ramble, they invited the whole countryside to frequent feasts, and with the help of their neighbours, enacted a veritable comedy. At last Rochester became enamoured of a wood-nymph, compared with whom 'Salmacis was not more charming,' and whom he visited in the garb of an old gentlewoman, thus giving the court the matter of not a little gossip, before the king, passing by that road to New market, took him into favour again. But his greatest exploit in this kind was to set himself up in Tower street for a German (or Italian) astrologer, who declared that he had discovered the profoundest secrets of nature and promised infallible remedies for every disease. His success in the city was immediate, and his fame so quickly spread to the other end of the town that the courtiers flocked to hear his eloquence and to profit by his wisdom. So well contrived was his disguise, that his nearest friends did not know him; and, as Hamilton tells us, but for an accident he would have numbered Miss Jennings and Miss Price among his patients. None knew better than he how to beat the drum and to urge the passers-by into his booth. As Alexander Bendo, he put himself high above 'the bastard-race of quacks and cheats.' He was ready to cure the spleen and all the other ills of mankind. Above all, he declared that he had learned in a long sojourn abroad how art assists nature in the preservation of Beauty. Under his treatment women of forty should bear the same countenance as girls of fifteen. There was no miracle of embellishment that he would not undertake.

'I will also preserve and cleanse your teeth,' he boasted, 'white and round as pearls, fastening them that are loose.'

And he did not underrate the benefits which he was ready to confer.

"Now should Galen himself look out of his grave," said he, "and tell me these are baubles below the profession of a physician, I would boldly answer him, that I take more glory in preserving God's image in its unblemished beauty upon one good face, than I should do in patching up all the decay'd carcases in the world."

That is in the proper key of extravagance, and it is not wonderful that courtiers and citizens alike sought out Alexander Bendo at his lodgings in Tower street, next door to the sign of the Black Swan.

Thus it was that he spent the interludes of enforced exclusion from court. Nothing could tame the ardent gaiety of his spirits, or check his boisterous love of life and pleasure. His tireless wit came to the aid of his inclination, and his deep knowledge of literature made him welcome even among the serious. Like Gramont, he sought joy everywhere, and carried it with him into every company. His unwearied curiosity sustained him in the most hazardous adventures and taught him how to make light of the worst misfortunes. Burnet declares that he had conquered his love of drink while upon his travels, and that, falling once more into a society that practised every sort of excess, he was brought back to it again. It is probable that no vast persuasion was necessary. His constant disposition was toward gaiety and mirth, and

"the natural bent of his fancy," to quote Burnet's words, "made him so extravagantly pleasant, that many to be more diverted by that humor, studied to engage him deeper and deeper in intemperance, which at length did so entirely subdue him, that, as he told me, for five years together he was continually drunk."

When Burnet wrote these words, he desired, no doubt, to make the worst of Rochester. The greater the sin was, the greater the conversion. And thus it was that Rochester's vices became legendary, that Rochester himself was chosen as an awful example of demoniacal passion, a kind of bogey to frighten children withal.

Yet far worse than his manifold intemperance, in the eyes of his contemporaries, were his principles of morality and religion. Evelyn found him 'a very profane wit,' and, doubtless, he took a peculiar pleasure in shocking that amiable philosopher. Worse than all, he was 'a perfect Hobbist,' and, upon his Hobbism, his glaring vices seemed but evanescent spots. He freely owned to Burnet, with a smile, let us hope, that though he talked of morality as a fine thing, yet this was only because he thought it a decent way of speaking, and that as they went always in clothes though in their frolics they would have chosen sometimes to have gone naked, if they had not feared the people, so though some of them found it necessary for human life to talk of morality, yet he confessed they cared not for it.

As in prose, so in verse, Rochester delighted to outrage his critics. Dryden charged him with self-sufficiency, and out of his mouth he might have convicted him. Thus writes Rochester in An Epistolary Essay:

Born to myself, I like myself alone;
And must conclude my Judgment good, or none:
For could my Sense be nought, how should I know
Whether another Man's were good or no.
If then I'm happy, what does it advance
Whether to Merit due, or Arrogance?
Oh, but the World will take Offence thereby!
Why then the World shall suffer for it, not I.

But it was not the world which suffered. It was Rochester. Like all men who set out to astonish the citizen, to put the worst possible construction upon his own words and acts, he saw his self-denunciation accepted for simple truth. Even Dr Johnson did not rise superior to the prejudice of Rochester's own contemporaries. He, too, thought that Rochester's intervals of study were 'yet more criminal' than his 'course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality,' and thus proved how long endures the effect of mystification.

As has been said, it is difficult in the clash of opinions to disengage the character of Rochester. Fort impie, fort ordurier dans ses propos et ses écrits— such is Hamilton's judgment.

There has not lived in many Ages (if ever) so extraordinary, and I think I may add so useful a person, as most Englishmen know my Lord to have been, whether we consider the constant good sense, and the agreeable mirth of his ordinary conversation, or the vast reach and compass of his invention—so says Wolseley, his loyal panegyrist.

Somewhere between these two extremes the truth will be found. Rochester was as little 'useful' as he was fort impie, fort ordurier. He was a man, not a monster, a man of genius, moreover, and, in his hours, a man of rare simplicity and candour. A good friend, a kind, if fickle, lover, he has left behind in his letters a better proof of his character than either obloquy or eulogy affords. His correspondence with Henry Savile does equal credit to them both. Rochester's letters are touched with the sadness which underlay his mirth, yet, what spirit is in them, what courage, even when he confesses himself 'almost blind, utterly lame, and scarce within the reasonable hope of ever seeing London again'! As sickness overtakes him, he leans the more heavily on Savile's friendship.

"Harry," he writes, "tis not the least of my Happiness, that I think you love me; but the first of my pretensions is to make it appear, that I faithfully endeavour to deserve it. If there be a real good upon earth, 'tis in the name of Friend, without which all others are fantastical. How few of us are fit stuff to make that thing, we have daily the melancholy experience."

His letters to his wife, moreover, exhibit us a Rochester that has hitherto been obscured from view. Whimsical, humorous, ironic, he appears in them also, but something else than the cynical hunter after pleasure. He shows himself curious concerning the details of household management. He discusses oats and coal, deplores the want of ready cash, which is hard to come by, and hopes his wife excuses him sending no money,

'for till I am well enough,' thus he writes, 'to fetch it myself, they will not give me a farthing, and if I had not pawned my plate I believe I must have starved in my sickness.'

Here, indeed, is an unfamiliar Rochester, in dire straits of poverty, pawning his plate to keep his restless soul within its case, and nearer to the truth, perhaps, than the monster painted in their blackest colours by anxious divines.

Two episodes in Rochester's career have involved him in charges of dishonour, from one of which he cannot emerge with credit. In both, Mulgrave was engaged, and it is easy to believe that the antipathy which separated the two men was innate and profound. When neither of them was of age, Mulgrave, being informed that Rochester had said something malicious of him, sent colonel Aston to call him to account. Rochester proved, even to Mulgrave's satisfaction, that he had not used the words, but Mulgrave thought himself compelled by the mere rumour to prosecute the quarrel. He owned his persistence foolish, and Rochester, as it was his part to choose, elected to fight on horseback. They met at Knightsbridge, and Rochester brought with him not his expected second, but 'an errant life-guards-man, whom nobody knew.' Aston objected to the second as an unsuitable adversary, 'especially considering how well he was mounted.' And, in the end, they agreed to fight on foot. Whereon, Rochester declared that 'he had at first chosen to fight on horseback, because he was so weak with a certain distemper, that he found himself unfit to fight at all any way, much less on foot.' Accordingly, no fight took place, and Mulgrave's second lost no time in spreading a report injurious to Rochester, upon whom henceforth was fostered a reputation for cowardice. The charge is not fully sustained. Rochester, it seems, was too weak to fight a-foot, Mulgrave objected to fight on horseback, being worse mounted. A little ingenuity might have turned the blame on either side, and Mulgrave, by his own confession, was persisting in a quarrel which had no justification. But Rochester, with his customary cynicism, shrugged his shoulders, and replied to the charge of cowardice with a famous couplet:

Merely for safety, after Fame they thirst,
For all men would be cowards if they durst.

The origin of his quarrel with Dryden is by no means creditable to his honour or his generosity.

"He had a particular pique to him,' says Saint-Évremond, 'after his mighty success in the town, either because he was sensible, that he deserved not that applause for his tragedies, which the mad, unthinking audience gave him,... or out of indignation of having any rival in reputation"

Whatever might be the cause of Rochester's malice, its effect was to set up Crowne in opposition to Dryden, a piece of impudence which nothing but Rochester's influence at court could have carried off. And no sooner had Crowne enjoyed his unwarranted success than Rochester withdrew his favour, 'as if he would still be in contradiction with the town, and in that,' says Saint-Évremond with uncontested truth, 'he was generally in the right, for of all audiences in polite Nations, perhaps there is not one which judges so very falsely of the drama.' With this piece of injustice Rochester was not content. If he had been, An Essay on Satire soon gave him, as he thought, another ground of anger. That he should have attributed this piece of weak and violent spite to Dryden speaks ill of his criticism. He might have discerned the hand of Mulgrave in every line. Perhaps he believed them accomplices. At any rate, as Dryden was going home one night from Will's to his lodging, he was waylaid by a pack of ruffians and soundly beaten. There is no doubt that Rochester was guilty of the outrage. His guilt stands confessed in a letter to Savile.

'You write me word,' says he, 'that I am out of favour with a certain poet.... If he fall on me at the Blunt, which is his very good weapon in wit, I will forgive if you please, and leave the repartee to Black Will, with a Cudgel.'

The punishment he meted out to Mulgrave was better deserved, and delivered in verse. As for Dryden, whose genius, as whose age, should have protected him, he passed by Rochester with a single reference. 'An author of your own quality, whose ashes I will not disturb,' he wrote to Buckhurst, with a magnanimity which, even at this distance of time, it is hard to condone.

At the age of thirty-three, Rochester died, his wild oats sown, and his mind turned to ampler purposes. Though his cynical temper was still unconquered, his wit began 'to frame and fashion itself to public business.' As one of his friends tells us, he was

'informing himself of the Wisdom of our Laws and the excellent Constitution of the English Government, and spoke in the House of Peers with general Approbation.'

That he would ever have grown into a statesman is unlikely. The scandal of his life had destroyed his authority. Besides, he was a poet, to whom politics would ever have seemed a base trade. What he did for the solace of his reputation was to make an edifying end, and to prove a chance of exhortation to two divines. That these worthy men made him out rather worse than he was is probable. Burnet, at any rate, told us something of him by the way and set forth his views with impartiality. So much may not be said of the Rev. Robert Parsons, who merely handed him over, as an inverted hero, to the authors of the cheapbooks.

Such was the life and death of one who set forth his character in his writings with the utmost candour. Though he was never at the pains to gather together his flying sheets, though he is said on his deathbed, one hopes falsely, to have desired the destruction of his poems, it is his poems which still give us the true measure of his genius. Yet, even here, misunderstanding has pursued him. The worst that he wrote has been acclaimed to be the best. Johnson declares that the strongest effort of his muse is his poem entitled Nothing, a piece of ingenuity, unworthy his talent. Still more foolish has been the common assumption that Rochester's poems are unfit to be read. In some few, he reached a height of outspoken cynicism rarely scaled by an English poet. But the most of his works may be studied without fear, and judged upon their very high merits. Tonson's collection contains more than 200 pages, and amply justifies the claim, made for it by Rymer, that it consists 'of such pieces only as may be received in a virtuous court, and not unbecome the Cabinet of the severest Matron.'

It was in satire above all that Rochester excelled. For this kind, he was richly endowed by nature and art. He had studied the ancient models with constancy and understanding. The quenchless vigour of his mind found its best expression in castigating the vices and foibles of humankind, which he knew so well. His daring and malice equalled his vigour, and he attacked Charles II, the Royal Angler, or Nelly, the reigning favourite, with as light a heart as he brought to the demolition of Sir Car Scroop, the purblind knight. He wrote the heroic couplet with a life and freedom that few have excelled, and the most that can be said in his dispraise is that, like the rest of the courtiers, he knew not the use of the file.

'Rochester,' said Andrew Marvell, with the voice not of flattery but of criticism, 'is the only man in England who has the true vein of Satire,'

and Marvell, in speaking of satire, spoke of an art which he himself had practised with success. And that Rochester looked upon satire as an art is evident from the answer, which he gave to Burnet, who objected that revenge and falsehood were its blemishes.

"A man," said he, "could not write with life, unless he were heated with revenge, for to make a satire without resentments, upon the cold notions of philosophy, was as if a man would in cold blood cut men's throats, who had never offended him. And he said, the lies in these libels came often in as ornaments that could not be spared without spoiling the beauty of the poem"

His masterpiece, without doubt, is A Satire Against Mankind. Imitated from Boileau, it bears in every line the impress, of Rochester's mind. The energy of its thought and style separates it sharply from its original, and, if you compare the two works, you may find a clue to the difference between French and English. The one is marked by order, moderation, and good sense. The other moves impetuous like a torrent, and sweeps out of its way the prejudices of all time. In cynical, closely argued contempt of man this satire is unmatched; in expression, it surpasses the most vivid of Rochester's works. The denunciation of reason,

an ignis fatuus of the mind,
Which leaves the light of Nature, Sense, behind,

is a purple passage of English poetry, in which the optimist can take no delight. Its conclusion is the very quintessence of hopelessness.

The misguided follower climbs with pain
Mountains of Whimsies heaped in his own brain;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then old Age, and Experience, hand in hand,
Lead him to Death, and make him understand,
After a Search so painful, and so long,
That all his life he has been in the wrong.

Like many of his contemporaries, Rochester followed Horace in making verse a vehicle of criticism. His 'Allusion to the Tenth Satire of the First Book' may be said to contain his literary preferences. With candour and sound judgment, he characterises the most eminent of his contemporaries. He declines to be 'blindly partial' to Dryden, defends Jonson and Shakespeare against detraction, ridicules the 'tedious scenes' of Crowne, whom he had used as the instrument of his jealousy, and detects a sheer original in Etherege, who returned the compliment by painting him as Dorimant. He finds the right epithets for 'hasty Shadwell' and 'slow Wycherley,' chooses Buckhurst for pointed satire, and extols the 'gentle prevailing art' of Sir Charles Sedley. For the uncritical populace, he expresses his frank contempt.

'I loathe the rabble,' says he, 'tis enough for me if Sedley, Shadwell, Sheppard, Wycherley, Godolphin, Butler, Buckhurst, Buckingham Approve my Sense, I count their Censure Fame.

It is Rochester's added distinction that, almost alone in his age, he wrote lyrics touched with feeling, even with passion. Though, at times, he makes sport of his own inconstancy, though, like the rest, he rimes 'kisses' with 'blisses' and 'heart' with 'smart,' he could yet write

An Age in her Embraces past,
Would seem a Winter's Day;

or, still better, those lines to his mistress, which begin, 'Why dost thou shade thy lovely face,' and which none of his fellows approached. Here, the metre is as far beyond their reach as the emotion:

Thou art my Way: I wander if thou fly.
Thou art my Light: if hid, how blind am I.
Thou art my Life: if thou withdraw'st, I die.

Nor should ever be forgotten that masterpiece of heroic irony The Maimed Debauchee, who, like a brave admiral, crawling to the top of an adjacent hill, beholds the battle maintained, 'when fleets of glasses sail around the board.' You can but say of it, as of much else, that it bears the stamp of Rochester's vigour and sincerity in every line, and that he alone could have written it.