John Wilmot was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire, England, on April 10, 1647. He was the son of Henry, Viscount Wilmot, a distinguished Cavalier general, who had fought for Charles I and was made earl of Rochester by him. Later his father would effect the escape of Charles II from England to exile in France. Anne St. John, his mother, was the daughter of Sir John St. John, a Wiltshire knight and prominent Puritan.
John Wilmot inherited the earldom of Rochester and Adderbury Manor at the age of eleven. A handsome and precocious youth, he entered Wadham College, Oxford, at thirteen, where he was exposed to the most advanced scientific and philosophical thinking of the time: “the real centre of the English Enlightenment.” His earliest poetry was written there in celebration of Charles II on his return in May, 1660; these few lines reminded the king of his debt to Wilmot’s father. He richly rewarded the son, conferring a master’s degree on the boy, granting him a pension of five hundred pounds a year, and arranging for his Grand Tour complete with a learned Scottish physician and virtuoso as his tutor.
After touring France and Italy, he returned to England in the winter of 1664 and joined the court of Charles II, immediately gaining notoriety for wit, profanity, and debauchery. Soon Rochester became the informal leader of a fashionable group of literary wits known as the Merry Gang, which included the playwright Sir George Etherege; John Sheffield, earl of Mulgrave; Charles Sackville, earl of Dorset; the poet Sir Charles Sedley; and Rochester’s closest friend, Henry Savile.
Influenced by the writings of Thomas Hobbes, Rochester interpreted his materialist philosophy as a defense of sensuality and began an active revolt against both Cavalier romanticism and Puritan idealism. Although critics now agree that his reputation as a frantic rake and libertine was largely undeserved, the early lyrics and songs of this period display a determined hedonism and thorough enjoyment of the high-spirited frolic of the Whitehall Palace. In Royal Charles: Charles...
(The entire section is 853 words.)