John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, is the one major poet among the literary courtiers of the Restoration. His standing as a poet still suffers from his reputation as a heartless rake. This view can no longer be taken seriously, since even in those of his love songs that express intense passion and cheerful irresponsibility, there is also a powerful current of fidelity. Rochester’s devotion to his friends was only exceeded by the sincere intensity of thought and sentiment of the lyrics that he addressed to his wife. He embodied the Restoration definition of wit, not only having the capacity for a clever turn of phrase but also possessing a fierce intelligence. In his satires, he becomes a poet of skepticism, morally indignant, drawn to heterodoxy and paradox, but continually searching for the eternal truths promised by religion and for the assurances of love, friendship, and power.
Although his importance must be decided on the basis of a rather small canon (about seventy-five poems, a hundred letters, and an adaptation of a play), he has maintained a vocal group of admirers. The poet Andrew Marvell thought him the “best English satyrist,” Voltaire called him a “Man of Genius with a shining imagination,” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, respected the “almost terrible force” of his “A Satire Against Mankind.” In the twentieth century, Rochester has been described as a traditional Augustan more akin to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope than to John Dryden, a destructive nihilist, and a Christian pilgrim journeying not toward a goal but in search of one. The diversity of these viewpoints is exceeded only by their relative narrowness or exaggeration.
The most plausible contemporary view finds Rochester a mature product of the Restoration; his work illuminates the cultural, literary, and intellectual climate of that period. The 1968 publication of David M. Vieth’s critical edition of the complete poems initiated a Rochester revival. Numerous books and articles and a concordance to the poems followed, and in 1980, a major part of Tennessee Studies in Literature was dedicated to the poet. Rochester remains the finest lyrical poet of the Restoration, the last important Metaphysical poet, and an influential satiric poet who helped make possible the achievements of the Augustan satirists.