John Earl of Rochester Wilmot Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647-1680

English poet and playwright.

One of the most gifted writers of the Restoration period and a pioneer of English verse satire, Wilmot—more commonly referred to as Rochester—was as famous among his contemporaries for his atheism and the pornographic tone of his poetry as he was for his skilled verse technique. His work was praised by many, even as it was condemned for its lewd content—the poet Andrew Marvell claimed that Rochester “was the only man in England that had the true veine of satyre.” One of the youngest and most handsome of Charles II's courtiers, Rochester was a favorite of the king; nevertheless, his propensity for drinking, brawling, and lasciviousness led to several banishments from court. So infamous was his behavior that it is believed that Rochester was the inspiration for the archetypal rake of the Restoration comedy of manners, Dorimant in George Etherege's 1676 comedy The Man of Mode. Rochester's reported deathbed conversion from atheism at age thirty-three also became the subject of legend, and for many years Rochester was celebrated in religious literature as an example of a reformed libertine. At the same time, his works were long neglected by critics due to their unorthodox views and sexual themes. In the twentieth century, however, Rochester's works began to receive more attention from scholars, and today they are widely praised for their wit, imagination, liveliness, and readability. No longer is his poetry dismissed because of its supposed obscenity, anti-rationalism, and nihilism; rather, these aspects are seen as centrally important to his unique brand of satire.

Biographical Information

Rochester was born John Wilmot in Oxfordshire on 1 April, 1647. His mother, Anne, was a parliamentarian, and his father, Henry, was a royalist who in 1652 was named the first Earl of Rochester for his military service to Charles II during the king's exile. Henry Wilmot died while serving in Holland in 1658, two years before the restoration of the monarchy in England. His son succeeded to his earldom, becoming the second Earl of Rochester. Rochester's early education took place at home, and he was subsequently sent to Burford Grammar school, where he studied the Latin authors. At the age of twelve he began studies at Oxford—where he is said to have begun drinking heavily and writing poetry—and at fourteen he earned his Master of Arts degree. He then began touring the Continent, and upon his return entered the court of Charles II. In 1665, recognizing that her son's career as a courtier would require more money than the family possessed, Rochester's mother attempted to arrange a marriage with the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Malet. When negotiations for the match were not progressing quickly enough, Rochester had Malet abducted, an act for which he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a month. After his release he was sent to Holland on a military exercise, and upon his return the king named him Gentleman of the Bedchamber, a position that carried with it a small stipend. In 1666 Rochester went abroad again in service of the king, and this time his courage in a sea-battle against the Dutch made him a hero.

After his marriage to Malet in 1667, Rochester's career at court gained momentum, although he was involved in a number of scandals, which earned him a reputation for drunkenness, vivacious conversation, and “extravagant frolics.” One story that circulated at court told of an incident in which his clothes were stolen by a prostitute; another held that he had assaulted someone in the presence of the king (but was not reprimanded by the monarch). Reportedly, he was also involved in a number of fights and was challenged to several duels. In 1668 Rochester's wife gave birth to a daughter, after which she moved to her own house at Enmore. The couple eventually had three more children together. Elizabeth's family had been careful not to entrust her money to him, and for the rest of his life Rochester was continually in debt due to his lavish spending and gambling.

In 1671 Rochester was banished from the court for composing a lampoon of the king's mistress. By this time Rochester's poems had appeared in a number of publications, in some cases without his knowledge. After a year in disgrace—some weeks of which he spent disguised as an Italian doctor, Dr. Bendo, and maintained a successful, if spurious, medical practice—he was returned to the king's favor, although by all accounts he did not curb his behavior. Around 1675 Rochester began an affair with the actress Elizabeth Barry, whom it is said he coached to become the greatest actress of the Restoration stage. In addition to composing poetry that appeared in various collections and broadsides, Rochester was also writing for the stage, constructing original works as well as scenes for plays by other dramatists, including Elkanah Settle and Francis Fane. His health steadily declined—it is assumed he was suffering from syphilis—and in June of 1680, at age thirty-three, he was confined to bed, where he was to die a month later. His mother had him attended by her religious associates, notably the Anglican rationalist divine Gilbert Burnet, to whom Rochester renounced his atheism. This deathbed confession and conversion became legendary, and was promulgated in religious tracts over the next two centuries.

Major Works

During Rochester's lifetime, his songs and poems were circulated mainly in anonymous broadsides and collections of miscellaneous poems; most of his work was not published under his name until after his death. Almost immediately after his death in 1680 there appeared a collection of Rochester's works entitled Poems on Several Occasions By the Right Honourable The E. of R———. Other similar editions were released throughout the 1680s and into the 1690s, some stripped of their more sexually explicit content. Rochester's adaptation of John Fletcher's play Valentinian, about the power of a monarch who rapes a young woman, was also published shortly after his death. Printings of the play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (published in 1957), which is sometimes attributed to him, gave rise to charges of obscenity, and were destroyed. Collections of Rochester's works continued to be produced in the eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century interest in his work had diminished.

Modern critics generally agree that Rochester's most important works are his verse satires, notably A Satire Against Mankind (1679; sometimes referred to as Satire Against Reason and Mankind), Letter from Artemisia in the Towne to Chloe in the Country, (1679; commonly referred to as Artemisia to Chloe), “Tunbridge Wells,” “Timon,” and “An Allusion to Horace.” In Satire Against Mankind, Rochester's commentary on the human condition, the speaker attacks the pride, vanity, folly, and treachery of human beings. Artemisia and Chloe, regarded by many critics as Rochester's masterpiece, is an epistolary poem; addressed from one woman to another, it presents a satirical look at social attitudes and the nature of love. Another masterwork is Upon Nothing (1679), a mock-philosophical poem that conducts an ironic encomium on nothingness to explore the Christian creation, the power of the human intellect, and Rochester's own philosophy of nihilism. Rochester also wrote many shorter poems, the best of which are thought to be “The Maimed Debauchee,” “The Fall,” “Absent From Thee,” “The Mistress,” “Love and Life,” “Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover,” “A Ramble in St. James's Park,” and “The Imperfect Enjoyment.” Ostensibly, many of these are love poems, but they typically focus more on sexual matters than the traditional concerns of romantic verse. Critics have noted that while satirizing social mores in many of these poems Rochester also presents unusually favorable portraits of women, depicts sexual frustration, and sometimes makes allusions to homoerotic desire. Because of their explicit nature, readers over the centuries have often judged them pornographic. Most critics today, however, maintain that Rochester's obscenity in these works is integral to his satire, as he violates social convention and forces readers to look at the basest aspects of themselves. Of his prose works, critics have examined with interest Rochester's hundred or so surviving letters and the advertising pamphlet he produced while posing as Dr. Bendo, which include elements of his trademark satire.

Critical Reception

Throughout the years, Rochester's work has been widely praised for its skillful satire while at the same time condemned for its lewd and pornographic imagery. His contemporaries were divided in their opinion of his works—Marvell is said to have admired his work, but the poet John Dryden was critical of Rochester's lack of discipline. Although when his poems were first collected and published in 1680 they attracted a wide readership, many commentators dismissed his work, assuming that no one of Rochester's low morals could write great poetry. In the eighteenth century he was admired by Daniel Defoe but considered a dilettante by Alexander Pope; others, including Samuel Johnson, admired his skill while condemning his obscenity. The famed book collector and author Samuel Pepys reportedly kept his copy of Poems on Several Occasions hidden in a locked desk drawer, considering it “unfit to mix with [his] other books” and said of Rochester: “he is past writing any more so bad in one sense, so I despair of any man surviving him to write so good in another.” By the nineteenth century Rochester's work had fallen almost completely out of critical discourse and public readership, although he was admired by Alfred Tennyson, Voltaire, and William Hazlitt. Since the twentieth century Rochester criticism has come into its own, and scholars have begun to reassess his poetry, especially his satirical work. Critics such as Thomas H. Fujimura and C. F. Main have focused on the satirical method of A Satire Against Mankind. Fujimura has seen the satire as divided into two parts, the first dealing with reason and the second concerning the human condition. Main has argued that it is a classical verse satire. Brean Hammond and Paulina Kewes have examined the work's influence on Restoration drama, especially focusing on libertine debates played out on the Restoration stage. David Sheehan has examined Artemisia to Chloe, noting especially the protagonist's ironic worldview, while Gillian Manning has noted Rochester's favorable portrayal of the female condition. Howard D. Weinbrot has maintained that while Artemisia to Chloe is an example of Rochester's great satiric talent, “An Allusion to Horace” shows a lack of depth. Pat Rogers, however, has asserted that contextual differences between the latter work and its Horatian model require that it be evaluated on its own merits rather than in comparison to Horace. Critics such as K. E. Robinson, Tony Barley, and David Quentin have focused closely on the ironic nature of Upon Nothing, often noting the religious implications of the work. Many critics, such as Howard Erskine-Hill, Anne Righter, and Barbara Everett have explored how Rochester's works reflect his cultural background, while Ronald Paulson, Reba Wilcoxon, and Helen Wilcox have considered the questions of Rochester's use of obscenity and sexual imagery. Modern critics are drawn to Rochester's work for its accessibility, its wittiness, its pioneering use of satire, its sympathetic portrayal of women, its allusions to classical sources, and its use of diverse and interesting voices. The current view of Rochester is that of a gifted satirist and libertine, and his writing now overshadows his reputation as the most notable pornographer and heretic of his day.