John Earl of Rochester Wilmot Essay - Critical Essays

Wilmot, John Earl of Rochester


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.

Principal Works

“The Second Prologue at Court,” [in The Empress of Morocco by Elkanah Settle] (poetry) 1673

“The Epilogue” [in Love in the Dark, or The Man of Bus'ness by Francis Fane] (poetry) 1675

Letter from Artemisia in the Towne to Chloe in the Country (poetry) 1679

A Satyr Against Mankind [also known as A Satire Against Reason and Mankind] (poetry) 1679

Upon Nothing, a Poem (poetry) 1679

A Very Heroical Epistle from My Lord All-Pride to Dol-Common (poetry) 1679

A Letter To Dr. Burnet, From the right Honourable the Earl of Rochester, As he lay on His Death-Bed, At...

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Thomas H. Fujimura (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Fujimura, Thomas H. “Rochester's ‘Satyr Against Mankind’: An Analysis.” Studies in Philology 55 (October, 1958): 576-90.

[In the essay below, Fujimura argues that A Satire Against Mankind is divided into two parts, that the first, which deals with epistemology, favors sensory-based “right reason” over speculation, and that the second part, which deals with moral satire, emphasizes the baseness and fear-driven nature of human conduct.]

The Earl of Rochester's Satyr Against Mankind is generally regarded as a powerful satire and an intimate revelation of a striking personality; but beyond this, there is little unanimity of...

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C. F. Main (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Main, C. F. “The Right Vein of Rochester's Satyr.” In Essays in Literary History, Presented to J. Milton French, edited by Rudolf Kirk and C. F. Main, pp. 93-112. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960.

[In the essay which follows, Main seeks to uncover the “true vein” of Rochester's A Satire Against Mankind and argues that the work is a formal classical verse satire, as it contains typical elements of such a work, including the arraignment of one vice and commendation of its opposite virtue; a two-part structure; a single theme; the use of an unpleasant, satirical person; and a retraction at the end of the poem.]

John Aubrey...

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Howard Erskine-Hill (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Erskine-Hill, Howard. “Rochester: Augustan or Explorer.” In Renaissance and Modern Essays Presented to Vivian de Sola Pinto in Celebration of his Seventieth Birthday, edited by G. R. Hibbard, pp. 51-64. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

[In the following essay, Erskine-Hill considers whether Rochester should be a viewed as an explorer/adventurer—one who lacks a stable pattern of any but the most elementary values—or as an “Augustan,” like John Dryden and Alexander Pope, who is confident in a Christian-classical world-view, and concludes he is most clearly the former.]


Rochester, the man and his work, is a major...

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Anne Righter (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Righter, Anne. “John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.” Proceedings of the Royal British Academy 53 (1967): 42-69.

[In this essay, Righter interprets Rochester's poetry in terms of the roles he played in real life, nothing that Rochester mythologized himself, used a variety of voices in his poems, and freely imitated other literary styles.]

In the second act of Jonson's Volpone, the Fox disguised as a mountebank harangues a crowd of Venetians beneath Celia's window. His aim is quite straightforward. By pretending to be Scoto of Mantua, the possessor of a marvellous elixir, he hopes to obtain a glimpse of Corvino's young and jealously guarded wife. Volpone's...

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Charles A. Knight (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Knight, Charles A. “The Paradox of Reason: Argument in Rochester's ‘Satyr Against Mankind.’” Modern Language Review 65, no.2 (April, 1970): 254–60.

[In the essay below, Knight argues against previous critics' contentions that A Satire Against Mankind should be seen in terms of Rochester's interest in seventeenth-century materialism and his eventual conversion, and maintains that the poem is more complex and playful than previously supposed, which is evident from Rochester's handling of his argumentative method and his paradoxical treatment of reason.]

One of the most apparently pessimistic elements of Rochester's Satyr against Mankind is...

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Kristoffer F. Paulson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Paulson, Kristoffer F. “Pun Intended: Rochester's ‘Upon Nothing.’” English Language Notes 9 no. 2 (December, 1971): 118-21.

[In the following essay, Paulson charges that most critics have treated Upon Nothing with too great seriousness, arguing that one needs to understand the bawdy pun on “what” in the second stanza to appreciate its wit and tone of exuberant irreverence.]

Critics of the satire Upon Nothing, written by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, agree that it is a paradoxical and witty poem, a profound satire based on skeptical philosophy, and a parody of the creation myth found in the first chapter of Genesis.1 It...

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Howard D. Weinbrot (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Weinbrot, Howard D. “The Swelling of the Volume: The Apocalyptic Satire of Rochester's Letter from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country.Studies in the Literary Imagination 5, no. 2 (October, 1972): 19-37.

[In this essay, Weinbrot claims that Artemisia to Chloe demonstrates Rochester's breadth of satiric talent, especially his adept use of the most pessimistic or “apocalyptic” form of contemporary satire, as the work presents the degeneration of the chief character Artemisia from a worthy voice to an agent for the propagation of infamy.]

Modern revaluation of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature has helped Rochester's...

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Ronald Paulson (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Paulson, Ronald. “Rochester: The Body Politic and the Body Private.” In The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams, pp. 103-21. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Paulson claims that obscenity, which is at the center of Rochester's best poems, is used as a analogy for private life.]

A man could not write with life, unless he were heated by Revenge; for to make a Satyre without Resentments, upon the cold Notions of Phylosophy, was as if a man would in cold blood, cut men's throats who had never...

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Howard D. Weinbrot (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Weinbrot, Howard D. “‘An Allusion to Horace’: Rochester's Imitative Mode.” Studies in Philology 69, no. 3 (July, 1972): 348-68.

[In the essay which follows, Weinbrot contends that “An Allusion to Horace” is unsatisfying because it lacks complexity and depth of the Horatian satire to which it alludes, and states that the main reason for this lack of depth is that the creative strengths of Imitation as a genre are not yet clear in Rochester's work.]

In recent years students of Restoration and eighteenth-century satire have learned a new respect for the variety and sophistication of the Augustan Imitation.1 No longer do we praise the modern...

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Reba Wilcoxon (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Wilcoxon, Reba. “Pornography, Obscenity, and Rochester's ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment.’” Studies in English Literature 15, No. 3 (Summer, 1975): 375-90.

[In the following essay, Wilcoxon claims that Rochester's poem “The Imperfect Enjoyment” is not pornographic because it satisfies three aesthetic criteria: it uses complex linguistic devices to achieve psychic distancing; it is linked to a classical traditional of “imperfect enjoyment” poems; and it explores not only sexual but emotional, psychological, and ethical relationships between human beings.]

In the right-hand drawer of his writing desk, where he normally kept his flutes and music books,...

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K. E. Robinson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Robinson, K. E. “Rochester's Dilemma.” Durham University Journal 40 (June, 1979): 223–31.

[In the essay below, Robinson discusses the oppositions in Rochester's poetry, noting, for example, that A Satire Against Mankind starts out advocating appetitive values and ends by espousing more traditional ideas, and that Upon Nothing can be seen as a struggle between reason and intuition.]

Dr. Johnson once remarked to Topham Beauclerk (great-grandson of Charles II and Nell Gwynne): ‘Thy body is all vice, and thy mind all virtue’.1 He might equally well have been talking of that well-known associate of Beauclerk's great-grandfather,...

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David Sheehan (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Sheehan, David “The Ironist in Rochester's A Letter from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country.Tennessee Studies in Literature 25 (1980): 72-83.

[In this essay, Sheehan argues that previous interpretations of Artemisia and Chloe failed to pay sufficient attention to the main character's most distinguishing characteristic—her ironic outlook on the world.]

Critics are presently unanimous in regarding A Letter from Artemisia in the Town to Chloe in the Country as perhaps Rochester's masterpiece, but there is no such unanimity about how to interpret the poem's central character, Artemisia herself. Some critics offer an...

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Barbara Everett (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Everett, Barbara. “The Sense of Nothing.” In Spirit of Wit: Reconsiderations of Rochester, edited by Jeremy Treglown, pp. 1-41. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982.

[In the following essay, Everett examines Rochester's work in the context of Restoration England and the Court of King Charles II, discussing the poet's need to follow fashion and the way his poems point to a void beneath a smooth social surface.]

Rochester's general character as a poet is evident to any reader. He is a realist, his world bounded by the limits of King Charles II's court and the London that lay immediately beyond. If this makes his field seem narrow, then so it is—compared at any...

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Pat Rogers (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Rogers, Pat. “‘An Allusion to Horace.’” In Spirit of Wit: Reconsiderations of Rochester, edited by Jeremy Treglown, pp. 166-76. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982.

[In this essay, Rogers provides a detailed analysis of “An Allusion to Horace” to show that Rochester's poem is written in a different cultural, linguistic, and critical context than the Horatian satire on which is depends, and argues that the work should be assessed as a seventeenth-century English poem and not compared too strictly with its first-century Latin inspiration.]

The poem based on Horace's satire I. 10 has had its share of attention in recent years. It slithers in and out of the...

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Helen Wilcox (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Wilcox, Helen. “Gender and Artfulness in Rochester's ‘Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover.’” In Reading Rochester, edited by Edward Burns, pp. 6-20. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1995.

[In the essay below, Wilcox discusses the challenges of interpreting the highly sexual lyric “Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover” in a contemporary academic setting, and notes that the poem raises issues of voice, gender experience, wit, art, and compassion.]

As to the Work itself, the very Name of Rochester is a sufficient Passport wherever English is spoken or understood: And we doubt not but it will give the...

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Stephen Clark (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Clark, Stephen. “‘Something Genrous in Meer Lust’?: Rochester and Misogyny.” In Reading Rochester, edited by Edward Burns, pp. 21-41. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1995.

[In the essay that follows, Clark points out that female readers and critics have been surprisingly uncritical of the misogynistic elements in Rochester's poetry, concluding there must be a quality in his poetry that elicits this response. Clark seeks to discern this quality by assessing the degree of “progressivism” in his libertinism, analyzing his plaintiveness and vulnerability, and exploring the paradoxes of the failure of the body in his poetry.]

Given Rochester's...

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Tony Barley (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Barley, Tony. “‘Upon Nothing’: Rochester and the Fear of Non-entity.” In Reading Rochester, edited by Edward Burns, pp. 98-113. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1995.

[In this essay, Barley explores Rochester's treatment of “nothing” and finds that even as he appears to be advocating non-entity the poet is anxious to distance and distinguish himself from it.]

Because of its knowing exhibitionism, because of its flair, because of its mock-solemn pride in its own achievement, Rochester's poem Upon Nothing brushes aside the kind of readerly interrogation invited by similarly impressive metaphysical displays. If Donne's ‘Lecture on...

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David Quentin (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Quentin, David. “The Missing Foot of Upon Nothing and Other Mysteries of Creation.” In That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, edited by Nicholas Fisher, pp. 89-100. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Quentin examines the relationship of form and content in Upon Nothing, considering the question of whether the missing metrical foot at the end of line 42 reveal something about the qualities of nothing discussed in the poem.]

In John Lennard's Poetry Handbook, subtitled ‘A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism’, there is a section intended to bring...

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Gillian Manning (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Manning, Gillian. “Artemiza to Chloe: Rochester's ‘Female’ Epistle.” In That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, edited by Nicholas Fisher, pp. 101-18. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the essay below, Manning points out that in Artemisia and Chloe Rochester presents a favorable picture of the female condition largely because of the subtly argued point of view presented by Artemisa, which is especially effective because to the powerful use of intertextual reference.]

In a virulent, anti-feminist satire of 1691, Robert Gould invokes Rochester, and appropriates lines 26-7 from A Letter from...

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Brean Hammond and Paulina Kewes (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Hammond, Brean and Kewes, Paulina. “A Satyre Against Reason and Mankind from Page to Stage.” In That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, edited by Nicholas Fisher, pp. 133-52. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Hammond and Kewes examine the impact of A Satire Against Mankind upon Restoration dramatists and claims that the poem should be understood in the context of the contemporary theater, especially considering its importance for the libertine debates of the 1670s, which were conducted through the medium of drama.]

Rochester's A Satyre against Reason and Mankind, written in...

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Further Reading


Vieth, David. Rochester Studies, 1925-1982: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984, 174 p.

Annotated bibliography of most important critical works on Rochester from 1925 to 1982; includes an introduction that surveys the trends in Rochester studies since 1680.


Adlard, John, ed., The Debt to Pleasure: John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester in the Eyes of His Contemporaries and in His Own Poetry and Prose. Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 1974, 141 p.

Composite biography of Rochester made up of comments made by his contemporaries as well as his own poetry and prose,...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)