John Wilmot, earl of Rochester Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The first complete, unexpurgated edition of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester’s letters appeared in 1980 as The Letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, edited by Jeremy Treglown. It includes more than one hundred very readable letters to his wife, to his mistress, and to his close friend, the courtier Henry Savile. Rochester’s most sustained prose work is the broadside “Alexander Bendo’s Bill,” which satirized mountebanks and compared them to politicians, the quacks of state affairs. One version of this piece appears in Vivian de Sola Pinto’s Enthusiast in Wit: A Portrait of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester 1647-1680 (1962). There is also proof of Rochester’s interest in drama—a scene for Sir Robert Howard’s unfinished play The Conquest of China, and in 1678 a lengthy adaptation of John Fletcher’s tragedy Valentinian, called in manuscript Lucina’s Rape. Rochester did not live to complete the alteration, but in February, 1684, his play was given a magnificent production at the King’s Theatre in London.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Burns, Edward, ed. Reading Rochester. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. A collection of eleven essays on Rochester’s life and poetry. Sections focus on sexual politics, form and intellect, and Rochester and his literary contemporaries.

Combe, Kirk. A Martyr for Sin: Rochester’s Critique of Polity, Sexuality, and Society. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998. Combe offers a way of looking at the poetry of Rochester that does not ignore his politics. Using the theories of Michel Foucault and others, the author analyzes Rochester’s writings within their contemporary civil and cultural contexts.

Fisher, Nicholas, ed. That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Explores the full range and variety of the poet’s work, including his treatment of themes of love and friendship, his influence on later poets and musicians, and his contribution to the Restoration theater.

Goldsworthy, Cephas. The Satyr: An Account of the Life and Work, Death and Salvation of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001. A swashbuckling biography that considers Rochester’s poetry in relation to his life.

Hammond, Paul. Figuring Sex Between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester. New York: Oxford...

(The entire section is 417 words.)