Last reviewed: June 2018
April 10, 1647
Ditchley Manor House, Oxfordshire, England
July 26, 1680
Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England
John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester, produced some of the finest lyrics and satires in English literature. He was born during the English Civil War to Anne Wilmot, who came from a parliamentary family, and Henry, Lord Wilmot, a cavalier cavalry officer, who in 1652 was rewarded for his loyalty to the king by being made the earl of Rochester. Although in 1653 Anne Wilmot joined her husband in exile in France, three years later she took her children back to the Ditchley estate, which she had inherited from her first husband. In 1658 Henry died, and John Wilmot became the earl of Rochester. Portrait of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.
Portrait of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.
Rochester was educated first at home, then at Burford Grammar School, and finally at Wadham College, Oxford, where he devoted himself to debauchery. When he was fourteen Rochester received his M.A. and departed on the customary grand tour of France and Italy.
Returning three years later, the handsome, witty young man was soon installed at the glittering court of Charles II. Rochester soon realized, however, that he would have to marry money if he were to keep up his lavish lifestyle. Shortly after meeting Elizabeth Malet of Somerset, a great heiress who was also beautiful and intelligent, Rochester kidnapped her from the coach in which she was riding with her grandfather, Lord Hawley. He was apprehended almost immediately and sent off to serve on a warship, where in his first battle and in a subsequent action he performed heroically.
With a monetary gift from the king, along with an appointment and a salary as Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Rochester could renew his courtship of Elizabeth Malet. She accepted his proposal, and on January 29, 1667, they were married. During the next thirteen years Rochester spent most of his time at court, while his wife divided her time between his family estate in Adderbury, Oxfordshire, and her own in Enmore, Somerset. By 1676 the couple had had four children.
Rochester established a reputation not only as a wit and a rake but also as a poet. Unfortunately, it is difficult to date his poems. Evidently they were handed around in manuscript form, and other than a few that were printed as broadsides, they were not published until after Rochester’s death. Some of the early collections, moreover, contain many poems subsequently believed to have been written by others. Not until 1968 when, after years of painstaking analysis, David M. Vieth brought out his edition, could scholars feel reasonably certain about the canon.
Among the seventy-six poems that Vieth attributes to Rochester are many that reveal his zest for life. There are celebrations of good fellowship such as “Upon Drinking in a Bowl”; comical comments on human sexual difficulties, as in “Signor Dildo” and “The Imperfect Enjoyment”; and such witty but tender love lyrics as “The Fall.” There was also another side to Rochester, that of a man disgusted with the corrupt, vicious life of the court and with himself for participating in it. His characterizations of Charles II always have an edge, and Rochester lampoons others without mercy. The “Satyr Against Reason and Mankind” shows Rochester’s loathing for his own species; “The Disabled Debauchee,” that for himself.
The thirteen years between Rochester’s marriage and his early death were stormy ones. Like his friends, Rochester drank to excess, quarrelled with other courtiers, fought duels, indulged his appetites with both sexes, and played pranks on the citizenry. He was occasionally dismissed from court because of something he had done, said, or written. However, before long he was always recalled.
Rochester’s health was weakened by syphilis and perhaps also by kidney stones. By 1677, when he was expecting to die, Rochester initiated a serious correspondence with the deist Charles Blount, followed by long talks with the famous Anglican churchman Gilbert Burnet. Some of Rochester’s friends claimed that he was insane; his mother and Burnet believed that he had been converted to Christianity. Rochester died at Woodstock in July 1680. Shortly after, Burnet published Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honourable John Earl of Rochester. Ironically, this account of repentance and conversion was the first biographical study of a man whose name is almost synonymous with one of the most dissolute periods in British history. Rochester’s colorful life, which inspired the Hollywood movie The Libertine, should not overshadow his works, however, nor should the nature of his subjects obscure the fact of his talent. Although suppressed for centuries, Rochester’s poems are characterized by their technical brilliance, their wit and humor, and their clear-sighted, if sometimes despairing, view of the human condition.