About John Wilmot Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot was born in 1647, the son of Henry Wilmot, a celebrated Royalist who had led the cavalry at the Battle of Edgehill. Henry helped the young Prince Charles escape to France after the disastrous Royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester. John was brought up by his mother, a deeply religious and somewhat autocratic woman, with family connections to prominent Puritans. He briefly attended school at Burford and, at the age of twelve, went up to Wadham College, Oxford, where study was soon replaced by drinking and, probably, fornication. By now he had succeeded to the title Earl of Rochester after his absent father’s death.
The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the accession of Charles II, signalled an explosion in debauchery and high living, especially at the court, but also reaching as far from London as Oxford. The poet Dryden described these years as ‘a very merry, dancing, drinking laughing, quaffing and unthinking time’. In 1661, the king awarded Rochester an annual pension of £500 per annum in appreciation of a poem mourning the death of the Princess of Orange. By Rochester’s own account, this gave him enough money to get drunk and stay drunk until graduation.
After a long European tour, Rochester returned to the court in 1664, aged seventeen; he soon became a close companion of the king and later a friend of Nell Gwynne. He had a gift for impromptu verse and earned a place in court as a kind of licensed jester, making up rhymes to satirise Charles’s favourites and even the king himself. Sometimes, however, he overreached, as in his attempt to abduct Elizabeth Malet, resulting in a short period of imprisonment in the Tower. After a grovelling apology, he was forgiven and eventually married Elizabeth.
Little of Rochester’s verse was published in his lifetime; it seems to have been written to dazzle, entertain and seduce. He wrote more frankly about sex than anyone in English before the twentieth century. His poems should be heard rather than read on the page, as can be seen in his unusually tender poem ‘The Mistress’, which might very well have been written as an exercise in sound patterns. ‘But, oh, how slowly minutes roll’: the pause after ‘oh’ and the assonance ‘oh..slow..roll’ make the sound imitate the sense.
‘The Maim’d Debauchee’ gives a rancid and hungover account of sexual love, leavened by humour and understanding, with darker notes reminiscent of Metaphysical poetry earlier in the century. By contrast, ‘A Satyr against Mankind’ looks forward to Pope, in the poise and wit of its expression of the argument that Man is inferior to animals. Rochester seems to be a bridge: the last Metaphysical poet and the first Augustan.
‘Upon Nothing’ was written near the end of Rochester’s short life. It is sour in tone, but perhaps not to be taken too seriously. In the Dutch Wars, the Dutch failed, the French cheated, the Spanish delayed, and the British should never have been involved. This explains the second to last verse, but it should also be remembered that Rochester himself fought in the Dutch Wars with conspicuous and widely recognized gallantry. In 1680, aged thirty-three, having repented of his sins, he died of syphilis.
Poems by John Wilmot Earl of Rochester
Books by John Wilmot Earl of Rochester
The Poetical Works (Wordsworth Poetry Library)
Wordsworth Editions, 1995
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Oxford University Press, 2013