You will not like me – John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, was born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on either April 1 or 10 1647. This was a tempestuous time in English history. Just two years after his birth King Charles I of England was beheaded and England was without a monarch for ten years. Society was divided politically and religiously and Rochester’s own family reflected these divisions – his father was a Royalist and his mother was a Puritan.
As a child, Rochester had a very solid education; he attended the Burford Grammar School but was also taught by a tutor at home, and was generally considered a model pupil. At the age of 12 he went to Wadham College, Oxford, where, away from his mother’s strict control, a different side of his personality began to emerge, as he started to frequent taverns. At the age of fourteen he received his M.A degree from his uncle, the Earl of Clarendon, who was Chancellor to the University. Then, as was the fashion amongst the English Aristocracy for nearly 200 years, he was sent to round off his education by going on the traditional Grand Tour, taking in Italy and France.
This very polished and sophisticated 18 year-old, then joined the newly restored new court of Charles II, the greatest centre of cultural patronage of its day. This was a period of many cultural, social and gastronomic innovations in England – the first stage actresses (various of whom Rochester would bed), the man’s three-piece suit, those distinctive periwigs, tea, coffee champagne and ice cream. There was a glorious cultural explosion with such figures Dryden, Purcell and Wren to name but three.
Rochester decided he needed to find a wife but he was far from conventional in how he went about it. The target of his affections was one Elizabeth Mallet, an heiress who had caught his eye because of her beauty, intelligence, and immense wealth. Fearing that another suitor might get his hands on her fortune, Rochester decided to kidnap her. Amazingly Elizabeth was impressed by his tactics. The King though was displeased and had Rochester put in the Tower and Elizabeth returned to her parents. It was only a temporary sojourn for Rochester and he finally married Mallet two years later.
The Earl lived a double life – a loving father and family man in the country and a hell-raising boozer and womaniser in London. Rochester’s relationship with Charles was a difficult one. Charles II, whose father had been executed, and who had only escaped capture himself by hiding in an oak tree, was a cynical and pragmatic monarch. After the dour years of Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth, Charles sought to bring back some splendour to Britain and the Court. He surrounded himself with scientists, architects and he rogered just about any woman who met his gaze. Rochester was not afraid to lampoon Charles to his face and many times the king would banish the disrespectful poet to the country, but he would always relent and invite him back to London, because, despite all his many faults, Rochester was witty and fun to be around. He was an member of the infamous ‘Merry Gang’ at the Court, a sort of seventeenth century “rat pack” who went around getting drunk, brawling, playing pranks and generally raising hell. When he was exiled from Court he would often assume different identities, the most famous one being Doctor Alexander Bendo, a German quack, specializing in fertility treatment. His unconventional treatment would produce positive results – he had soon cuckolded half of London.
On Charles’s death Rochester couldn’t resist sticking the knife in:
Here lies a great and mighty King,
Whose promise none relied on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
But Rochester also had his artistic side and in his lifetime he produced sexually explicit poetry. Signor Dildo is the classic example of his bawdy poetic style. The background to this poem is interesting. In 1673 a petition was presented to King Charles, protesting about the proposed marriage of the heir to the throne, Charles’s brother James, Duke of York, to Mary of Modena, an Italian Catholic Princess. They could foresee dangerous consequences of a marriage to a Catholic and urged him forbid any wedding. Wilmot had an alternative take, anticipating the benefits of the aforementioned union, which would see the mass importation of Italian dildos to the delight of English ladies:
You ladies all of merry England
Who have been to kiss the Duchess’s hand,
Pray, did you not lately observe in the show
A noble Italian called Signor Dildo? …
His one play “Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery” was banned for obscenity and printed copies were destroyed. The characters have names such as Bolloximian, Cuntigratia, Prickett, and Buggeranthus, which leave little to the imagination. On 16 December Sotheby’s 2004 sold one of the few surviving copies for £45,600.
But his works were much more than just lewd verse. His poem. “Satire Against Reason and Mankind”, with its cynicism about man and rationalism, owes much to the works of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who died when Rochester was 15. The unifying themes of his poetry are a honesty and a dislike of artifice. They seem to reflect his philosophy of life:
All this with indignation have I hurled
At the pretending part of the proud world,
Who, swollen with selfish vanity, devise
False freedoms, holy cheats, and formal lies
Over their fellow slaves to tyrannize
His constant drinking and wenching were to take their toll on his body and his last few years were full of suffering as he rotted away, afflicted with syphilis and cirrhosis among other illnesses. He finally died on 26 July 1680. He seems to have been an atheist but on his deathbed his mother was anxious for him to repent and it was later claimed that Rochester had returned to the path of righteousness.
In his ‘Lives of the English Poets’ Samuel Johnson gave a damning verdict on Rochester:
“Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay.”
I have to disagree with Johnson. I’m not sure I can say that I like Rochester but the world would have been a duller place without this quintessentially English rake.