A rake’s progress: Blazing Star: The Life & Times of John Wilmot
Review: virtually every obscene lyric emanating in manuscript from Charles II’s court was attributed to the debauched Earl of Rochester
Rochester could not have been always drunk. He had to be sober enough to write his poems.
Blazing Star: The Life & Times of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester
Head of Zeus
Among the brief lives of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, my favourite one is the life of Rochester. Johnson doesn’t want to say out loud that Rochester was a debauched presence in the court of Charles II. Instead he says, “As he excelled in that noisy and licentious merriment which wine incites, his companions eagerly encouraged him in excess, and he willingly indulged it; till, as he confessed to Dr Burnet, he was for five years together continually drunk, or so much inflamed by frequent ebriety, as in no interval to be master of himself. In this state he played many frolics, which it is not for his honour that we should remember, and which are not now distinctly known.”
What the frolics were, Johnson does not specify; he leaves us free to imagine them but doesn’t press us to do so. Modern biographers of Rochester, notably Graham Greene, Vivian de Sola Pinto, Germaine Greer and, now, Alexander Larman, have in mind to improve Rochester’s received image, but it is uphill work. He is long known as the libertine poet.
John Wilmot was born on April 1st, 1647, the first surviving son of Henry Wilmot and his wife, Ann St John. Henry was such a devoted royalist that he not only stood by Charles Stuart on the field of his defeat at Worcester, on September 4th, 1651, but managed his escape to London and then to Paris on October 20th. Charles was grateful to the extent of creating him first earl of Rochester, on December 13th, 1652, at St Germain-en-Laye.
Henry didn’t enjoy this felicity for long: he died on February 19th, 1658. Charles extended his gratitude into the next generation by creating John Wilmot the second earl of Rochester. In the same happy year, Oliver Cromwell died and Charles made preparations to leave the continent and come back to England to redeem his crown.
This took a little longer than planned, but he returned in good cheer, if not in triumph, on May 23rd, 1660, to enjoy the title of Charles II. Rochester, after two years at Wadham College, Oxford, received his MA filius nobilis, on September 9th, 1661. Awarded a pension of £500 a year by the king, he set out on the grand tour, visiting Paris, Rome, Venice and Padua.
On his return he presented himself at court and took up his career as a rake, a libertine, his chosen vices drink, whoring and – most dangerous – brawling.
Quarrelsome by nature, he was also a brave spirit and distinguished himself in the second Dutch War, in 1665-66, returning much in Charles’s good books. Even when he was confined to the Tower of London for fighting and sundry misbehaviours, he was soon forgiven and even granted more money, or at least the promise of it.
Rochester could not have been always drunk. He had to be sober enough to write his poems. One of his modern editors thinks he wrote about 90 poems; another includes in his edition a section called “probably by Rochester” and comes up with a total of 127 poems, by my count. One problem is that virtually every obscene lyric emanating in manuscript from Charles’s court was attributed to Rochester when it might just as plausibly have come from Sir Charles Sedley or any one of half a dozen idle courtiers.
John Burroughs has tried to attach poems to Rochester by “computational analysis”, but his method is limited to the comparison of single words. Computers can now compare runs of words – two, three, four or five – a method that has been used to detect Shakespeare’s hand in the additions to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. I haven’t seen this method used on the “cynical love poems”, as they have been called, of the Restoration’s court poetry.
Larman’s book is a biography, not literary criticism. He refers to the poems as local evidence of the life. But he argues for Rochester’s possession of a virtue he calls “integrity” as somehow transcending the local tally of vices, however deplorable. To find this virtue we may go read in the stars, but Larman appeals to it when the going gets rough. I think the place to look for it is in the poems we can be sure of.
Admittedly, until a canon is established, we can say a poem is by Rochester only when no known impediment exists to it being by him and when it is irresistibly good.
Also, we can no more make Rochester a great poet than we can make him a great saint. But when we read his most assured poems, such as Upon Nothing and A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind, we find some passages expressing an indelible sentiment, as if it were come upon by chance.
Goethe trembled at this passage from the Satyr: “Books bear him up awhile, and make him try / To swim with bladders of Philosophy. / In hopes still to o’ertake th’ escaping Light, / The Vapour dances in his dazzled sight, / Till spent, it leaves him to eternal night. / Then Old Age and Experience hand in hand, / Lead him to Death, and make him understand, / After a search so painful and so long, / That all his life he has been in the wrong.”
The pathos of “hand in hand” is entirely just: I suffer the one and learn from the other. Johnson didn’t think much of the poem as a whole: “Of the satire against Man, Rochester can only claim what remains when all Boileau’s part is taken away.”
Rochester’s biographers are much indebted to Gilbert Burnet’s Some Passages in the Life and Death of John, Earl of Rochester (1680), although it is a debt they are in no hurry to repay. Larman says of Burnet: “He understood the letter of the man, but little of the spirit.”
Well, the spirit is to Larman the glowing word “integrity”, a complex word, hard even for him to articulate. The bare facts are that, late in 1679 and lasting until the following March, Rochester sought a meeting with Burnet that became a series of conferences on questions of life and death.
According to Burnet’s book, Rochester, before his death in 1680 – at the age of 33 and probably of syphilis – changed his life, admitted remorse and was reconciled with Christianity. Larman is sceptical but open enough to the possibilities. His last chapters are honourably moving.