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Picture of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with monkey.


 
April 1, 1647
John Wilmot   (1647 - 1680)
 
Of Rochester and Rakes
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1647 John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and perhaps the most notorious of the Restoration rakes, was born. By poem and play, song and satire, maid and monkey -- some say he trained his monkey to excrete upon his guests, others say he merely encouraged it -- Rochester became the talk of town and Court. If, as Samuel Johnson said, he "blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness," he also wrote, said William Hazlitt, verses that "cut and sparkle like diamonds." The general view is that, were the diamonds not so dirty, Rochester might hold a place in Restoration poetry second only to Dryden.

Perhaps it was self-preservation which forced Rochester's poems to appear anonymously (or not at all) in his lifetime; perhaps he was not interested in literary fame: "I have seriously consider'd one thing," he wrote in a letter to a friend, "that [of] the three businesses of the age, women, politics and drinking, the last is the only exercise at which you and I have not prov'd ourselves fumblers." The anecdotal evidence suggests that this is over-modest, and if Rochester could drink he could also write about it:
    Vulcan, contrive me a cup
    As Nestor used of old;
    Show all thy skill to trim it up,
    Damask it round with gold.

    Make it so large that, filled with sack
    Up to the swelling brim,
    Vast toasts on the delicious lake
    Like ships at sea may swim....
This is the opening to "Upon His Drinking a Bowl"; the poem goes on to mention boys and women, or parts of women, in ways which guarantee its exclusion from most anthologies. Poems entitled "Signior Dildo" couldn't hope for a general readership, but there is such fresh wit and wording in many others that they deserve it. "Love a Woman! Y'are an Ass" begins one "Song"; "The Debauchee" begins, "I rise at eleven, I dine about two, / I get drunk before seven, and the next thing I do...." If the next things Rochester did are recalled accurately in "The Disabled Debauchee," there were few limits to them.

But this is the point at which Rochester becomes a debate, and more interesting than any cartoon Restoration rake. Modern biographers and scholars, from Graham Greene (Lord Rochester's Monkey, 1974) to Germaine Greer (Earl of Rochester, 2000), find less biography in the poems than satiric poses and pokes -- a "lampoon ethos" aimed at a "target fop." And philosophy: in "Satyre Against Mankind" Rochester scoffs that he'd happily be his monkey, "Or anything but that vain animal, / Who is so proud of being rational." Ordinary reason makes man "This busy, pushing stirrer-up of doubt, / That frames deep mysteries, then finds them out"; Rochester's "reason" is simpler, and nobody's fool:
    My reason is my friend, yours is a cheat,
    Hunger calls out, my reason bids me eat;
    Perversely, yours your appetite does mock:
    This asks for food, that answers, 'what's o'clock.'
Such wit earned him the friendship and favor of Charles II, when it didn't earn him banishment -- once the Tower, for having staged the abduction of one beauty who later became his wife. His put-ons included dresses; on one elaborate and prolonged occasion he became the mountebank "Doctor Bendo," skilled in curing ladies' ailments and reading the stars. Aphra Behn, a friend and sometime lover, eulogized his daring and charm. She also wrote a prologue for his unfinished play, Valentinian, and had Elizabeth Barry, the actress Rochester had trained and the mistress to whom he was most devoted, deliver it. There must have been more than one wink exchanged by those present to hear it:
    Some beauties here I see,
    Though now demure, have felt his powerful charms,
    And languish'd in the circle of his arms....

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November 22, 2017
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