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Wrong Reasons to do SM
by Midori

A Profane Wit
The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

by James William Johnson

Book Review by Rob Hardy

If you like your poetry naughty, you donít have to resort to collections of bawdy limericks. You can in good conscience take up the work of one of the most amazing personalities who ever made rhymes, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. Along with using all the words and subjects that would these days force him onto satellite radio, Rochester filled his lively poetry with classical allusions and vast learning, as well as commenting on current affairs. Dr. Johnson was one who could surely take offense at the tone of Rochesterís work, but didnít: "In all his works there is sprightliness and vigour, and every where may be found tokens of a mind which study might have carried to excellence; what more can be expected from a life spent in ostentatious contempt of regularity, and ended before the abilities of many other men began to be displayed?" This extraordinarily irregular and short life is taken up in A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (University of Rochester [ha!] Press) by James William Johnson. A large volume which draws upon sources previously unavailable to biographers, it is a serious academic evaluation of a spectacular poet.

Rochester was born in 1647. His father had been a faithful courtier to Charles I during the latterís exile, earning the Rochester earldom. He was absent on royal duties most of the time, and then died when Rochester was but ten. Much more influential was Rochesterís mother, an ambitious, pious woman who pursued preferment and money with skill: "The Countessís business morality was typical of the Restoration period; she differed from her contemporaries in nothing but her managerial acumen." She was not above using as an ally her cousin Barbara Palmer, who was pregnant with the child of King Charles II when the king married elsewhere in 1662. By such stratagems, she provided for Rochester the bride Elizabeth Mallet, with whom he had a marriage of passion and growing mutual love. Especially in the beginning, there were clashes over money, the role of in-laws, and religion, and Rochester was not the type to count on for fidelity. They were, through it all, devoted to each other, and produced three children upon whom Rochester doted.

He absorbed a Puritan doctrine from his mother and the tutors she hired for him, and despite all the evidence of his subsequent rakish behavior, he never shook off the imbued religious emotions and guilt. At Oxford he entered Wadham College and began his sexual life, perhaps with homosexual debauchery (Wadham was known as "Sodom"). His tutor may have initiated him into it, but also helped the young man as an upcoming classicist and poet. He began to write poetic tributes to King Charles, with the purpose of reminding the King that he was Lord Wilmotís son. It worked; the King started an annual pension, and Rochester eventually entered the Kingís service, bravely doing naval duty in the Dutch wars and more importantly becoming a Gentleman of the Kingís Bedchamber. Rochester had a reputation for being able to seduce virgins, while the King preferred experienced lovers; Rochester dutifully took on the role of gathering maidenheads and instructing the women in the techniques of love in preparation for the Kingís bed. The King was for Rochester a father figure, and Rochester spent much of his life trying to stay within his good graces. He was not always successful; he remained irrepressible, and earned the Kingís wrath many times. One drunken night, the King wanted to see a poem of Rochesterís that had been widely circulated, and Rochester handed him the text of "On King Charles", which, while it called the King a "merry monarch", also alluded to the Kingís eagerness in coitus and noted, "His scepter and his prick are of a length / And she that plays with one may sway the other." (These are among the milder lines.) Rochester was expelled from Whitehall for that one. He was taken back, of course, but he did not repress himself. Late in his life, he again inflamed his protector by noting that the King would copiously re-tell stories to those who were long accustomed to hearing the same tales before. A contemporary noted that Rochester "said he wondered to see a man have so good a memory as to repeat the same story without losing the least circumstance, and yet not remember that he had told it to the same person the day before."

Johnson lists the successive liaisons with mistresses, and quotes from the poems assigned to them. Rochester treated his wife with respect (if one excuses the infidelities) but often treated mistresses with meanness and contempt. There is a strong strain of misogyny in his poetry, to the point of brutishness; in "On Mistress Willis", Rochester commemorates a famous brothel-keeper, with the first of five verses:

Against the charms our ballocks have,

How weak the human skill is,

Since they can make a man a slave,

To such a bitch as Willis.

Rochester condemned women for lust, hypocrisy, biological filth, and capacity to spread disease. There have been moralists who have thought that his obscene satires were not written to stimulate but rather to disgust and thus reduce desire. Johnson also shows that Rochester, less frequently, was able to write mildly feminist verses and in his plays give empathy to the female perspective.

Rochesterís end was entirely satisfactory to moralists. He died at thirty-three, consumed by venereal disease, and he also had a deathbed conversion, capping a life of paganism and doubt with an ostensible acceptance of standard Protestantism. The conversion of this prodigal became a staple of sermonizers and pamphleteers, who thus had the paradoxical duty of explaining, in order to show contrast, just how bad a fellow Rochester had been. They undoubtedly drew upon exaggerated stories of his behavior, but his life was full enough of scandal. His poems and plays illuminate a rowdy time, and even the royal take on it. There was even more he could have told, and historians must ever regret that his mother arranged after his death that his History of the Intrigues of the Court of Charles II should be promptly burned. Johnsonís intricate biography makes plain many of the intrigues of the time, and quotes well from Rochesterís writings, although those really interested in the works will be delighted to have the Penguin Classics edition of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: Selected Works handy as they go through the biography. In the poem "Tunbridge Wells", find these lines about the odd persons and events at a famous watering hole, which could well do for the poet himself:

Bless me, thought I, what thing is man, that thus
In all his shapes he is ridiculous:
Ourselves with noise of reason we do please
In vain: humanityís our worst disease.

A Profane Wit:
The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

(University of Rochester Press; November 2004; ISBN 1580461700)
Available at:†/ Amazon UK†/ Amazon CA

© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

About the Reviewer:†
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
Email: Rob Hardy

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