John Wilmot: Debauchery and Repentance

If sack and sugar be a sin, then God help the wicked.
                                         —Falstaff, Henry IV, Part One (Shakespeare)

Whitehall Palace, 1666. John Wilmot (above), 2nd Earl of Rochester, is greeted by the royal chaplain, Isaac Barrow.

Rochester: (bowing extravagantly) Doctor, I am yours to the shoe-tie.

Barrow: (bows even lower, ostentatiously waving an arm) My lord, I am yours to the ground.

Rochester: (not to outdone) Doctor, I am yours to the centre of the earth.

Barrow: (equally stubborn) My lord, I am yours to the Antipodes.

Rochester: (beginning to tire, but determined to have the last say and becoming more exclamatory) Doctor, I am yours to the lowest pit of hell!

Barrow: (claiming success) There my lord, I leave you.

Touché. Popular opinion did indeed hold it for a truism that the young Rochester (nineteen at the time) may well have kept company with the devil—and his reputation for wildness only grew in the next fourteen years of his short life.

A century later, the notion of Rochester as spectacular rake would still outdo that of Rochester the poet. Samuel Johnson in his Lives of the Poets (1779–1781) offered:

He had very early on an inclination to intemperance, which he totally subdued in his travels; but, when he became a courtier, he unhappily addicted himself to dissolute and vicious company, by which his principles were corrupted and his manners depraved. He lost all sense of religious restraint; and, finding it not convenient to admit the authority of laws which he was resolved not to obey, sheltered his wickedness behind infidelity.

Isaac Watts, in The Repentance and Happy Death of the Celebrated Earl of Rochester, first published in the early eighteenth century, and still considered print-worthy well into the nineteenth, had this to say:

He had raked likewise in the depths of debauchery, and had openly ridiculed all virtue and religion … He was, in his own eyes, the vilest wretch on which the sun ever shone; and often wished that he had been a link-boy [one who carried a torch at night to light the way for pedestrians], or a beggar, or a captive in a dungeon, rather than that he should have so grossly offended God.

Johnson was dismissive of Rochester the poet—“the glare of his general character diffused itself upon his writings”—and he would ask sniffily: “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 essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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John Aubrey’s Brief Lives—a series of short biographies assembled in the last decades of the seventeenth century—informs us that Andrew Marvell thought Rochester was the best satirist in England; and “in the right vein”. Indeed, it was Marvell who described Rochester and his cohort as the “Merry Gang”; the “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease”, as Alexander Pope would describe them in his First Satire of the Second Book of Horace (1733). Daniel Defoe was also an admirer of Rochester’s poems and makes mention of him several times in his novel Moll Flanders (1722). He also quotes Rochester in lines of his own verse, such as An Elegy on the Author of The True-born-English-man (1704).

It is important to understand that at the court of Charles II, every self-respecting courtier felt compelled to write poetry. Publication was unimportant: indeed, the idea of making money from such a pursuit was considered beneath one. Rather, the practice was to circulate works in manuscript form or have fair copies made, if it was an author’s intention for a work to be widely read. Much of that written was little more than smut, or to put it more politely—as does the 1867 edition of Chambers’ English Literature in its entry for Rochester—“so very licentious as to be unfit for publication”.

The Restoration’s hunger for ribaldry was voracious. Popular plays, such as William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), thrived on Benny Hill moments such as, “Wife, he is coming into you the back way!” The Poet Laureate John Dryden would describe such stuff as “lewdly dull”, as he would, one assumes, the effort attributed to Rochester known as the “Regime de Vivre” (1664):

I rise at eleven, I dine about two,
I get drunk about seven, and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when for fear of the clap,
I spend in her hand, and I spew in her lap …

Later on in this poem, the protagonist buggers his page. Germaine Greer has at once pointed out the limitations of such doggerel, and cited it as an insight into the humour prevalent under the restored monarchy of Charles II. She has also been at pains to stress that almost anything licentious at the time seems to have been attributed to Rochester. Indeed, this view is given credence by Brian Morris in his essay Satire from Donne to Marvell (1969), where he states, “In the seventeenth century, any poem might be fathered on to an author whose name might give it a chance of survival.”

There is an argument to suggest that the characterisation of Rochester as carnal maniac has overlooked his important achievements as a poet. Further to this, Marvell’s provocative estimation of Rochester’s talents as the supreme satirist extends beyond:

We have a pretty witty King
Whose word no man relies on.
He never said a foolish thing
And never did a wise one

—to which a bemused King reportedly responded, “That’s true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.”

Marvell was more likely to be alluding to a work such as A Satire against Reason and Mankind (1674), written while Rochester was still just twenty-seven years of age, and—according to a contemporary, Gilbert Burnet, the man who chronicled the poet’s life—had come out of a five-year period of being permanently drunk. The poem begins:

Were I (who to my own cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own to share,
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal
Who is proud of being rational.

During that supposed half-decade of dissolution, Rochester must have found enough time and sobriety to have read Thomas Hobbes. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes had written: “true and false are attributes of speech, not of things. And where speech is not, there is neither truth or falsehood.”

Rochester’s poem places action above speech and self-gratification above restraint. Further it heralds animalism above clerical moralism. Christ-like figures are an impossibility for Rochester, for as Hobbes had observed:

he who should be modest, and tractable, and perform all he promises, in such a time and place, where no man else should do so, should make himself a prey to others, and procure his own certain ruin …

—an echo of Niccoló Machiavelli’s earlier observation in The Prince (1532): “a man who wants in all things to make a show of being good will come to ‘ruin’ among so many who are not good”.

The Satire, despite its radical tendencies, ruffled few feathers at court, though Edward Stillingfleet wittily preached a sermon before the King professing the idea that it was a great pity that the likes of Rochester “had not their wish, to have been beasts rather than men … that they might have been less capable of doing mischief among mankind”.

Rochester’s dismissal from court occurred by means of a drunken rage in the Royal Privy Garden at Whitehall whereby he managed to destroy the world’s most elaborate and expensive glass sundial. The King, it was said, could not be consoled.

His fall from grace gathered speed a year later after a day’s drinking at the Epsom races. Marvell mentions the event in a letter to his parliamentary colleague Sir Edward Hartley dated July 1, 1676:

Rochester with Etteridge Bridges and [Billy] Downs had in a debauch at Epsome caused the Constable to defend himselfe. Rochester said to have first ingaged & first fled … abjectly hid himself while the rest were exposed and the Rusticks animadverted so severely upon them that Downs is since dead …

Widely held to be an act of cowardice, Rochester’s retreat provided ample ammunition for any number of his enemies. He was lampooned by Sir Carr Scroope:

He who can push into a midnight fray
His brave companion, and then run away,
Leaving him to be murdered in the street,
Then put it off with some buffoon conceit …

and set upon by arch-rival John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, ably assisted by Dryden:

For there’s the folly that’s still mixed with fear,
Cowards more blows than any hero bear:
Of fighting sparks some may their pleasures say,
But ’tis a bolder thing to run away:
The world may well forgive him all his ill,
For every fault does prove his penance still:
Falsely he falls into some dangerous noose
And then as meanly labours to get loose;
A life so infamous is better quitting,
Spent in base injury and low submitting.

Remarkably, a century on, the incident was still considered newsworthy. Johnson noted: “he was reproached for slinking away in street quarrels, and leaving his companions to shift as they could without him”.

The next chapter in Rochester’s volatile life might rate as the most bizarre in the history of English letters. In the slums of Tower-hill in London—clad in a green gown and an assortment of various furs—for several months, Rochester pretended to be a doctor. He paraded as one Alexander Bendo, an Italian who had come to England with the express purpose of curing the incurable. His impressive gold chain was explained as a gift from the King of Cyprus in appreciation for services rendered to his daughter, Princess Aloephangina, and printed handouts declared this miracle man to have a special interest in “the reproachful mistakes of barren wombs”. We can only suppose that Rochester/Bendo had set himself up as an inseminator for any woman willing to chance it. Husbands’ misgivings were alleviated by Rochester posing as Mrs Bendo at the initial examination. What had prompted this? It seems Rochester, now a social pariah, fearing prosecution over his part in the Downs affair and without the funds to abscond to the continent, had—according to Burnet—simply felt it best for a time to “disappear”.

When he supposed the King’s anger towards him to have diminished to something controllable and the post-Epsom ruckus was distant enough, Rochester simply grew bored with the two Bendos and they vanished as swiftly as they had arrived. The residents of Tower-hill were left to consider rumours of necromancy.

By now however Rochester was ill and about to enter the throes of advanced syphilis. Marvell had casually mentioned in a letter to Sir Henry Thompson as early as 1675 that Rochester had lost his bridge, presumably referring to his nose, “saddle nose” being a common ailment of the disease in its tertiary phase. His prospects bleak, in 1678 he completed one of his last major poems, “Upon Nothing”. It begins:

Nothing, thou elder brother even to shade,
Who had’st a being, ere the world was made,
And well fixed, art alone of ending not afraid.

Ere Time and Place were, Time and Place were not
When primitive Nothing Something had begot
Then all proceeded from the great united—What?

Much has been made of the report of Rochester’s deathbed conversion as outlined in Burnet’s The Life and Death of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1680). Some have viewed Burnet (the future Bishop of Salisbury) as self-seeking—Greer goes as far as to label him an “unprincipled humbug”—and it must be said that boasting rights for having “cured” the likes of a Rochester proved a wonderful advertisement for an ambitious cleric. However, Johnson felt Burnet’s work deserved the highest praise, being one “which the critic ought to read for its elegance, the philosopher for its arguments, and the saint for its piety”.

Aubrey says of Rochester:

In his last sickness he was exceedingly penitent and wrote a letter of his repentance to Dr Burnet … he sent for all his servants, even the pigherd boy, to come and hear his palinode.

Rochester, so the story is told, had accepted the advice of the exhausted narrator of his poem “The Disabled Debauchee” (1665): “And now, being good for nothing else, be wise.”

He died in July 1680 at the age of thirty-three.

Barry Gillard, a frequent contributor on literature, lives in Geelong

2 thoughts on “John Wilmot: Debauchery and Repentance

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Fascinating, thanks Barry. Five years drunk, in the context of the times, along with syphillis etc. etc what amazes me is that he managed to make thirty three. He must have had a pretty good natural constitution but mum and dad definitely failed with the good principles in his upbringing I think.

  • padraic says:

    Agree with Peter’s comment. Also, the opening exchange at the beginning of the article between Rochester and Barrow trying to outdo each other reminded me of the time I was doing a tourist “historical walking tour” around the streets of Bath where the guide was describing points of interest. He came to a section of narrow footpath which was the spot where Beau Brummell is alleged to have come face to face with John Wesley. Apparently, Beau Brummell was visiting from London for “the Season” and John Wesly had visited to voice his disapproval of the shenanigans that occurred at such social events. Also, the guide advised that the two men knew each other by sight. Beau Brummell was rather corpulent and hence the two could not pass each other without one having to step into the gutter to let the other pass. As the story went, Beau Brummell drew himself up and said haughtily “I never step aside for fools” at which John Wesley said “I always do” and stepped into the gutter to let Beau Brummell pass. It was a good story for the foreign tourists but highly improbable as Beau Brummel (1778-1840) as an adult was not in a position to meet John Wesley (1703-1791). However, Beau Brummell had one thing in common with Rochester – he also died from syphilis.

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