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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 7. Rochester’s Life and Character

The poets themselves, being men of the world, knew what value to put upon Dryden’s panegyrics. The best of them, Rochester and Buckhurst, treated their own poems with a light-hearted disdain. They left others to gather up the flowers which they scattered with a prodigal hand. If they are to be accounted artists, let it be in life not in verse. Poetry was but an episode in their multi-coloured careers; and, though we may wisely neglect the lives of greater poets, with them, criticism inevitably becomes biography. John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, the one man of undisputed genius among them, will ever be memorable for the waywardness and complexity of his character, for the vigour and energy of his verse. Few poets have suffered more acutely than he from the flattery of friends or the disdain of enemies. The lofty adulation offered at his youthful shrine was soon turned to a violent malignity, and in the clash of opinions it is not easy to disengage the truth. He was born in 1648 at Ditchley near Woodstock, the son of the pleasure-loving, wary, ambitious Henry Wilmot who fought for his king, and who, after Worcester, shared the wanderings and hardships of Charles II. Educated “in grammar learning” at Burford, in Oxfordshire, he entered Wadham college in 1659, was created a master of arts in 1661, “at which time he, and none else, was admitted very affectionately into the fraternity, by a kiss on the left cheek from the Chancellor of the University (Clarendon), who then sate in the supreme chair to honour that Assembly.” A veritable child of the muses “he lisped in numbers.” At the age of twelve, he addressed a respectable copy of verses “to his Sacred Majesty on his Restoration,” and mourned in English and Latin the death of Mary, princess of Orange. Having taken his degree, he travelled in France and Italy, and, at eighteen, returned to England and the court, a finished scholar and an accomplished gentleman. None of the courtiers who thronged Whitehall made so brilliant an appearance as Rochester. All the gifts of nature were his.

  • “He was a graceful, well-shaped person,” says Burnet, “tall and well made. He was exactly well-bred, and what by a modest behaviour natural to him, what by a civility become almost as natural, his conversation was easy and obliging.”
  • He had a talent of intimacy and persuasiveness, which none could resist. Even when his words lacked sincerity, they won the hearts of his hearers.
  • Il entre dans vos goûts, said a woman, who was not in love with him, dans tous vos sentiments; et tandis qu’il ne dit pas un seul mot de ce qu’il pense, il vous fait croire tout ce qu’il dit.
  • He gained an easy ascendency over the court and assumed all the freedoms of a chartered libertine. Once upon a time, as Pepys tells us, he had a difference with Tom Killigrew, whose ear he boxed in the presence of the king. This barbarous conduct, says the diary,
  • do give such offence to the people here at court, to see how cheap the king makes himself, and the more, for that the king hath not only passed by the thing, and pardoned it to Rochester already, but this very morning the king did publicly walk up and down, and Rochester I saw with him as free as ever to the king’s everlasting shame, to have so idle a rogue his companion.
  • Not even the people at court could for long harbour a feeling of resentment against the insolence of Rochester. Charles himself was ever ready with a pardon. Though he banished Rochester many times from his presence, he as often recalled him. The truth is that, in Burnet’s words, “the King loved his company for the diversion it afforded him.” Little as Charles appreciated the bitter satires upon “Old Rowley,” he could not but forgive the satirist. Though Rochester professed a hatred of the court, it was the only place in which his talents found a proper freedom, and he always returned thither, so long as his health lasted. Nor was it only the licence of his speech that involved him in disgrace. At nineteen, to repair the sole deficiency of his lot, he had seized upon Mrs. Mallett, a great beauty and a great fortune, “by horse and foot men,” put her “into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her,” and carried her away. The king, who had tried in vain to advance the match, was “mighty angry,” and sent Rochester to the Tower. But the triste héritière, as Gramont calls her, did not long withstand the fierce suit of her lover, and Rochester, as his letters show, made a reasonably fond husband. Indeed, though after the adventure what most strongly attracted him was the lady’s fortune, he honourably repented of his greed and presently tells her that her money “shall always be employed for the use of herself and those dependent on her … so long as he can get bread without it.”

    Adventure, in truth, was the passion of his life. When he could not seek it in the field of battle, he must find it perforce in the tamer atmosphere of the court. He had a perfect genius for disguise, and delighted to assume the likeness now of a porter, now of a beggar. Like the true histrion that he was, he neglected no part of his craft, and entered into the very skin of the character he chose to impersonate.

  • “Sometimes to follow some mean amours,” says Burnet, “which for the vanity of them he affected, at other times merely for diversion, he would go about in odd shapes, in which he acted his part so naturally, that even those who were in the secret and saw him in these shapes could perceive nothing by which he might be discovered.”
  • In one of his banishments, he and the duke of Buckingham, also in disgrace, found an inn to let on the Newmarket road. Entering into the joyous spirit of masquerade, they took the inn, and each in turn played the part of landlord. Less with the purpose of selling their ale than to get what sport they might out of the ramble, they invited the whole countryside to frequent feasts, and with the help of their neighbours, enacted a veritable comedy. At last Rochester became enamoured of a wood-nymph, compared with whom “Salmacis was not more charming,” and whom he visited in the garb of an old gentlewoman, thus giving the court the matter of not a little gossip, before the king, passing by that road to Newmarket, took him into favour again. But his greatest exploit in this kind was to set himself up in Tower street for a German (or Italian) astrologer, who declared that he had discovered the profoundest secrets of nature and promised infallible remedies for every disease. His success in the city was immediate, and his fame so quickly spread to the other end of the town that the courtiers flocked to hear his eloquence and to profit by his wisdom. So well contrived was his disguise, that his nearest friends did not know him; and, as Hamilton tells us, but for an accident he would have numbered Miss Jennings and Miss Price among his patients. None knew better than he how to beat the drum and to urge the passers-by into his booth. As Alexander Bendo, he put himself high above “the bastard-race of quacks and cheats.” He was ready to cure the spleen and all the other ills of mankind. Above all, he declared that he had learned in a long sojourn abroad how art assists nature in the preservation of Beauty. Under his treatment women of forty should bear the same countenance as girls of fifteen. There was no miracle of embellishment that he would not undertake. “I will also preserve and cleanse your teeth,” he boasted, “white and round as pearls, fastening them that are loose.” And he did not underrate the benefits which he was ready to confer.
  • “Now should Galen himself look out of his grave,” said he, “and tell me these are baubles below the profession of a physician, I would boldly answer him, that I take more glory in preserving God’s image in its unblemished beauty upon one good face, than I should do in patching up all the decay’d carcases in the world.”
  • That is in the proper key of extravagance, and it is not wonderful that courtiers and citizens alike sought out Alexander Bendo at his lodgings in Tower street, next door to the sign of the Black Swan.

    Thus it was that he spent the interludes of enforced exclusion from court. Nothing could tame the ardent gaiety of his spirits, or check his boisterous love of life and pleasure. His tireless wit came to the aid of his inclination, and his deep knowledge of literature made him welcome even among the serious. Like Gramont, he sought joy everywhere, and carried it with him into every company. His unwearied curiosity sustained him in the most hazardous adventures and taught him how to make light of the worst misfortunes. Burnet declares that he had conquered his love of drink while upon his travels, and that, falling once more into a society that practised every sort of excess, he was brought back to it again. It is probable that no vast persuasion was necessary. His constant disposition was toward gaiety and mirth, and

  • “the natural bent of his fancy,” to quote Burnet’s words, “made him so extravagantly pleasant, that many to be more diverted by that humour, studied to engage him deeper and deeper in intemperance, which at length did so entirely subdue him, that, as he told me, for five years together he was continually drunk.”
  • When Burnet wrote these words, he desired, no doubt, to make the worst of Rochester. The greater the sin was, the greater the conversion. And thus it was that Rochester’s vices became legendary, that Rochester himself was chosen as an awful example of demoniacal passion, a kind of bogey to frighten children withal.

    Yet far worse than his manifold intemperance, in the eyes of his contemporaries, were his principles of morality and religion. Evelyn found him “a very profound wit,” and, doubtless, he took a peculiar pleasure in shocking that amiable philosopher. Worse than all, he was “a perfect Hobbist,” and, upon his Hobbism, his glaring vices seemed but evanescent spots. He freely owned to Burnet, with a smile, let us hope, that

  • though he talked of morality as a fine thing, yet this was only because he thought it a decent way of speaking, and that as they went always in clothes though in their frolics they would have chosen sometimes to have gone naked, if they had not feared the people, so though some of them found it necessary for human life to talk of morality, yet he confessed they cared not for it.
  • As in prose, so in verse, Rochester delighted to outrage his critics. Dryden charged him with self-sufficiency, and out of his mouth he might have convicted him. Thus writes Rochester in An Epistolary Essay:
  • Born to myself, I like myself alone;
  • And must conclude my Judgment good, or none:
  • For cou’d my Sense be nought, how shou’d I know
  • Whether another Man’s were good or no.
  • If then I’m happy, what does it advance
  • Whether to Merit due, or Arrogance?
  • Oh, but the World will take Offence thereby!
  • Why then the World shall suffer for ’t, not I.
  • But it was not the world which suffered. It was Rochester. Like all men who set out to astonish the citizen, to put the worst possible construction upon his own words and acts, he saw his self-denunciation accepted for simple truth. Even Dr. Johnson did not rise superior to the prejudice of Rochester’s own contemporaries. He, too, thought that Rochester’s intervals of study were “yet more criminal” than his “course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality,” and thus proved how long endures the effect of mystification.

    As has been said, it is difficult in the clash of opinions to disengage the character of Rochester. Fort impie, fort ordurier dans ses propos et ses écrits—such is Hamilton’s judgment.

  • There has not liv’d in many Ages (if ever) so extraordinary, and I think I may add so useful a Person, as most Englishmen know my Lord to have been, whether we consider the constant good Sense, and the agreeable Mirth of his ordinary Conversation, or the vast Reach and Compass of his Invention
  • —so says Wolseley, his loyal panegyrist. Somewhere between these two extremes the truth will be found. Rochester was as little “useful” as he was fort impie, fort ordurier. He was a man, not a monster, a man of genius, moreover, and, in his hours, a man of rare simplicity and candour. A good friend, a kind, if fickle, lover, he has left behind in his letters a better proof of his character than either obloquy or eulogy affords. His correspondence with Henry Savile does equal credit to them both. Rochester’s letters are touched with the sadness which underlay his mirth, yet, what spirit is in them, what courage, even when he confesses himself “almost blind, utterly lame, and scarce within the reasonable Hope of ever seeing London again”! As sickness overtakes him, he leans the more heavily on Savile’s friendship.

  • “Harry,” he writes, “’t is not the least of my Happiness, that I think you love me; but the first of my pretensions is to make it appear, that I faithfully endeavour to deserve it. If there be a real good upon earth, ’t is in the name of Friend, without which all others are fantastical. How few of us are fit stuff to make that thing, we have daily the melancholy experience.”
  • His letters to his wife, moreover, exhibit us a Rochester that has hitherto been obscured from view. Whimsical, humorous, ironic, he appears in them also, but something else than the cynical hunter after pleasure. He shows himself curious concerning the details of household management. He discusses oats and coal, deplores the want of ready cash, which is hard to come by, and hopes his wife excuses him sending no money, “for till I am well enough,” thus he writes, “to fetch it myself, they will not give me a farthing, and if I had not pawn’d my plate I believe I must have starv’d in my sickness.” Here, indeed, is an unfamiliar Rochester, in dire straits of poverty, pawning his plate to keep his restless soul within its case, and nearer to the truth, perhaps, than the monster painted in their blackest colours by anxious divines.