This is part 1 of the debauched tale of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680) with part 2 to follow next week. Alcoholism as mental illness is controversial (and please feel free to disagree with our definition of it as such), but it is defined as a substance abuse disorder by the DSM (which admittedly is a pretty controversial manual).
John Wilmot is one of the most outrageous figures in English literary history. A poet, playwright, wit and libertine, he scandalised society before dying at 33, from the effects of alcoholism and a cocktail of STIs. Along the way, he managed to inspire Aphra Behn, Voltaire, a disappointing Johnny Depp film, Graham Greene and one of Axl Rose’s better lyrics (possibly).
Rochester was born in Oxfordshire in 1647. His father, an exiled cavalier, probably met his son only a couple of times and died in 1658; his mother was a puritan royalist, who managed to keep their estate together through the Republic and Restoration by having a foot in each camp. At 12, Rochester attended Wadham College, Oxford, where alcohol quickly became his trademark: when he graduated at 14, he presented his college with four silver pint pots. The newly-restored Charles II then gave him an allowance out of gratitude for the loyalty of his father, and Rochester went on a Grand Tour of France and Italy, returning to court aged 17.
He soon gained a reputation as the sharpest tongue in a culture where quick wit was the key to success. Jeremy Lamb’s biography So Idle A Rogue suggests Rochester fit well into the cynical court, whose tone was influenced by Thomas Hobbes and the King’s own nature, nurtured during his time in exile: ‘Charles’s cynicism about human nature was black… Rochester’s absurdist and satirical view of life suited Charles perfectly’.
Hobbes’ materialism decreed that the satisfaction of the senses should be privileged over concerns about God and the soul, which gave license to a surge of hedonism, a reaction against the puritan ideology of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic: according to Lamb, ‘Never has alcohol been more of a pivotal & political symbol for a nation’s feelings than it was at the restoration’. The final ingredient of this dangerous social mixture was a strong culture of honour, in which rash deeds and insults could have fatal consequences and the implication of cowardice was social disaster.
Rochester had always displayed a strong tolerance for alcohol, and it was during this initial period at court that he demonstrated for the first time his capacity for drunken recklessness; Charles suggested marriage to the wealthy Elizabeth Malet, but the idea was rejected by her family. Rochester kidnapped her, and was thrown into the Tower of London. Eventually he was freed after appealing to the King.
After a spell fighting the Dutch, Rochester returned to court. By his own account, for five years he ‘was continually drunk and not perfectly master of myself… which led me to do many wild and unaccountable things’.
He pointed some wicked satire at the King, but was allowed to take these liberties simply because Charles felt better in his company. Lamb argues that Rochester’s own beliefs were at odds with the culture of the court, particularly when it came to sex: ‘he did not want to follow the king’s example of rampant infidelity. It was a way of life which revolted him’, so the acceleration of his drinking at this point may have been an attempt to blot out his moral scruples.
By 1671, Rochester’s drinking was beginning to have a marked effect. His eyesight was failing, and he had rheumatism, gout and kidney trouble. Alcohol had also removed his social inhibitions. In his poem Satyre (1673) he mocks the King’s lust (‘his prick and sceptre are of a length’) and his ineffectiveness as a ruler (‘thy prick, like thy buffoons at court, will govern thee because it makes thee sport’), naming his mistresses (‘poor laborious Nelly’) before ending on an outrageously republican sentiment: ‘all monarchs I hate and the thrones they sit on, from the hector of France to the cully of Britain’. This was too much even for the indulgent King, and Rochester was banished again…