As promised, here is the conclusion of Thom Cuell’s biography of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. When we left Rochester in Part 1 he’d been banished for writing offensive satire about King Charles II…
At the same time as he was writing these caustic satires, Rochester also composed some fine longer poems, notable for their violent mood swings (themselves a common symptom of alcoholism) and bitter misanthropy. In Tunbridge Wells, a narrative of a day trip to Kent quickly descends into a bilious outpouring of rage against the ‘bawling fops’ and ‘would-be-wits’ he encounters. One actually makes him vomit. The poem concludes with abject despair at the state of civilised society:
What thing is man, that thus,
In all his shapes, he is ridiculous?
Ourselves with noise of reason we do please
In vain; humanity’s our worst disease
Drinking had also removed his sexual scruples. His biographer Lamb says ‘from about 1672 to 1675, Rochester’s debauchery hit a peak… In between bouts of illness he still had the strength, inclination and potency to be sexually very active’. Seduction was a means of existing in ‘the happy minute’, the elusive and fleeting moments of joy which brightened his low view of humanity in general. The women in his poems are not delicate creatures, but exhibit strong sexual desires. His compulsive attraction to women and the bottle was that they offered the momentary opportunity to forget about reality and inhabit a fantasy.
He treated his wife with respect, at least during his lucid moments, understood a lot of women better than their husbands did, and could write with considerable charm. That said, he also used prostitutes, and wrote some extremely childish sexual poems.
For all the merit of Rochester’s poetry, the reputation of his writing became secondary to his notorious behaviour. One night in 1676, he was drunkenly roaming through the royal gardens when he was confronted by a large and phallic sundial; ‘What… doest thou stand here to fuck time?’ he roared, before smashing the instrument to pieces. He was involved in a number of duels, arranged for a gang of men to attack the poet Dryden and had his clothes and money stolen in a brothel. Once he fell into conversation with a tramp, who unwittingly complained that Lord Rochester ‘never gave anything’. Rochester had the man dunked in a barrel of beer, before giving him a new set of clothes and sending him on his way.
During one of his revels, a fight broke out between him and the Night Watch; one of Rochester’s companions was killed. Rochester was forced into hiding; his reputation was at its lowest. However, during his exile, an itinerant physician, ‘Dr Alexander Bendo’ appeared in the streets of London, drawing huge crowds to sample his quack medicines. Rochester appeared as the Doctor and as ‘Matron Bendo’, providing intimate examinations for women without arousing their husbands’ suspicions. His cronies played the role of assistants, babbling in a made up language and dispensing ‘cures’ featuring human excrement.
His life continued to take its toll. By his early thirties he was nearly blind from the drink, while his nose had fallen off and been replaced with a prosthetic thanks to syphilis. This physical collapse inspired some of his most remarkable verse; in The Disabled Debauchee he compares himself to ‘some brave admiral, in former war, deprived of force but pressed with courage still’ observing the sexual battleground of Restoration London from afar and urging the combatants by ‘telling what I did when I was strong and able to bear arms’.
In less contemplative mood, he raged in poems like The Debauchee, which is outrageously graphic even by modern standards. Like Axl Rose in Guns ‘n’ Roses’ song about heroin addiction, Mr Brownstone, Rochester describes his day, which begins thus:
I rise at eleven; I dine about two
Get drunk before seven and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when in fear of the clap
I dally around her and spew in her lap
His work continued to be popular after his death in July 1680, and playwrights such as Aphra Behn modelled characters on him. Unsurprisingly, the author of lines such as ‘The Isle of Britain, long since known, for breeding the best c**ts in Christendom’ fared poorly during the Victorian era, but in more recent times he has been the subject of a Graham Greene book, a number of biographies, and a fine, filthy novel by Christopher Peachment, The Green and the Gold. His poems and plays remain in print, and he was afforded the signal honour of being played on screen by Johnny Depp.
Rochester can be seen as a nihilist, a prodigal son, a tragic alcoholic or an iconoclastic one-off. The violent mood swings and invective of his poetry retain their power today, but he also demonstrates wit, charm and tenderness. His erratic, impulsive behaviour, almost certainly the result of his alcoholism, has been romanticised by history, becoming symbolic of the carpe diem spirit of Restoration England, governed entirely by passion, and living absolutely in the moment.