Wilmot, John, Earl Of Rochester

, a noted wit in the reign of Charles II. was the son of Henry earl of Rochester; who bore a great part in the civil wars, and was the chief manager of the king’s preservation after the battle of Worcester. He was born April 10, 1647, at Ditchley in Oxfordshire; and was educated in grammar and classical literature in the free-school at Burford. Here he acquired the Latin to such perfection, that to his ‘dying day he retained a quick relish for the beauties of that tongue; and afterwards became exactly versed in the authors of the Augustan age, which he often read. In 1659, when only twelve years old, he was admitted a nobleman of Wadham college in Oxford, under the inspection of Dr. Blandford, afterwards bishop of Oxford and Worcester; and, in 1661, was with some other persons of rank created master of arts in convocation: at which time, Wood says, he and none else was admitted very affectionately into the fraternity by a kiss from the chancellor of the university, Clarendon, who then sate in the supreme chair. Afterwards he travelled into France and Italy; and at his return frequented the court, which, Wood observes, and there is reason to believe very truly, not only corrupted his morals, but made him a perfect Hobbist in principle. In the mean time, he became one of the gentlemen of the bed-chamber to the king, and comptroller of Woodstockpark. In 1665 he went to sea with the earl of Sandwich, who was sent to lie in wait for the Dutch East-India fleet; and was in the Revenge, commanded by sir Thomas Tiddiman, when the attack was made on the port of Bergen in Norway, the Dutch ships having got into that port. It was a desperate attempt; and, during the whole action, the earl of Rochester shewed the greatest resolution, and gained a high reputation for courage. He supported his character for bravery in a second expedition, but afterwards lost it in an adventure with lord Mulgrave; of which that noble author, in the memoirs of himself, gives a | particular account. It exhibits some traits of the earl of Rochester’s character; and therefore, though somewhat tedious and wordy, may not be unacceptable. “I was informed,” says lord Mulgrave, “that the earl of Rochester had said something of me, which, according to his custom, was very malicious. I therefore sent colonel Aston, a very mettled friend of mine, to call him to account for it. He denied the words, and indeed I was soon convinced he had never said them; but the mere report, though I found it to. be false, obliged me, as I then foolishly thought, to go on with the quarrel; and the next day was appointed for us to fight on horseback, a way in England a little unusual, but it was his part to chuse. Accordingly, I and my second lay the night before at Knightsbridge privately, to avoid the being secured at London upon any suspicion j and in the morning we met the lord Rochester at the place appointed, who, instead of James Porter, whom he assured Aston he would make his second, brought an errant lifeguard man, whom nobody knew. To this Mr. Aston took exception, upon the account of his being no suitable adversary; especially considering how extremely well he was mounted, whereas we had only a couple of pads: upon which, tve all agreed to fight on foot. But, as my lord Rochester and i were riding into the next field in order to it, he told me, that he had at first chosen to fight on horseback, because he was so much indisposed, that he found himself unfit at all any way, much less on foot. I was extremely surprised, because at that time no man had a better reputation for courage; and I took the liberty of representing what a ridiculous story it would make, if we returned without fighting, and therefore advised him for both our sakes, especially for his own, to consider better of it, since I must be obliged in my own defence to lay the fault on him, by telling the truth of the matter. His answter was, that he submitted to it; and hoped, that I would not desire the advantage of having to do with any man in so weak a condition. I replied, that by such an argument he had sufficiently tied my hands, upon condition that I might call our seconds to be witnesses of the whole business; which he consented to, and so we parted. When we returned to London, we found it full of this quarrel, upon our being absent so long; and therefore Mr. Aston thought himself obliged to write down every word and circumstance of this whole matter, in order to | spread every where the true reason of our returning without having fought. This, being never in the least contradicted or resented by the lord Rochester, entirely ruined his reputation as to courage, of which I was really sorry to be the occasion, though nobody had still a greater as to wit; which supported him pretty well in the world, notwithstanding some more accidents of the same kind, that never fail to succeed one another, wten once people know a man’s weakness.

The earl of Rochester, before he travelled, had given somewhat into that disorderly and intemperate way of living which the joy of the whole nation, upon the restoring of Charles II. had introduced; yet during his travels he bad at least acquired a habit of sobriety. But, falling into court-company, where excesses were continually practised, he soon became intemperate, and the natural heat of his fancy, being inflamed with wine, made him so extravagantly pleasant, that many, to be more diverted by that humour, strove to engage him deeper and deeper in intoxication. This at length so entirely subdued him, that, as he told Dr, Burnet, he was for five years together conttnually drunk: not all the while under the visible effect of liquor, but so inflamed in his blood, that he was never cool enough to be master of himself. There were two principles in the natural temper of this lively and witty earl, which carried him to great excesses; a violent love of pleasure, and a disposition to extravagant mirth. The one involved him in the lowest sensuality, the other led him to many odd adventures and frolics. Once he had disguised himself so, that his nearest friends could not have known him, and set up in Tower-street for an Italian mountebank, where he practised physic for some weeks. He disguised himself often as a porter, or as a beggar; sometimes to follow some mean amours, which, for the variety 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. He is said to have been a generous and good-natured man in cold blood, yet would go far in his heats after any thing that might turn to a jest or matter of diversion; and he laid out himself very freely in libels and satire*, in which he had so peculiar a talent of mixing wit with malice, that all his | compositions were easily known. Andrew Marvell, Ivho was himself a great wit, used to say, “that Rochester was the only man in England who had the true vein of satire.

Thus,” says Dr. Johnson, “in a course of drunken, gaiety, and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency aad order, a total disregard to every moral, and a. resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of one and thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay.

In Oct. 1679, when he was slowly recovering from a severe disease, he was visited by Dr. Burnet, upon an intimation that such a visit would be very agreeable to him. With great freedom he laid open to that divine all his thoughts both of religion and morality, and gave him a full view of his past life: on which the doctor visited hick often, till he went from London in April following, and once or twice after. They canvassed at various times the principles of morality, natural and revealed religion, and Christianity in particular; the result of all which, as it is faithfully related by Dr. Burnet in a book, which, Dr. Johnson observes, “the critic ought to read for its elegance, the philosopher for its arguments, and the saint-far its piety,” was, that this noble earl, though he had lived the life of an atheist and a libertine, yet died the death of a sincere penitent. The philosophers of the present age will naturally suppose, that his contrition and conviction were purely the effects of weakness and low spirits, which scarcely suffer a man to continue in his senses, and certainly not to be master of himself; but Dr. Burnet affirms him to have been “under no such decay as either darkened or weakened his understanding, nor troubled with the spleen or vapours, or under the power of melancholy.” The reader may judge for himself from the following, which is part of a letter from the earl to Dr. Burnet, dated “Woodstock-park, June 25, 1680, Oxfordshire.” There is nothing left out, but some personal compliments to the doctor.

"My most honoured Dr. Burnet,

My spirits and body decay so equally together, that I shall write you a letter as weak as 1 am in person. I, begin | to vlue churchmen above all men in the world, &c. If God be yet pleased to spare me longer in this worid^ I hope in your conversation to be exalted to that degree of piety, that the world may see how much J abhor what I so long loved, and how much I glory in repentance, and in God’s service. Bestow your prayers upon me, that God would spare me, if it be his good wili, to shew a true repentance and amendment of life fqr the time to come or else, if the” Lord pieaseth to put an end to my worldly being now, that be would mercifully accept of my death-bed repentance, and perform that promise he hath been pleased to make, that * at what time soever a sinner doth repeat, he would receive him.’ Put up these prayers, most dear doctor, to Almighty God, for your most obedient and languishing servant, Rochester."

He died July 26 following, without any convulsion, or so much as a groan: for, though he had not completed his thirty -third year, he was worn so entirely down, that all the powers of nature were exhausted. He left behind him a son named Charles, who died Nov. 12, 1.681; and three daughters*. The male line ceasing, Charles II. conferred the title of Rochester on Laurence viscount Killingworth, a younger son of Edward earl of Clarendon.

The earl of Rochester was a graceful and well -shaped person, tall, and well-made, if not a little too slender, as Burnet observes. “He was,” says Johnson, "eminent for the vigour of his colloquial wit, and remarkable for many wild pranks and sallies of extravagance. The glare of his general character diffused itself upon his writings; the compositions of a man whose name was heard so often were certain of attention, and from many readers certain of applause. This blaze of reputation is not yet quite extinguished; and his poetry still retains some splendour beyond that which genius has bestowed.

Wood and Burnet give us reason to believe, that much was imputed to him which he did not write. It is not known by whom the original collection was made, or by what authority its genuineness was ascertained. The first edition was published. in the year of his death, with an air of concealment, professing in the title-page to be printed

*

In the London Chronicle for Feb. 11, 1765, and probably in other papers, we read the following " Yesterday morning died, in ao advanced age, at her lodgings in Fleet-si reel, Mrs. Arabella Wilmot, a natural daughter of the famous eail of Rochester, the celebrated wit in the reign of Charles.

| at Antwerp. Of some of the pieces, however, there is no doubt. The Imitation of Horace’s Satire, the Verses to lord Mulgrave, the Satire against Man, the verses upon Nothing, and perhaps some others, are I believe genuine, and perhaps most of those which the collection exhibits. As he cannot be supposed to have found leisure for any course of continued study, his pieces are commonly short, such as one fit of resolution would produce. His songs have no particular character; they tell, like other &ongs, in smooth and easy language, of scorn and kindness, dismission and desertion, absence, and inconstancy, with the common-places of artificial courtship. They are commonly smooth and easy; but have little nature, and little sentiment. His imitation of Horace on Lucilius is not inelegant or unhappy. In the reign of Charles the Second began that adaptation, which has since been very frequent, of ancient poetry to present times; and perhaps few will be found where the parallelism is better preserved than in this. The versification is indeed sometimes careless, but it is sometimes vigorous and weighty. The strongest effort of his muse is his poem upon” Nothing.“Another of his most vigorous pieces is his lampoon upon sir Carr Scrope. Of the satire against Man, Rochester can only claim what remains when all Boileau’s part is taken away. 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?” The late George Steevens, esq. made the selection of Rochester’s poems which appears in Dr. Johnson’s edition; but Mr. Malone observes, that the same task had been performed in the early part of the last century by Jacob Tonson. 1
1 Life by Bp. "Bur-net. Johnson’s Poets. Biog. But, Park’s Edition of the Royal and Noble Authors.