© National Portrait Gallery, London.
JOHN WILMOT, 2ND EARL OF ROCHESTER, English poet and wit, was the son of Henry Wilmot, 1st Earl (c.1612-1658). Having fought against the Scots at Newburn and been imprisoned and expelled from the House of Commons for plotting in the interests of the King in 1641, Henry Wilmot served Charles I well during the Civil War, being responsible for the defeats of Sir William Waller at Roundway Down in July 1643 and at Cropredy Bridge in June 1644. In 1643 he was created Baron Wilmot of Adderbury. Wilmot was on bad terms with some of the king's friends and advisers, including Prince Rupert, and in 1644 he is reported to have said that Charles was afraid of peace and to have advised his supercession by his son, the Prince of Wales. Consequently he was deprived of his command, and after a short imprisonment was allowed to cross over to France. He was greatly trusted by King Charles II, whose defeat at Worcester and subsequent wanderings he shared, and during this king's exile he was one of his principal advisers, being created by him earl of Rochester in 1652. In the interests of Charles he visited the emperor Ferdinand III, the Duke of Lorraine, and the elector of Brandenburg, and in March 1655 he was in England, where he led a feeble attempt at a rising on Marston Moor, near York; on its failure he fled the country.
Born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on the 10th of April 1647, John Wilmot, who succeeded his father as 2nd earl in 1658, was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and in 1661, although he was only fourteen years of age, received the degree of M.A. On leaving Oxford he travelled in France and Italy with a tutor who encouraged his love of literature, and moreover advocated principles of temperance which, however, bore little fruit. He returned in 1664, and at once made his way to Charles II's court, where his youth, good looks and wit assured him of a welcome. In 1665 he joined the fleet serving against the Dutch as a volunteer, and in the following year distinguished himself by carrying a message in an open boat under fire. This reputation for courage was afterwards lost in private quarrels in which he seems to have shirked danger. He became gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles II, and was the confidant of his various exploits. According to Anthony Hamilton, banishment from court for lampooning the king or his mistresses was with Rochester an almost annual occurrence, but his disgrace was never of long duration. Charles seems to have found his company too congenial to be long dispensed with, and Pepys says that all serious men were disgusted by the complaisance with which he passed over Rochester's insolence (Diary, 57th Feb. 1669). In order to restore his rapidly vanishing fortune he became a suitor to Elizabeth Malet. In spite of the king's support of Rochester's suit, Miss Malet refused to marry the earl, who thereupon had her seized (1665) from her uncle's coach. Rochester was pursued, and Charles, who was very angry, sent him to the Tower. Miss Malet, however, married him in 1667.
Not content with making or unmaking the reputation of the maids of honour and the courtiers by his squibs and songs, Rochester aspired to be a patron of poetry and an arbiter of taste, but he was vain and capricious, tolerating no rivals in his capacity of patron. Dryden dedicated to him his Marriage-ala-Mode (1672) in a preface full of effusive flattery, at the close of which, however, occurs a passage that may be taken to indicate that he already had misgivings. "Your lordship has but another step to make," he says, "and from the patron of wit, you may become its tyrant; and oppress our little reputations with more ease than you now protect them." Dryden had another patron in Lord Mulgrave (afterwards duke of Buckingham and Normandy), to whom he dedicated (1675) Aurengzebe. Mulgrave had engaged in a duel with Rochester, who had refused to fight at the last minute on the ground of ill-health. Mulgrave allowed this story to spread, and Rochester, who apparently thought him too dangerous an opponent, revenged himself on Dryden as Mulgrave's protégé by setting up as his rivals, first Elkanah Settle, and then John Crowne. By his influence Settle's Emperor of Morocco was played at Whitehall, and Crowne was employed, in direct infringement of Dryden's province as laureate, to write a masque for the court. Both these poets were discarded in turn for Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Otway. In 1679 Mulgrave began to circulate his Essay on Satire in which Rochester was singled out for severe criticism.
Rochester chose to pretend that this was Dryden's work, not Mulgrave's, and by his orders a band of roughs set on the poet in Rose Alley, Covent Garden, and beat him. He obviously felt no shame for this infamous attack, for in his "Imitation of the First Satire of Juvenal" he says, "Who'd be a wit in Dryden's cudgelled skin?" His health was already undermined, and in the spring of 1680 he retired to High Lodge, Woodstock Park. He began to show signs of a more serious temper, and at his own request was visited (July 10th to July 24th) by Bishop Burnet, who attested the sincerity of his repentance. He died, however, two days after the bishop left him. When his son Charles, the 3rd earl, died on the 12th of November 1681, his titles became extinct.
As a poet Rochester was a follower of Abraham Cowley and of Boileau, to both of whom he was considerably indebted. His love lyrics are often happy, but his real vigour and ability is best shown in his critical poems and satires. The political satires are notable for their fierce exposure of Charles II's weakness, his ingratitude, and the slavery in which he was held by his mistresses. They show that Rochester had it in him to be a very different man from the criticizing courtier and the "very profane wit" who figures in contemporary memoirs.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XXIII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 428.
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