ARTS & CULTURE
Poet, playboy and renowned profligate – Lord Rochester defined the scandalous side of the 17th century. In his new book, Putney local Alexander Larman reassesses a controversial figure
ohn Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, lived out his life like a mixture of rock star and prophet. He went beneath the glittering façade of the Restoration and exposed the dirt and depravity underneath in his poetry, which shocked and challenged in equal measure. Dying cruelly young at 33, he deprived England, and its literature, of one of its brightest lights. He has remained notorious for centuries afterwards, even today being regarded as the wickedest man of his age, and beyond. Samuel Johnson later huffed that ‘he blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness.’ While Johnson was no great fan of Rochester, the idea of Rochester as a comet, shooting through the skies at enormous speed before extinguishing himself prematurely, is a compelling and fitting one. The title for my biography of him, Blazing Star, acknowledges this, as well as referring to his poem A Very Heroical Epistle In Answer To Ephelia, where Rochester writes the all too prescient couplet, ‘No glorious thing was ever made to stay/My Blazing-Star but visits, and away’. When Rochester arrived at Whitehall in 1664, he found himself enacting a curious role as a blend of licenced provocateur and whoremaster-in-chief. Rochester was by far the most outrageous man at court, engaging in actions that involved everything from abducting his future wife Elizabeth Malet in a futile attempt to marry her by force to destroying Charles’s prized sundial in the gardens of Whitehall.
When he drunkenly attacked the latter object, he was heard to shout ‘What! Dost thou stand here to f**k time?’ His reputation as a man who could not – and would not – be tamed was assured. He was banished from court on an annual basis, only to be recalled when Charles, never a man to remain in a rage for long, forgave him. This topsy-turvy life continued until the late 1670s when, enfeebled by the effects of his hard living, he remained mainly at his family homes in Addebury and Woodstock, until he eventually died of syphilis in 1680, leaving behind a legacy that continues to be puzzled over to this day.
Rochester did behave badly, it’s true. But this ignores other important features of his character. He was a naval hero, who fought the Dutch valiantly and with great distinction. He might have been a neglectful husband, but he genuinely loved his wife and children, even if he had an odd way of showing it. And most of all, he was an incredibly talented poet, whose work, ranging from the beautiful Love and Life to the satiric masterpiece A Satire Against Reason and Mankind is some of the most complex – as well as enjoyable – writing of his time. He has inspired everyone from Russell Brand and Graham Greene to Barbara Cartland and Charlotte Brontë, and was played by Johnny Depp in the 2004 film The Libertine. Regardless of the way in which you’re introduced to Rochester, it is likely to be a hugely rewarding and enjoyable acquaintance, as it has been for me. Forget your preconceptions, and dive into the weird, wonderful world of Restoration England, with the wittiest man of the time as your guide. It’s an experience that you’ll never regret.
By Alexander Larman (Head of Zeus, £25) 17
Published on Jul 10, 2014
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