Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Libertine with Learning

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Libertine with Learning

Article excerpt

Byline: JOHN MULLAN

BLAZING STAR: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN WILMOT, EARL OF ROCHESTER by Alexander Larman (Head of Zeus, PS25) THREE-QUARTERS of the way through his biography of the aristocratic poet and notorious rake John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Alexander Larman pauses to wonder whether his poetry is any good. He finds it easy to list his faults but harder to explain why, in an age when a gentleman was expected to scribble verses, Rochester "stands poles apart from his contemporaries". (The cliche is unfortunately characteristic of Larman's style.) It is a perilous moment of self-doubt, for Larman has been trying jolly hard to tell us why we should still relish the literary output of this dedicated debauchee, who died of syphilis at the age of only 31. It is as if he fears, with some reason, that he has not quite managed it.

In his own short lifetime Rochester was infamous for his wantonness and admired for his wit. His father Henry Wilmot had been Charles II's companion in his hair's-breadth escape to France after defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester. After his Restoration to the throne in 1660, Charles looked kindly on his old comrade's brilliant son, inviting him into a court where hedonism prevailed and the only sin was dullness.

Rochester cavorted with the mob of gentlemen, enjoyed affairs with ladies at court and leading actresses (Nell Gwynn probably left his bed for the King's), and whored and drank and sometime fought. In between, including on visits to his stoical wife in Oxfordshire, he wrote poems.

Life and art were not separate. Rochester's libertinism shaped his poetry, which was circulated in manuscript to select readers (he would never do anything as vulgar as print it). His lyrical poems are often spoken by an arch-seducer. His satires are sexually candid and sometimes obscene. They mock piety and challenge morality. Yet his sexiness is not sexist: women in his poems are equal partners, as intelligent and as pleasure-loving as the amorous poet. (Oddly, Larman omits even to mention the brilliant Letter from Artemiza, written in the voice of a sophisticated woman. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.