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A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester Hardcover – December 2, 2004
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Johnson (Emer., University of Rochester) wrote this generous biography -- a veritable progress of a rake's rake -- with enthusiasm and engaged fascination with Rochester (1647-1680) . . . Johnson's forte, in addition to the extensiveness of his information, is his strong narrative sweep: this is an exciting biography. Highly Recommended. CHOICE Within the last five years there have been two other new biographies of the poet and courtier, both oriented towards a more general reader than is implied here. However, any reader would be advised to choose Johnson's as the most authoritative account to date. . . . An additional strength of this biography is the way in which it uncovers so much more than an individual life. Interwoven with Rochester's fortunes are those of King and country, court and parliament and a huge array of other personalities. ENGLISH: THE JOURNAL OF THE ENGLISH ASSOCIATION A life of Rochester could not be better done. It is a biography not only for the scholar, replete with footnotes, references and bibliography, but also for the reader, being written in an easy style with learning lightly worn. . . A fine biography unlikely to be bettered in the foreseeable future. THE PRESS (New Zealand)
From the Author
If you loved Johnny Depp in the deliciously dark film, The Libertine, you'll want to pick up a copy of this book to read the writings for yourself.
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I think there are probably several groups of fans for the film. There are the fans who like Johnny Depp and will see anything he is in (I'm not one of those although I will admit to liking DONNIE BRASCO & Jim Jarmusch's DEAD MAN). But then there are those who come to the film because they are interested in Rochester himself. These fans can probably further be divided up into those who are amused by Rochester the legend ( the mad, bad, and dangerous to know libertine) and then there are those who are curious about Rochester the actual historical figure and author of many fine lyrics. James William Johnson's biography will appeal to those who have an interest in not only Rochester but the entire social, political, military, economic, and literary milieu of 1660's and 1670's London. I think the reader with only a casual interest in the subject might find this treatment to be too complete. I for one found this biography to be almost too exaustive; that might sound odd but Johnson spends so much time on Rochester's mother and her family politicking, for instance, that I found myself nodding off during these parts. The family tree at the end of the book is helpful if you are a completist and want to know every detail of John Wilmot AND his extended families lives (before his birth and after his death) but for me this was more than I really wanted or needed. In short Johnson is a Restoration scholar and Johnson's biography is really written for other Restoration scholars.
The Rochester that makes it onto film is, as one might suspect, a sensationalized version of the real thing. Thats not to say that the things in the film did not happen (most of them did) but the film makes it look like the life was all salacious scandal and street theatre. It wasn't. The film also seems to take great pains to show you the great pains that John Wilmot went through in the last three years of his life as his body and face suffered the effects of a syphilis that was greatly aggravated by alcoholism. The film, intentionally or no, creates a martyr. To the filmmakers Rochester's atrophy is presented as a kind of heroic metaphor for unwillingness to compromise (even if that unwillingness to compromise meant that he lived only for the moment and only for himself). This probably tells us more about ourselves and our times and values than about the social times and values of 1660's and 1670's London--we seem to be socially programmed to equate a short life with a beautiful life. This is probably due to the allure of an early death promulgated by rock star's and actor's and artsits's of various stripes dying young; but then maybe this has always been true. I suppose the short beautiful life myth always assumes that its better to burn out than to fade away. That would be the myth on the mind of the filmmakers (or the myth that the filmakers rely on to bring audiences to the film). This mythos implies that some people are just not meant to or able to live a normal life, or at least not able to accept the limits and boundaries that most accept. These types are Depps's specialty. Johnson's book is, however, to its credit, not about perpetuating a legend or a mythos. In fact Johnson's book goes a long way in exploring the life or inhabiting the life in order to show us what Rochester did within the confines of a very limited set of social and intellectual possibilities. Rochester's drink-driven poetry and riotous actions were attempts at a kind of semblance of freedom that he actually did not have. When sober the reality was that he was confined to a very specific social station and almost all of the major decisions of his life were decided by his superiors (his mother, teachers, king). His life was virtually dictated to him every step of the way. It is not surprising that he struck out against authority (including his own). But he also (in verse and in life) struck out against women, and (as his critics were quick to point out) he often caused trouble that others had to pay for (sometimes with their lives).
In his own day Rochester was Restoration England's most celebrated bad boy, but that fame or infamy only lasted about five years ( a time in which he claims he was perpetually drunk). By the time he was 30 he was already a has-been on the London social scene. The public lost interest in him partly because he could no longer do what had made him so famous (the syphilis caused sexual malfunction) and also because the climate of the country had changed and grown more morose due to war, plague, and fire. But also the public lost interest in him because bad boys become tiresome after awhile; they wear out their welcome. In the last years of his life he was someone the public loved to hate.
There are several biographies of Rochester out there. I think each biography has something to offer. If you are interested in this whole time period then Johnson's biography is the best because it situates Rochester's life among the other lives and the major trends and happenings of the time. If Johnson's biography has a weakness it might just be that he does so much contextualizing that you feel like the focus is on the time period as much as it is on Rochester himself. Another option is to track down a copy of the out of print biography of Rochester by the novelist Graham Greene. This biography called LORD ROCHESTER'S MONKEY was written in the 1930's but not published until the 1970's (for censorship reasons). It's concise and lavishly illustrated and I found a nice used first edition here on Amazon for pennies. The advantage of the Greene biography is that he concentrates on the major events of Rochester's life with an especially keen focus on the Elizabeth Barry relationship and an equally keen focus on Rochester's intellectual-emotional world view and temperament. (Many in Rochester's day read Hobbes and were influenced by Hobbes materialism and it was Hobbes' philosophy, some argue, that led to the rampant selfism that Rochester was so famous for but Greene argues that Rochester never totally followed this program of thought and even struggled against it as he attempted to evolve some kind of classically inspired social ethic that is, sometimes, evidenced in his poetry). Perhaps one problem with Rochester the poet is that he almost always writes through some masque or persona and he seems never to have written except when incensed at someone and so the poetry tends to be polemical or invective or scathing satire but rarely, if ever, do you get a measured estimation of his real values and beliefs. Greene, as you would expect, is especially good at analyzing Rochester's lyrics and what makes them so interesting. Johnson's reading of individul poems is informed by current gender theory and since Rochester often wrote in the guise of a woman this works. Greene's book is a nice option for those who are literary but do not require (or desire) the academic armature and trendy theorizing as well as the leave-no-stoned-unturned thoroughness that you get with scholarly biographies. If you have the time read both the Johnson and the Greene.
If you are interested in this period I would also recommend an excellent PBS miniseries called THE LAST KING (available on DVD). Rochester himself makes only a couple of brief appearances but this is an excellent and entertaining way to familiarize yourself with the England of Charles II and the surronding cast of characters (Lady Castlemaine, Duke of Buckingham, Nell Gwynn, etc...) that will be mentioned in any Rochester biography.
Rochester was born in 1647. He absorbed a Puritan doctrine from his mother and the tutors she hired for him, and despite all the evidence of his subsequent rakish behavior, he never shook off the imbued religious emotions and guilt. At Oxford he entered Wadham College and began his sexual life, perhaps with homosexual debauchery (Wadham was known as "Sodom"). His tutor may have initiated him into it, but also helped the young man as an upcoming classicist and poet. He began to write poetic tributes to King Charles, with the purpose of reminding the King that he was Lord Wilmot's son. It worked; the King started an annual pension, and Rochester eventually entered the King's service, bravely doing naval duty in the Dutch wars and more importantly becoming a Gentleman of the King's Bedchamber. Rochester had a reputation for being able to seduce virgins, while the King preferred experienced lovers; Rochester dutifully took on the role of gathering maidenheads and instructing the women in the techniques of love in preparation for the King's bed. Johnson lists the successive liaisons with mistresses, and quotes from the poems assigned to them. Rochester treated his wife with respect (if one excuses the infidelities) but often treated mistresses with meanness and contempt. There is a strong strain of misogyny in his poetry, to the point of brutishness. Rochester condemned women for lust, hypocrisy, biological filth, and capacity to spread disease. There have been moralists who have thought that his obscene satires were not written to stimulate but rather to disgust and thus reduce desire. Johnson also shows that Rochester, less frequently, was able to write mildly feminist verses and in his plays give empathy to the female perspective.
Rochester's end was entirely satisfactory to moralists. He died at thirty-three, consumed by venereal disease, and he also had a deathbed conversion, capping a life of paganism and doubt with an ostensible acceptance of standard Protestantism. The conversion of this prodigal became a staple of sermonizers and pamphleteers, who thus had the paradoxical duty of explaining, in order to show contrast, just how bad a fellow Rochester had been. They undoubtedly drew upon exaggerated stories of his behavior, but his life was full enough of scandal. His poems and plays illuminate a rowdy time, and even the royal take on it. There was even more he could have told, and historians must ever regret that his mother arranged after his death that his _History of the Intrigues of the Court of Charles II_ should be promptly burned. Johnson's intricate biography makes plain many of the intrigues of the time, and quotes well from Rochester's writings, although those really interested in the works will be delighted to have the Penguin Classics edition of _John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: Selected Works_ handy as they go through the biography. In the poem "Tunbridge Wells", find these lines about the odd persons and events at a famous watering hole, which could well do for the poet himself:
Bless me, thought I, 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.