Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Head of Zeus, hardback, 408 pages,
‘Can you tell a peerless peer the readiest way to hell?’
‘The readiest way, my lord’s by Rochester’
John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, was a poet, playwright, wit and libertine at the court of Charles II, who scandalised society before dying at thirty-three from the effects of a cocktail of STIs and alcohol abuse. Along the way, he managed to inspire Aphra Benn, Goethe, Voltaire, a disappointing Johnny Depp film, Graham Greene and one of Axl Rose’s better lyrics (possibly). His life story also sheds light on many of the political and religious controversies surrounding the commonwealth and restoration, one of the most turbulent periods of British history.
So, which element of the life does Alexander Larman focus on, in his handsome new biography; Rochester the poet, the drunk, the deathbed convert, or the rake? Larman acknowledges all of these personas, and also seeks to add to our understanding of the young Earl as a ‘heroic naval officer’ in the Anglo-Dutch war, and as a man of ‘enormous intellectual and artistic curiosity’ who ‘never lost the common touch’. Mostly though, he seeks to capture the spirit of the man:
‘Writing this while listening to the stultifying drone of Prime Minister’s Questions in the background, I am reminded that we still need a man, or woman, who can stand up, expose the bland and cynical hypocrisies of politicians and self-appointed opinion formers for what they are and refuse to place themselves on a pedestal of virtue, and instead argue that by embracing our flaws, contradictions and baser desires that we are set free from the dull and oppressive orthodoxies of everyday life.’
In The Road Not Taken, Frank McLynn speculated that one effect of the Reformation was to focus English creative energies on the written word, rather than the visual arts, or music; certainly, the Tudor and Stuart periods didn’t produce any painters or composers to compare with the stature of Marlowe, Shakespeare or Jonson. If we compare English writers and continental painters, then John Wilmot would be Caravaggio – a brilliant, scandalous iconoclast, who died young after alienating his influential supporters through his uncontrolled behaviour. Much of Rochester’s fame is down to the wealth of anecdotes relating to his personal life, but the closer examination of his work, which Larman provides, reveals him to be more penetrating thinker than unthinking penetrator.
Although Rochester’s life has been picked over by numerous biographers, Larman skilfully teases out fresh details. For example, discussing the young Earl’s education at Wadham College, Oxford, where Puritanism had never really taken hold (‘cross-dressing, lewdness, bisexuality and sodomy were rumoured to be rife, as was drunkenness’) Larman brings out the character of Rochester’s tutor Robert Whitehall, ‘a rambunctious, Falstaffian figure, not especially witty in himself, but certainly the cause of wit in others’. Incidentally, some reviews have argued that the word ‘Falstaffian’ is overused in Blazing Star; I would counter that other books don’t use it enough.
From here, Rochester progressed to court, where life was a constant performance, with courtiers expected to be drunk and amusing at all times. The King was willing to forgive almost any level of bad behaviour provided it was done with style. Rochester would test the limits of the King’s benevolence throughout his life. For a glimpse of Rochester’s lifestyle at this time, we can look at ‘The Debauchee’, often attributed to the Earl, but more likely in Larman’s view to be an anonymous satire by one of his enemies. Certainly, the poem is ragingly obscene, even by Rochester’s standards. Like Axl Rose in Mr Brownstone, Rochester describes his day, which begins thus:
I rise at eleven; I dine about two
Get drunk before seven and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when in fear of the clap
I dally around her and spew in her lap
The poem goes on to reference the subject’s sexual inadequacy and penchant for sodomy, which would indicate the work of another hand, but, as Larman acknowledges, both subjects were actually broached by Rochester in verse (‘The Disabled Debauchee’, for example, includes the line ‘the best kiss was the deciding lot / Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy’).
It is a tricky business to pathologise figures from such distant history, but maybe some of Rochester’s more unbounded actions were those of an alcoholic, rather than a libertine – his humorous escapades were interspersed with serious breaches of protocol, such as beating the King’s jester at a diplomatic reception, which elicited benign indulgence from Charles, but disgusted foreign royals who heard of it. Larman downplays this interpretation, which was argued strongly in Jeremy Lamb’s So Idle a Rogue, arguing that there were plenty of rakes at court who matched Rochester’s consumption.
Larman’s biography is strong when describing Rochester’s ‘rancorous poetic muse’. Passages of deep literary criticism reveal the elegiac and self-aware qualities of Rochester’s verse, as demonstrated by the likes of ‘The Disabled Debauchee’, in which the Earl compares himself to ‘some brave admiral, in former war, deprived of force but pressed with courage still’, observing the sexual battleground of Restoration London from afar and urging the combatants by ‘telling what I did when I was strong and able to bear arms’. ‘A Satire Against Reason and Mankind’, possibly Rochester’s most powerful work, sums up the Hobbesian philosophy of many at Charles’ court, damning civilisation, and criticising the perceived hypocrisy of those who deny the animal nature of humankind: ‘All men would be cowards if they durst’.
Assessing the authenticity of poems attributed to Rochester is deeply subjective, and Larman dismisses ‘Tunbridge Wells’, a narrative of a daytrip to Kent the quickly descends into a bilious outpouring of rage against the ‘bawling fops’ and ‘would-be-wits’ he encounters. The doubts Larman casts are valid, but he is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; the poet who is moved to ‘spew’ by the sudden appearance of a young fop is surely Rochester, and the poem’s misanthropic summation also has an authentic air to it:
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
While there is a natural tendency for biographers to focus on the outrageous anecdotes from Rochester’s early life, and the controversy of his supposed deathbed conversion, Larman is also able to talk authoritatively about lesser known incidents, such as Rochester’s attempts to negotiate the stormy waters of the Popish Plot, a vast conspiracy theory concocted by the ‘snot-faced voice of doom’, Titus Oates. In a surviving letter quoted in Blazing Star, Rochester summed up the spirit of London in the midst of a witch hunt, capturing his political savvy as well as his wit: ‘Things are now reduced to that extremity on all sides that a man does not turn his back for fear of being hanged – an ill accident to be avoided by all prudent persons’.
Around this time, Rochester was also implicated in one of the mysteries of the age – an attack on the poet laureate Dryden, who was seriously injured, but not robbed. A reward of £50 was offered for information, but no-one came forward. As Rochester and Dryden had feuded in verse, historians have speculated that it may have been an escalation of their hostilities. While it may or may not be true, historians’ willingness to believe it is a further indication of a similarity between Rochester and Caravaggio, who was also notoriously involved in violent incidents. Larman queries the received wisdom, instead blaming Charles’ mistress, Louise de Kerouaille, who had also been insulted by Dryden, noting with amusement that Dryden remained the poet laureate after the event: ‘it seems an act of severe literary criticism, in the case of one’s court poet, to tacitly support having him brutally beaten’ (although some modern authors may benefit from this sort of approach in the long run).
Rochester remained a deeply controversial figure to the end. As he lapsed into syphilis-induced madness, a desperate effort was made to redeem his soul, and various meddlesome parsons vied to get the credit for a miraculous deathbed conversion. Larman, once again querying the commonly-accepted verdict, argues that any change of heart regarding religion was the product of ‘fear and sustained indoctrination’ – he notes that all the positive reports come from parties with a vested interest in his conversion, and his supposed repentance is wildly different in tone from his other writings.
Rochester’s work continued to be popular after his death, with playwrights such as Aphra Behn modelling characters on him, and Elizabeth Barry, the leading actress of her time (whose career had been nurtured by Rochester), delivering an epigraph for him. Unsurprisingly, the author of lines such as ‘The Isle of Britain, long since known, for breeding the best cunts in Christendom’ fared poorly during the Victorian era, but in more recent times, he has been the subject of a Graham Greene book (Lord Rochester’s Monkey, which deals largely with his Catholicism), a number of biographies, and a fine, filthy novel by Christopher Peachment, The Green and the Gold. His poems remain in print, and he was afforded the signal honour of being played on screen by Johnny Depp.
But what drove Rochester and his bizarre excesses? As we have seen, Jeremy Lamb attributed Rochester’s anarchic behaviour to the classic symptoms of alcoholism, while Cephas Gulworthy in The Satyr described Rochester as a nihilist, influenced by the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Larman’s biography is very bracing, combines thorough research with insightful criticism of the works, and overall probably offers the best account of the ‘life’, but engages less deeply with the psychology and philosophy that drove the Earl. There is an early hint that Larman is setting Rochester up as an early libertarian, and he does remark that the libertine ideas espoused by the likes of Moliere and Montaigne are ‘admirably far-sighted’, but this strand of thought isn’t really developed. Likewise, his attempts to show Rochester as a military hero are supported by the evidence when it comes to the Anglo-Dutch war, but are undercut by repeated examples of the Earl’s cowardice in later life, when alcohol-induced feebleness caused him to repeatedly flee from confrontations.
I am sympathetic, though, to Larman’s portrayal of Rochester as an iconoclastic one-off, a tragic figure who still possessed the wit and character to set up as a burlesque physician under the name ‘Dr Alexander Bendo’ in the centre of London, drawing huge crowds, while wanted for murder. Blazing Star demonstrates that the violent moodswings and invective of Rochester’s poetry retain their power today, and Larman also showcases Rochester’s wit, charm and surprising capacity for tenderness, revealing a complex and fascinating character. More than anything, Rochester emerges as a man who truly believed in the carpe diem spirit of Restoration England, allowing himself to be governed entirely by his passions, and living absolutely in the moment:
Then talk not of inconstancy,
False hearts and broken vows.
If I, by miracle can be
This livelong moment true to thee,
‘Tis all that heaven allows