Monday, 15 March 2010

Some Account of the Life and Death of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Gilbert Burnet

To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, “It is a sobering thought that when John Wilmot was my age, he had been dead for two years.” Restoration dandy and wit, Wilmot, better known as the 2nd Earl of Rochester, was a sea hero, poet, satirist and playwright as well as a patron of the arts. By the age of thirty three, he was dead, his body having given up the fight against alcoholism and syphilis.


In the last months of his life, obviously aware that he had pissed his numerous talents up against the wall in what was a short life even by the expectations of the 17th Century, his thoughts turned to the hereafter. Unwell and close to death, he sought the counsel of Gilbert Burnet, later Bishop of Salisbury, and renounced his hell-raising past. Burnet rather helpfully wrote their discourse down in this booklet, allowing Wilmot’s faults to be exposed for the benefit of others with the purpose of doing what I can to reforming a lewd and loose age.

A naturally scholar, Wilmot excelled at Latin and was a diligent student, that is, until he went to university, just after the restoration of Charles II:

When he went to university, the general joy, that over-ran the whole nation upon his majesty’s restoration, but was not regulated with that sobriety and temperance, that became a serious gratitude to God for so great a blessing, produced some of its ill effects on him: He began to love these disorders too much.

He managed to clean up his act and won great acclaim fighting the Dutch at sea. Sadly, it wasn’t to last. Back on land he fell in with the old crowd:

He had so entirely laid down the intemperance, that was growing on him before his travels, that, at his return, he hated nothing more. But, falling into company that loved these excesses, he was, though not without difficulty, and by many steps, brought back to it again; and the natural heat of his fancy, being inflamed by wine, made him extravagantly pleasant, that many, to be more diverted by that humour, studied to engage him in deeper and deeper intemperance; which at length did so entirely subdue him, that, as he told me, for five years together, he was continually drunk.

Staggeringly debauched and perpetually drunk while in and out of favour at court, Wilmot, along with his sharp satirical verse, wrote large amounts of bawdy poetry, (“I fuck no more than others doe, I’me young and not deform’d”) and the infamous poetic work Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery is sometimes attributed to him. Admired by many, Wilmot’s life is also seen an example of wasted talent and opportunity. A cautionary tale, then...

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