John Wilmot

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680). Portrait by Peter Lely (1618-1680). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Earl of Rochester
Born 1 1647(1647-Template:MONTHNUMBER-01)
Ditchley, Oxfordshire, England
Died 26 1680(1680-Template:MONTHNUMBER-26) (aged 33)
Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England
Occupation Writer of satirical and bawdy poetry.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1 April 1647 - 26 July 1680), styled Viscount Wilmot between 1652 and 1658, was a libertine English poet, a friend of King Charles II, and the writer of much satirical and bawdy poetry.



Wilmot, son of the 1st Earl of Rocheter, was born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, and educcated at Oxford. He saw some naval service, when he showed conspicuous bravery. He became one of the most dissolute of the courtiers of Charles II, and wore himself out at 33 by his wild life. He was handsome, and witty, and possessed a singular charm of manner. He wrote a number of light, graceful poems, many of them extremely gross. Bishop Burnet, who attended him on his deathbed, believed him to have been sincerely repentant. In addition to his short pieces he wrote a Satyr against Mankind, and a tragedy, Valentinian, adapted from Beaumont and Fletcher.[1]

He was the toast of the Restoration court and a patron of the arts. He married an heiress, Elizabeth (Malet), and had many mistresses, including actress Elizabeth Barry.


The family was descended from Edward Wilmot of Witney, Oxfordshire, whose son Charles (?1570-1644?), having served with distinction in Ireland during the rebellion at the beginning of the 17th century, was president of Connaught from 1616 until his death. In 1621 he had been created an Irish peer as Viscount Wilmot of Athlone, and he was succeeded by his only surviving. son, Henry (?1612-1658). Having fought against the Scots at Newburn and been imprisoned and expelled from the House of Commons for plotting in the interests of the king in 1641, Henry Wilmot served Charles I well during the Civil War, being responsible for the defeats of Sir William Waller at Roundway Down in July 1643 and at Cropredy Bridge in June 1644. In 1643 he was created Baron Wilmot of Adderbury. He was greatly trusted by Charles II, whose defeat at Worcester and subsequent wanderings he shared, and was 1 of his principal advisers, being created by him earl of Rochester in 1652. In March 1655 he was in England, where he led a feeble attempt at a rising on Marston Moor, near York; on its failure he fled the country.[2]


Wilmost was Born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on 10 April 1647, the son of Henry Wilmot, 1st earl. He was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and in 1661, although he was only 14 years of age, received the degree of M.A.. He succeeded his father as 2nd earl of Rochester in 1658.[2]

On leaving Oxford he traveled in France and Italy with a tutor who encouraged his love of literature, and moreover advocated principles of temperance which, however, bore little fruit.[2]


Rochester returned in 1664, and at once made his. way to Charles II's court, where his youth, good looks and wit assured him of a welcome In 1665 he joined the fleet serving against the Dutch as a volunteer, and in the following year distinguished himself by carrying a message in an open boat under fire. This reputation for courage was afterwards lost in private quarrels in which he seems to have shirked danger.[2]

He became gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles II, and was the confidant of his various exploits. According to Anthony Hamilton, banishment from court for lampooning the king or his mistresses was with Rochester an almost annual occurrence, but his disgrace was never of long duration. Charles seems to have found his company too congenial to be long dispensed with, and Pepys says that all serious men were disgusted by the complaisance with which he passed over Rochester's insolence (Diary, 17 Feb. 1669).[2]

In order to restore his rapidly vanishing fortune he became a suitor to Elizabeth Malet. In spite of the king's support of Rochester's suit, Miss Malet refused to marry the earl, who thereupon had her seized (1665) from her uncle's coach. Rochester was pursued, and Charles, who was very angry, sent him to the Tower. Miss Malet, however, married him in 1667.[2]

Not content with making or unmaking the reputation of the maids of honor and the courtiers by his squibs and songs, Rochester aspired to be a patron of poetry and an arbiter of taste, but he was vain and capricious, tolerating no rivals in his capacity of patron.[2]

Dryden dedicated to him his Marriage-a-la-mode (1672) in a. preface full of effusive fiattery, at the close of which, however, occurs a passage that may be taken to indicate that he already had misgivings. "Your lordship has but another step to make," he says, "and from the patron of Wit, you may become its tyrant; and oppress our little reputations with more ease than you now protect them.”[2]

Dryden had another patron in Lord Mulgrave (afterwards duke of Buckingham and Normanby), to whom he dedicated (1675) Aurengzebe. Mulgrave had engaged in a duel with Rochester, who had refused to fight at the last minute on the ground of ill-health. Mulgrave allowed this story to spread, and Rochester, who apparently thought him too dangerous an opponent, revenged himself on Dryden as Mulgrave's protégé by setting up as his rivals, 1st Elkanah Settle, and then John Crowne. By his influence Settle's Emperor of Morocco was played at Whitehall, and Crowne was employed, in direct infringement of Dryden's province as laureate, to write a masque for the court. Both these poets were discarded in turn for Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Otway.[2]

In 1679 Mulgrave began to circulate his Essay on Satire in which Rochester was singled out for severe criticism. Rochester chose to pretend that this was Dryden's work, not Mulgrave's, and by his orders a band of roughs set on the poet in Rose Alley, Covent Garden, and beat him. He obviously felt no shame for this infamous attack, for in his "Imitation of the First Satire of Iuvenal" he says, "Who'd be a wit in Dryden's cudgelled skin?"[2]

His health was already undermined, and in the spring of 1680 he retired to High Lodge, Woodstock Park. He began to show signs of a more serious temper, and at his own request was visited (July zoth to July. z4th) by Bishop Burnet, who attested the sincerity of his repentance. He died, however, 2 days after the bishop left him. When his son Charles, the 3rd earl, died on 12 November 1681, the title became extinct.[2]



As a poet Rochester was a follower of Abraham Cowley and of Nicolas Boileau, to both of whom he was considerably indebted. His love lyrics are often happy, but his real vigor and ability is best shown in his critical poems and satires. The political satires are notable for their fierce exposure of Charles II's weakness, his ingratitude, and the slavery in which he was held by his mistresses. They show that Rochester had it in him to be a very different man from the criticizing courtier and the "very profane wit" who figures in contemporary memoirs.[2]

His poetry displays a wide range of learning, and a wide range of influences. These included imitations of Malherbe, Ronsard, and Boileau. Rochester also translated or adapted from classical authors such as Petronius, Lucretius, Ovid, Anacreon, Horace, and Seneca.

Rochester's writings were at once admired and infamous. A Satyr Against Mankind (1675), one of the few poems he published (in a broadside in 1679) is a scathing denunciation of rationalism and optimism that contrasts human perfidy with animal wisdom.


Rochester's poetic work varies widely in form, genre, and content. He was part of a "mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease",[3] who continued to produce their poetry in manuscripts, rather than in publication. As a consequence, some of Rochester's work deals with topical concerns, such as satires of courtly affairs in libels, to parodies of the styles of his contemporaries, such as Sir Charles Scroope. He is also notable for his impromptus,[4] one of which is a teasing epitaph of King Charles II:

Here lies our sovereign lord the King,
Whose word no man relies on.
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

To which Charles is reputed to have replied:

"That is true; for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers."[5]

The majority of his poetry was not published under his name until after his death. Because most of his poems circulated only in manuscript form during his lifetime, it is likely that much of his writing does not survive. Burnet claimed that Wilmot's conversion experience led him to ask that "all his profane and lewd writings" be burned;(Citation needed) it is unclear how much, if any, of Rochester's writing was destroyed.


Rochester was also interested in the theatre. In addition to an interest in the actresses, he wrote an adaptation of Fletcher's Valentinian (1685), a scene for Sir Robert Howard's The Conquest of China, a prologue to Elkanah Settle's The Empress of Morocco (1673), and epilogues to Sir Francis Fane's Love in the Dark (1675), Charles Davenant's Circe, a Tragedy (1677).

The best-known dramatic work attributed to Rochester, Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, has never been successfully proven to be written by him. However, supposed posthumous printings of Sodom gave rise to prosecutions for obscenity, and were destroyed. On 16 December 2004, 1 of the few surviving copies of Sodom was sold by Sotheby's for £45,600.[6]

Bibliography.—Poems on Several Occasions by the Right Honourable the Earl of Rochester … (Antwerp, 1680), was really printed in London. Other issues, slightly varying in title and contents, appeared in 1685, 1691 and 1696. Valentinian, A Tragedy, adapted from Beaumont and Fletcher, was printed in 1685; a scurrilous attack.on Charles II. in the shape of a play in heroic couplets, Sodom, was printed in 1684, and is supposed, in spite of Rochester's denial, to have been chiefly his work. No copy of this is known, but there are two MSS; extant. The completest edition of his works is The Poetical Works of the Earl of Rochester (1731-32). Expurgated collections are to be found in Johnson's, Anderson's and Chalmers's editions of the British Poets. His Familiar Letters were printed in 1686, 1697 and 1699. His Political Satires are available, with those of Sir John Denham and Andrew Man/ell, in the Bibliotheca Curiosa (Some Political .Satiresof the Seventeenth Century, .vol. i., Edinburgh, 1885). Contemporary accounts of Rochester are to be found in the memoir by Saint-Evremond prefixed to an edition of 1709, in Hamilton's Mérnoires du Comte de Gramorzt, in the funeral sermon preached by Robert Parsons (1680), and in Bishop Burnet's Some Passages in the Life and Death of John, Earl of Rochester (1680), reprinted in Bishop Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography (vol. vi.).[2]

Modern editionsEdit

The 3 great critical editions of Rochester in the 20th century have taken very different approaches to authenticating and organizing his canon. David Vieth’s 1968 edition adopts a heavily biographical organization, modernizing spellings and heading the sections of his book “Prentice Work,” “Early Maturity,” “Tragic Maturity,” and “Disillusionment and Death.” Keith Walker’s 1984 edition takes a genre-based approach, returning to the older spellings and accidentals in an effort to present documents closer to those a 17th century audience would have received. Harold Love’s Oxford University Press edition of 1999, now the scholarly standard, notes the variorum history conscientiously, but arranges works in genre sections ordered from the private to the public.

Critical reputationEdit

Rochester has not lacked distinguished admirers. His contemporary Aphra Behn lauded him in verse and also based several rakish characters in her plays on Rochester. Anne Wharton wrote an elegy marking Rochester's death, which itself came to be praised by contemporary poets.[7] Horace Walpole described him as "a man whom the muses were fond to inspire but ashamed to avow".[8] Daniel Defoe quoted him in Moll Flanders,[9] and discussed Rochester in other works.

Voltaire, who spoke of Rochester as "the man of genius, the great poet", admired Rochester's satire for "energy and fire" and translated some lines into French to "display the shining imagination his lordship only could boast."[10] Goethe quoted A Satyr against Reason and Mankind in English in his Autobiography.[11]

William Hazlitt commented that Rochester's "verses cut and sparkle like diamonds"[12] while his "epigrams were the bitterest, the least laboured, and the truest, that ever were written".[13] Referring to Rochester's perspective, Hazlitt wrote that "his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity."[13] Ezra Pound in his ABC of Reading compared Rochester's poetry favorably to more famous poets including Alexander Pope and John Milton.[14]


4 of his poems ("Return," "Love and Life," "Constancy," and "To His Mistress") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[15]

In popular cultureEdit

Wilmot served as the model for the witty, amoral nobleman Dorimant in George Etherege's Restoration Comedy The Man of Mode, and the libertine character in Aphra Behn's Restoration comedy The Rover, Willmore, was assumed by contemporaries to have been modeled on Wilmot.[16]

2 plays have been directly written about Rochester's life. Stephen Jeffreys wrote The Libertine in 1994; it was staged by the Royal Court Theatre. The 2004 film The Libertine, based on Jeffreys's play, starred Johnny Depp as Rochester, Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry, John Malkovich as King Charles II, Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth Malet, and Rupert Friend as Billy Downs, the companion and apparent lover who was killed by the pike. Michael Nyman set to music an excerpt of Rochester's poem, "Signor Dildo"[17] for the film. The other play about Rochester was Craig Baxter's The Ministry of Pleasure, which was produced at the Latchmere Theatre in London, in 2004, with Martin Delaney as Wilmot.

Rochester's work and background figures centrally in "Last Bus to Woodstock", an episode of the British TV crime drama Inspector Morse.



  • "Corydon and Cloris or, The Wanton Sheepherdess" [broadside]. London, [1676?].
  • "Artemisa to Cloe. A Letter from a Lady in the Town, to a Lady in the Country; Concerning The Loves of the Town: By a Person of Quality" [broadside]. London: 1679.
  • A Letter from Artemiza in the Town, to Chloë in the Country. By a Person of Honour [broadside]. London: 1679.
  • "A Satyr Against Mankind. Written by a Person of Honour" [broadside]. London: 1679.
  • "Upon Nothing. A Poem. By a Person of Honour" [broadside]. London: 1679.
  • A Very Heroical Epistle from My Lord All-Pride to Dol-Common. London, 1679.
  • Poems on Several Occasions; by the Right Honourable The E. of R—. Antwerpen [London], 1680; (facsimile edition), Menston, UK: Scolar Press, 1971
  • Poems on Several Occasions. Written by a late Person of Honour. London: A. Thorncome, 1685.
  • Poems, &c. on Several Occasions: with Valentinian, a Tragedy. London: Jacob Tonson, 1691; 1696; 1705.
  • Poems on Several Occasions. By the RH the E. of R.. London: A. T., 1701; 1713; 1731.
  • Poems on Several Occasions: with Valentinian; a Tragedy. To which is added, Advice to a Painter. Written by the Right Honourable John, late Earl of Rochester. London: H. Hills, 1710.
  • Remains of the Right Honourable John, Earl of Rochester: Being satyrs, songs, and poems, never before published: From a manuscript found in a gentleman's library that was cotemporary with him. London: Tho. Dryar, 1718.
  • The Poetical Works Of that Witty Lord John Earl of Rochester: Left in Ranger's Lodge in Woodstock Park, where his Lordship died, and never before Printed; with Some Account of the Life of that ingenious Nobleman, extracted from Bishop Burnet, and other eminent writers. London: 1761.


  • Valentinian: A tragedy. as 'tis Aater'd by the late Earl of Rochester, and Acted at the Theatre-Royal (adaptation of John Fletcher's Valentinian). London: Timothy Goodwin, 1685.

Collected editionsEdit

  • The Miscellaneous Works of the Right Honourable the Late Earls of Rochester And Roscommon. With The Memoirs of the Life and Character of the late Earl of Rochester, in a Letter to the Dutchess of Mazarine. By Mons. St. Evremont London: B. Bragge, 1707; second edition, London: Edmund Curll, 1707; third edition, 1709.
  • Works: Containing Poems on several occasions / His Lordship's letters To Mr. Savil and Mrs. * * / with Valentinian, a tragedy; never before publish'd together. London: Jacob Tonson, 1714.
  • The Poems of Rochester, Roscommon, and Yalden. London: E. Cox, et al, 1779.
  • Collected Works (edited by John Hayward). London: Nonesuch, 1926.
  • Life and Writings (edited by Johannes Prinz). Leipzig: Mayer & Müller, 1927.
  • Poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (edited by Vivian de Sola Pinto). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • Sodom; or, The quintessence of debauchery: Written for the Royall Company of Whoremasters (possibly by Rochester). Paris: Olympia, 1957.
  • Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (possibly by Rochester; edited by Albert Ellis). North Hollywood, CA: Brandon, 1966.
  • The Gyldenstolpe Manuscript Miscellany of Poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and Other Restoration Authors (edited by Bror Danielsson and David M. Vieth). Stockholm Studies in English, 17. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1967.
  • Complete Poems (edited by David M. Vieth). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.
  • Lyrics and Satires (edited by David Brooks). Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1980.
  • Selected Poems (edited by Paul Hammond). Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1982.
  • Poems (edited by Keith Walker). Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.


  • "To His Sacred Majesty, on His Restoration in the Year 1660" (possibly by Rochester), in Britannia Rediviva. Oxford: Excudebat A. & L. Lichfield, Acad. Typogr., 1660.
  • "In Obitum Serenissimae Mariæ Principis Arausionensis" and "To Her Sacred Majesty, the Queen Mother, on the Death of Mary, Princess of Orange" (both possibly by Rochester) in Epicedia Academiæ Oxoniensis, in Obitum Serenissimæ Mariæ Principis Arausionensis. Oxford, UK: Typis Lichfieldianis, 1660.
  • "Celia, the faithful servant you disown" and "All things submit themselves to your command" in A Collection of Poems, Written upon several Occasions, By Several Persons. Never before in Print. London: Hobart Kemp, 1672.
  • "The second Prologue at Court" in The Empress of Morocco, by Elkanah Settle. London: Printed for William Cademan, 1673.
  • "The Epilogue," in Love in the Dark, or The Man of Bus'ness, by Francis Fane. London: Printed by T.N. for Henry Herringman, 1675.
  • "While on those lovely looks I gaze," in A New Collection of the Choicest Songs. London, 1676.
  • "The Epilogue," in Circe, a Tragedy by Charles D'Avenant. London: Printed for Richard Tonson, 1677.
  • "Give me leave to rail at you" (lines 1-8 by Rochester), in Songs for 1 2 & 3 Voyces Composed by Henry Bowman. 1677.


  • A Letter To Dr. Burnet, From the right Honourable the Earl of Rochester, As he lay on His Death-Bed, At His Honours Lodge In Woodstock-Park. London: Printed for Richard Bentley, 1680.
  • Familiar Letters: Written by the Right Honourable John late Earl of Rochester. And several other Persons of Honour and Quality. (2 volumes), London: Printed by W. Onley for Sam Briscoe, 1697.
  • The Rochester-Savile Letters 1671-1680 (edited by John Harold Wilson). Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1941.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[18]

See alsoEdit

Poetry Reading Series "Love And Life" by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Poetry Reading Series "Love And Life" by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester


  • Greene, Graham (1974). Lord Rochester's Monkey, being the Life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. New York: The Bodley Head. ASIN B000J30NL4. 
  • Johnson, James William (2004). A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Rochester, NY.: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-170-0. 
  • Lamb, Jeremy (New edition, 2005). So Idle a Rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester. Sutton. pp. 288 pages. ISBN 0-7509-3913-3. 
  • Wilmot, John (1999). The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Ed. Harold Love.. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198183674. 
  • Wilmot, John; David M. Vieth, ed. (New edition, 2002). The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 256 pages. ISBN 0-300-09713-1. 
  • Wilmot, John (2002). The Debt to Pleasure. New York: Routledge. pp. 140 pages. ISBN 0-415-94084-2. 
  • Combe, Kirk (1998). A Martyr for Sin: Rochester's Critique of Polity, Sexuality, and Society. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press. pp. 186. ISBN 0-87413-647-4. 


  1. John William Cousin, "Rochester, John Wilmot," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 316. Wikisource, Web, Feb. 21, 2018.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Britannica 1911, 23, 427.
  3. Alexander Pope, "First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace", line 108.
  4. Rochester composed at least 10 versions of Impromptus on Charles II
  5. A thorough discourse concerning this epigram and the king's response can be found from the 19th to 21st paragraph of the Forward of the "The Tryal of William Penn and William Mead" [1]
  6. "IN BRIEF: Trump picks new 'Apprentice'; Bawdy 17th century play auctioned". CBC News. December 17, 2004. 
  7. "Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the Yale University". 2005-10-03. Retrieved 2011-06-12. 
  8. Horace Walpole, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, 1758.
  9. Moll Flanders at Project Gutenberg Daniel Defoe, The Life And Misfortunes of Moll Flanders
  10. Great Books Online, François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778). "Letter XXI—On the Earl of Rochester and Mr. Waller" Letters on the English. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14,, Accessed May 15, 2007
  11. Notes and Queries, No.8, Dec 22, 1849 at Project Gutenberg Goethe quotes Rochester without attribution.
  12. William Hazlitt, Select British Poets (1824)
  13. 13.0 13.1 William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets at Project Gutenberg
  14. Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading (1934) New Directions (reprint). ISBN 0811218937
  15. Alphabetical list of authors: Montgomerie, Alexander to Shakespeare, William, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (eited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 19, 2012.
  16. Diamond, Elin, "Gestus and Signature in Aphra Behn's The Rover." English Literary History (ELH), Vol. 56, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989): 528.
  17. "Signior Dildo by Lord John Wilmot - All Poetry". Retrieved 2011-06-12. 
  18. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647-1680, Poetry Foundation. Web, Jan. 5, 2013.

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