Rochester, aristocrat, courtier, debauchee, atheist, drunk, naval hero, bisexual, father and, for its own purposes, poet, is one of Eng. Lit.’s perennial conundrums. Like Pope’s Sporus, he seems at time ‘a painted child of dirt that stinks and stings,’ at others, to steal the jealous Hilaire Belloc’s sneer at P.G. Wodehouse, ‘English literature’s performing flea’. A fallen angel, perhaps, capering on a shit-smeared pin. He lived fast, died young (like Christ, at 33) and, the bulk of his life having been subject to the on-going attrition of incurable syphilis, his corpse was far from good-looking. If one uses a phrase that conjures up a rock or movie star maudit, then it is apt: in many ways his life seems very modern: in two words, the rebel. The question remains: to what extent was there also a cause.
He has elicited a number of biographies since his death in 1680. That of his clerical confidant Bishop Burnet set the pace and others have followed. On the whole they have been parti pris, with the emphasis to a greater or lesser extent on returning him to the fold with a supposed deathbed recantation of all the evils that had come before.
The prevailing image is enshrined by Samuel Johnson in his lives of the Poets: ‘in a course of drunken gaiety, and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness.’ Yet Johnson also acknowledges the excellence of some of his poetry and suggests that, had circumstance and self-discipline been otherwise, he might have left something of true worth since he died too young, ‘before the abilities of many other men began to be displayed’.
Alexander’s Larman’s Blazing Star is the latest of the genre and, unlike his predecessors, Larman is unashamedly pro-Rochester. He admires at least some of the work and has no time for the final conversion; he dismisses it at length as a confection of those who used it for their own ends, whether at the time or, in the later efflorescence of 19th century religiosity, complete with kitsch illustrations of Rochester as dying sinner expiring beneath a heavenly light.
He takes us through the story: Rochester’s birth to an aristocratic father who had accompanied Charles II on his flight from his Puritan pursuers. That father died, and his mother, unless King Charles was offering Rochester one of the varieties of pension that were all too rarely paid in full and all too regularly withdrawn, held the purse strings. The arrival at Wadham College, Oxford at 13, the dawning there of an increasingly elaborate taste for fleshly pleasures, stoked further by the obligatory Grand Tour of Europe. A spell in the Tower was followed (as less aristocratic young men have also found useful) by self-admission to the military, in his case the Navy, in which he proved a minor hero. A return to life at a Court where he moves in and out of his royal master’s affections, and stars as an outstandingly excessive member of a generally excessive crew. In time he would satirise his companions, from Charles downwards, in his scabrous (and unperformed) play Sodom. As a pleasing footnote his servants rejoiced in the names Alcock and Belle Fasse (think French fesse, a buttock) and seem to spring from contemporary plays where names betoken character: for instance an adulterous wife Mrs Loveit or an effeminate gentleman, Sir Fopling Flutter. He had mistresses, of course, and a wife who, if once loved, was soon neglected. There were children, whom, out of character, he counseled very conservatively; his son, Charles died young, hereditary victim of his father’s illness.
Like a number of contemporaries he indulged in versifying, often obscene and usually aimed at another of the king’s courtiers or mistresses, and unpublished save in manuscripts that were passed from hand to hand. Typical is A Ramble in St James’ Park which was still banned well into the 1960s. Often they cited specific individuals, usually women, and railed at them unsparingly. They are invariably larded with obscenities. Rochester brandishes such terms like offensive weapons, rendering himself excessive even in an age, so recently emerged from the Commonwealth’s grim Puritanism, which itself was hardly restrained.
Nor was Rochester alone in his versifying. Other aristocratic courtiers such as Oldham, Etheredge, Dorset and Sedley offered their more or less obscene poems, often attacking another of the group. Almost as notorious as Rochester was Sir Francis Fame, whose Iter Occidentale brought things to their logical conclusion. The poem simply disembodies each organ from its human host and, as Roger Thompson puts it, degrades ‘sexuality to a combat between waterborne sex organs’.
Rochester fell into a succession of scrapes, the most injurious (to himself at least) being when he destroyed one of the King’s costly toys (an elaborate sundial). He had survived previous banishments: on this occasion the rejection was final. Exiled from court there remained five years to live, or, as Larman notes of a man whose body was gradually falling apart, effectively to die.
Mr Larman’s book is comprehensive. But there he, and thus we, hit a barrier. In the end ‘comprehensive’ for Rochester is synonymous with ‘insufficient’. To compensate he has to retreat to his subtitle, and there is sometimes a sense of too much Times and insufficient Life. Lengthy discussions of Court life or Titus Oates’ Popish Plot offer alluring popular history, but we want more hard Rochester fact. The dominant mode is conditional: Mr Larman is forced on too many pages to fall back on ‘might’, ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, ‘perhaps’, ‘could have’ or ‘almost certainly.’ He flies too many kites only, reluctantly, to reel them back in. We accept that the star blazed but we want to see more kindling and the foundation of Rochester information is so shaky that we grow increasingly frustrated by the insubstantiality. That he offers no notes – which addendum would be expected in such a book – is perhaps symbolic of his problems. These are not lessened by the arguments of what was and was not Rochester’s own work. His mother – like the explorer Richard Burton’s wife two centuries later – attempted to burn the lot: the family honour should not be stained. Fortunately their original distribution in manuscript assured many survivals. But what was his and what mere inferior pastiche? The canon, for those who need it, is currently found in Harold Love’s Collected Works of 1999.
In the end, and for all Mr Larman’s praiseworthy efforts, it seems that Rochester’s book remains open. Perhaps there is no more to say unless, as he hopes, some undiscovered caches emerge and help offer us a final verdict. Rochester remains a complex figure, but one whose failings seem doomed, if only through a sensationalism that outweighs less exciting achievements, to provide the primary colours of any portrait.
Blazing Star. The Life & Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Alexander Larman, Head of Zeus, hardback, 352 pages, £25.00, ISBN-13: 978-1781851098