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If you like your poetry naughty, you don't have to resort to collections of bawdy limericks. You can in good conscience take up the work of one of the most amazing personalities who ever made rhymes, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. Along with using all the words and subjects that would these days force him onto satellite radio, Rochester filled his lively poetry with classical allusions and vast learning, as well as commenting on current affairs. Dr. Johnson was one who could surely take offense at the tone of Rochester's work, but didn't: "In all his works there is sprightliness and vigour, and every where may be found tokens of a mind which study might have carried to excellence; what more can be expected from a life spent in ostentatious contempt of regularity, and ended before the abilities of many other men began to be displayed?" This extraordinarily irregular and short life is taken up in _A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester_ (University of Rochester [ha!] Press) by James William Johnson. A large volume which draws upon sources previously unavailable to biographers, it is a serious academic evaluation of a spectacular poet.
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.