John Wilmot second Earl of Rochester was born in Oxfordshire on 1 April 1647, and died there on 26 July 1680, notorious because - as Samuel Johnson put it - "in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious observation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness".
Rochester's mother was Parliamentarian by descent and inclined to Puritanism for possibly expedient means. His father, a hard-drinking Royalist from Anglo-Irish stock, had been created Earl of Rochester in 1652 for military services to Charles II during his exile under the Commonwealth; he died abroad in 1658, two years before the restoration of monarchy in England.
At twelve Rochester matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, and there, it is said, `grew debauched'. At fourteen he was conferred with the degree of M.A. by the Earl of Clarendon, who was Chancellor to the University and Rochester's uncle. After a tour of France and Italy, Rochester returned to London, where he was to grace the Restoration Court. Courage in sea-battle against the Dutch made him a hero.
In 1667 he married Elizabeth Malet - a witty heiress whom he had attempted to abduct two years earlier: Pepys' Diary, 28 May 1665: "Thence to my Lady Sandwich's, where, to my shame, I had not been a great while before. Here, upon my telling her a story of my Lord Rochester's running away on Friday night last with Mrs Mallet, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at Whitehall with Mrs Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and footmen, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoke to the lady often, but with no success) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry and the Lord sent to the Tower.".
Rochester's life is divided between domesticity in the country and a riotous existence at Court, where he was renowned for drunkenness, vivacious conversation, and "extravagant frolics" as part of the Merry Gang (as Andrew Marvell called them) who flourished for about fifteen years after 1665. As well as Wilmot they included Henry Jermyn, Charles Sackville Lord Buckhurst (later Earl of Dorset), John Sheffield Earl of Mulgrave, Henry Killigrew, Sir Charles Sedley, the playwrights Wycherley and Etherege, as well as George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
In banishment from Court for a scurrilous lampoon on Charles II, Rochester set up as `Doctor Bendo', a physician skilled in treating barrenness; his practice was, it is said, `not without success'. Deeply involved with theatre, his coaching of his mistress Elizabeth Barry began her career as the greatest actress of the Restoration stage.
At the age of thirty-three, as Rochester lay dying - from syphilis, it is assumed - his mother had him attended by her religious associates; a deathbed renunciation of atheism was published and promulgated as the conversion of a prodigal. This became legendary, reappearing in numerous pious tracts over the next two centuries.
Rochester's own writings were at once admired and infamous. Posthumous printings of his play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery gave rise to prosecutions for obscenity, and were destroyed. During his lifetime, his songs and satires were known mainly from anonymous broadsheets and manuscript circulation; most of Rochester's poetry was not published under his name until after his death.
One of the most accessible and attractive of the major English poets, Rochester has long been the least available. Though his poetry is as persistently literary as it is lively, it has been marginalised by the very forces which gathered and gave profile to, the writings that compose English Literature.
Rochester has not lacked distinguished admirers. Defoe quoted him widely and often. Tennyson would recite from him with fervour. Voltaire admired Rochester's satire for 'energy and fire' and translated some lines into French to 'display the shining imagination his lordship only could boast'. Goethe could quote Rochester in English, and cited his lines to epitomise the intensely 'mournful region' he encountered in English poetry. Hazlitt judged that 'his verses cut and sparkle like diamonds', while 'his contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity'.