« ElőzőTovább »
John Wilmot, afterwards Earl of Rochester, the sont of Henry Earl of Rochester, better known by the title of Lord Wilmot, so often mentioned in Clarendon's History, was born April 10, 1647, at Ditchley in Oxfordshire. After a grammatical education at the school of Burford, he entered a nobleman into Wadham College in 1659, only twelve years old ; and in 1661, at fourteen, was, with some other persons of high rank, made master of arts by Lord Clarendon in person.
He travelled afterwards into France and Italy; and at his return devoted himself to the Court. In 1665 he went to sea with Sandwich, and distinguished himself at Bergen by uncommon intrepidity; and the next summer served again on board Sir Edward Spragge, who, in the heat of the engagement, having a message of reproof to send to one of his captains, could find no man ready to carry it but Wilmot, who, in an open boat, went and returned amidst the storm of shot.
But his reputation for bravery was not lasting; he was reproached with slinking away in street quarrels, and leaving his companions to shift as they could with out him; and Sheffield Duke of Buckingham has left a story of his refusal to fight him.
He had very early an inclination to intemperance, which he totally subdued in his travels ; but, when he became a courtier, he unhappily addicted himself to dissolute and vicious company, by which his principles were corrupted, and his manners depraved. He lost all sense of religious restraint, and finding it not convenient to admit the authority of laws which he was resolved not to obey, sheltered his wickedness behind infidelity.
As he excelled in that noisy and licentious merriment which wine excites, his companions eagerly encouraged him in excess, and he willingly indulged it; till, as he confessed to Dr. Burnet, he was for five years together continually drunk, or so much inflamed by frequent ebriety, as in no interval to be master of himself.
In this state he played many frolicks, which it is not for his honour that we should remember, and which are not now distinctly known. He often pursued low amours in mean disguises, and always acted with great exactness and dexterity the characters which he assumed.
He once erected a stage on Tower-hill, and harangued the populace as a mountebank; and, having made physick part of his study, is said to have practised it successfully.
He was so much in favour with King Charles, that he was made one of the gentlemen of the bed-chamber, and comptroller of Woodstock Park.
Having an active and inquisitive mind, he never, except in his paroxysms of intemperance, was wholly negligent of study; he read what is considered as polite learning much, that he is mentioned by Wood as the greatest scholar of all the nobility. Sometimes he retired into the country, and amused himself with writing libels, in which he did not pretend to confine himself to truth.
His favourite author in French was Boileau, and in English Cowley.
Thus 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 of 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 volaptuousness; till, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay.
At this time he was led to an acquaintance with Dr. Burnet, to whom he laid open with great freedom the tenour of his opinions, and the course of his life, and from whom he received such conviction of the reasonableness of moral duty, and the truth of Christianity, as produced a total change both of his manners and opinions. The account of those salutary conferences is given by Burnet in a book, intitled, “Some Passages s of the Life and Death of John Earl of Rochester,"
which the critick ought to read for its elegance, the philosopher for its arguments, and the saint for its piety. It were an injury to the reader to offer him an abridgement.
He died July 26, 1680, before he had completed his thirty-fourth year; and was so worn away by a long illness, that life went out without a struggle.
Lord Rochester was eminent for the vigour of his colloquial wit, and remarkable for many wild pranks and sallies of extravagance. The glare of his general character diffused itself upon his writings; the compositions of a man whose name was heard so often were certain of attention, and from many readers certain of applause. This blaze of reputation is not yet quite extinguished; and his poetry still retains some splendor beyond that which genius has bestowed.
Wood and Burnet give us reason to believe, that much was imputed to him which he did not write. I know not by whom the original collection was made, or by what authority its genuineness was ascertained. The first edition was published in the year of his death, with an air of concealment, professing in the title-page to be printed at Antwerp.
Of some of the pieces, however, there is no doubt. The imitation of Horace's Satire, the Verses to Lord Mulgrave, Satire against Man, the Verses upon Nothing, and perhaps some others, are I believe genuine, and perhaps most of those which the collection exhibits.
As he cannot be supposed to have found leisure for any course of continued study, his pieces are commonly short, such as one fit of resolution would produce.
His songs have no particular character; they tell, like other songs, in smooth and easy language, of scorn and kindness, dismission and desertion, absence, and inconstancy, with the common-places of artificial courtship. They are commonly smooth and easy; but have little nature, and little sentiment.
His imitation of Horace on Lucilius is not inelegant, or unhappy. In the reign of Charles the Second began that adaptation, which has since been very frequent, of ancient poetry to present times; and perhaps few will be found where the parallelism is better preserved
than in this. The versification is indeed sometimes careless, but it is sometimes vigorous and weighty.
The strongest effort of his Muse is his poem upon Nothing. He is not the first who has chosen this barren topick for the boast of his fertility. There is a poem called Nihil in Latin by Passerat, a poet and critick of the sixteenth century in France; who, in his own epitaph, expresses his zeal for good poetry thus :
Molliter ossa quiescent,
His works are not common, and therefore I shall subjoin his verses.
In examining this performance, Nothing must be considered as having not only a negative but a kind of positive signification as I need not fear thieves, I have nothing, and nothing is a very powerful protector. In the first part of the
sentence it is taken negatively ; in the second it is taken positively, as an agent. In one of Boileau's lines it was a question, whether he should use a rien faire, or a ne rien faire; and the first was preferred because it gave rien a sense in some sort positive. Nothing can be a subject only in its positive sense, and such a sense is given it in the first line:
Nothing, thou elder brother ev'n to shade. this line,
now not whether he does not allude to a curious book De Umbra, by Wowerus, which, having. told the qualities of Shade, concludes with a poem in which are these lines:
Jam primum terram validis circumspice claustris
The positive sense is generally preserved with great skill through the whole poem ; though sometimes, in a subordinate sense, the negative nothing is injudiciously mingled. Passerat confounds the two senses.
Another of his most vigorous pieces is his Lampoon on Sir Car Scroope, who, in a poem called “ The Praise of Satire,” had some lines like these :*
He who can push into a midnight fray
This was meant of Rochester, whose buffoon conceit was, I suppose, a saying often mentioned, that every Man would be a Coward if he durst ; and drew from him those furious verses; to which Scroope made in reply an epigram, ending with these lines:
Thou canst hurt no man's fame with thy ill word ;
Of the satire against Man, Rochester can only claim what remains when all Boileau's part is taken away.
In all his works there is sprightliness and vigour, and every where
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 ?
* I quote from memory. # The late George Stevens, Esq. made the Selection of Rochester's Poems which appears in Dr. Johnson's edition; but Mr. Malone obseryes, that the same task had been performed in the early part of the last century by Jacob Tonson.