John Wilmot, afterwards earl of Rochester, the son 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, without 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 vitious 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 incites, 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 bedchamber, 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 so 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 voluptuousness, 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 entitled, Some Passages 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 abridgment.
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 splendour 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 titlepage, 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 late 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 commonplaces 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 Sint modo carminibus non onerata malis.
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 "à rien faire," or "à 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.
In this line, I know 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 Suspensam totam, decus admirabile mundi, Terrasque, tractusque maris, camposque liquentes Aeris, et vasti laqueata palatia coeli—- Omnibus UMBRA prior.
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 Scroop, who, in a poem called the Praise of Satire, had some lines like these:
He who can push into a midnight fray His brave companion, and then run away, Leaving him to be murder'd in the street, Then put it off with some buffoon conceit; Him, thus dishonour'd, for a wit you own, And court him as top fiddler of the town.
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 Scroop made, in reply, an epigram, ending with these lines:
Thou canst hurt no man's fame with thy ill word; Thy pen is full as harmless as thy sword.
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 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?
Poema Cl. V. JOANNIS PASSERATII,
Regii in Academia Parisiensi Professoris.
Ad ornatissimum virum ERRICUM MEMMIUM.
Janus adest, festae poscunt sua dona kalendae, Munus abest festis quod possim offerre kalendis: Siccine Castalius nobis exaruit humor? Usque adeo ingenii nostri est exhausta facultas, Immunem ut videat redeuntis janitor anni? Quod nusquam est, potius nova per vestigia quaeram. Ecce autem, partes dum sese versat in omnes, Invenit mea musa NIHIL; ne despice munus: Nam NIHIL est gemmis, NIHIL est pretiosius auro. Hue animum, hue, igitur, vultus adverte benignos: Res nova narratur quae nulli audita priorum; Ausonii et Graii dixerunt caetera vates, Ausoniae indictum NIHIL est, graecaeque, Camoenae, E coelo quacunque Ceres sua prospicit arva, Aut genitor liquidis orbem complectitur ulnis Oceanus, NIHIL interitus et originis expers. Immortale NIHIL, NIHIL omni parte beatum. Quod si hinc majestas et vis divina probatur, Num quid honore deûm, num quid dignabimur aris? Conspectu lucis NIHIL est jucundius almae, Vere NIHIL, NIHIL irriguo formosius horto, Floridius pratis, Zephyri clementius aura; In bello sanctum NIHIL est, Martisque tumultu: Justum in pace NIHIL, NIHIL est in foedere tutum. Felix cui NIHIL est, (fuerant haec vota Tibullo) Non timet insidias; fures, incendia temnit; Sollicitas sequitur nullo sub judice lites. Ille ipse invictis qui subjicit omnia fatis, Zenonis sapiens, NIHIL admiratur et optat. Socraticique gregis fuit ista scientia quondam,
Scire NIHIL, studio cui nunc incumbitur uni. Nec quicquam in ludo mavult didicisse juventus, Ad magnas quia ducit opes, et culmen honorum. Nosce NIHIL, nosces fertur quod Pythagoreae Grano haerere fabae, cui vox adjuncta negantis. Multi, Mercurio freti duce, viscera terrae Pura liquefaciunt simul, et patrimonia miscent, Arcano instantes operi, et carbonibus atris, Qui tandem exhausti damnis, fractique labore, Inveniunt, atque inventum NIHIL usque requirunt. Hoc dimetiri non ulla decempeda possit: Nec numeret Libycae numerum qui callet arenae. Et Phoebo ignotum NIHIL est, NIHIL altius astris: Tuque, tibi licet eximium sit mentis acumen, Omnem in naturam penetrans, et in abdita rerum, Pace tua, Memmi, NIHIL ignorare videris. Sole tamen NIHIL est, et puro clarius igne. Tange NIHIL, dicesque NIHIL sine corpore tangi. Cerne NIHIL, cerni dices NIHIL absque colore. Surdum audit loquiturque NIHIL sine voce, volatque Absque ope pennarum, et graditur sine cruribus ullis. Absque loco motuque NIHIL per inane vagatur. Humano generi utilius NIHIL arte medendi; Ne rhombos igitur, neu Thessala murmura tentet Idalia vacuum trajectus arundine pectus, Neu legat Idaeo Dictaeum in vertice gramen. Vulneribus saevi NIHIL auxiliatur amoris. Vexerit et quemvis trans moestas portitor undas, Ad superos imo NIHIL hunc revocabit ab orco. Inferni NIHIL inflectit praecordia regis, Parcarumque colos, et inexorabile pensum. Obruta Phlegraeis campis Titania pubes Fulmineo sensit NIHIL esse potentius ictu. Porrigitur magni NIHIL extra moenia mundi. Diique NIHIL metuunt. Quid longo carmine plura Commemorem? Virtute NIHIL praestantius ipsa, Splendidius NIHIL est. NIHIL est Jove denique majus. Sed tempus finem argutis imponere nugis: Ne tibi si multa laudem mea carmina charta, De NIHILO NIHILI pariant fastidia versus.
[Footnote 67: Dr. Johnson has made no mention of Valentinian, altered from Beaumont and Fletcher, which was published after his death by a friend, who describes him in the preface, not only as being one of the greatest geniuses, but one of the most virtuous men that ever existed. J.B.]
[Footnote 68: I quote from memory. Dr. J.] [Footnote 69: The late George Steevens, esq. made the selection of Rochester's poems which appears in Dr. Johnson's edition; but Mr. Malone observes, that the same task had been performed, in the early part of the last century, by Jacob Tonson. C.]