In This Article John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Critical Studies
  • Textual Scholarship
  • Reference Works
  • Life and Afterlives
  • Use of Sources
  • Rochester and His Contemporaries
  • Satirical Writing
  • Rochester and Drama
  • Politics and Religion
  • Gender and Sexuality

British and Irish Literature John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester
by
Christopher Tilmouth
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0061

Introduction

John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, was in his own time and remains to this day the most notorious of the poets and dramatists who wrote during Charles II’s reign. He was the author of one theatrical adaptation and barely more than seventy-five poems (many of them short lyrics, occasional pieces, and obscene lampoons), and it has always been tempting to dismiss him as a shallow, inconsequential figure. Yet since the 1950s he has been the subject of sustained critical attention, as successive generations of scholars have confronted the web of complexities his life and work have given rise to. The life itself has long been a problem: the task of sifting fact from fiction with the help of only a slender documentary record has frustrated investigation. As a result, much of the earl’s biography remains a matter of informed speculation. Even so, research has unearthed details of Rochester’s political life as an associate of the Country Party faction emergent in 1670s Britain, a discovery that poses significant questions for the interpretation of his poetry. A second area of complexity concerns the canon of the earl’s works. The challenge of identifying his own genuine writings among the plethora of works attributed to him and of also establishing authoritative texts of those writings has proved so productive that Rochester studies (particularly as practiced by Harold Love) have stood at the forefront of advances in early modern textual bibliography since the mid-20th century. Intellectually, too, modern critics have discovered increasing complexity in the earl’s writings. The social, political, and philosophical character of Restoration libertinism, once dismissed as simply a knee-jerk reaction to Puritan repressiveness, has become subject to extensive inquiry, with Rochester at the heart of such investigations. Likewise, whereas his misogyny and apparent atheism might once have been thought straightforward matters, analysis now suggests that the contorted structure of Rochester’s thinking about gender and sexuality and the parallel intricacy of his relationship to Christianity demand subtler comment. Research on the earl’s literary practice has also revealed surprising complexities. A good deal has been discovered about the way Rochester handled others’ works in composing his own: the declared and the actual poetics implicit in his writings have been scrutinized; his status as a sometime precursor of literary Augustanism has been questioned; and his involvement in the theater, as both patron and author, remains the subject of ongoing attention. This bibliography addresses all these aspects of Rochester studies. It does so in the conviction that Wilmot was in his own way as subtle and significant a writer as the most illustrious of his contemporaries.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

Greer 2000 provides those starting out on a study of Rochester’s works with some useful orientation. Griffin 1973 and Thormählen 1993 challenge the typical reader’s initial impression that the earl is merely a playful lyricist or a dilettante composer of occasional verses. They present an intellectual, often philosophical Rochester and a serious, contemplative writer. As essay collections, Treglown 1982, Vieth 1988, and Fisher 2000 offer a broader set of approaches that together chart the critical response to Rochester from the 1960s to the turn of the century. Burns 1995 is another collection of this kind, but several of its essays depart from those in the other volumes by demonstrating a concern with the questions of ideology posed by modern literary theory. In a similar vein, Gill 1988 presents a Rochester interpreted through the lens of Jacques Lacan and to a lesser extent Jacques Derrida. Other monographs that give sustained attention to Rochester and that could equally serve as introductions to this poet include Farley-Hills 1978 (cited under Use of Sources), Combe 1998 (cited under Politics and Religion), and Tilmouth 2007 (cited under Libertinism).

  • Burns, Edward, ed. Reading Rochester. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1995.

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    Collection of eleven essays, all written for this volume, several concerned with Rochester’s erotic and lyric poetry. Includes extensive discussions of gender, a particularly subtle close reading of “Upon Nothinge,” and some important essays on Rochester’s literary connections to near-contemporary writers.

  • Fisher, Nicholas, ed. That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

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    Collection of fourteen particularly wide-ranging essays, including some illuminating discussions of Rochester’s attitude toward friendship and Alexander Pope’s interest in Rochester. There are also several innovative essays on Rochester’s contributions to Restoration drama and on allusions to his work in Restoration plays.

  • Gill, James E. “The Fragmented Self in Three of Rochester’s Poems.” Modern Language Quarterly 49 (1988): 19–37.

    DOI: 10.1215/00267929-49-1-19E-mail Citation »

    A Lacanian analysis of the split, self-alienated subjectivity evident in three of Rochester’s poetic personas (one lyric, one epistolary, one satiric) and also of the parallel experience that this induces in the reader.

  • Greer, Germaine. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House, 2000.

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    Brief entry-level introduction to the writer and his works.

  • Griffin, Dustin H. Satires against Man: The Poems of Rochester. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

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    Substantial monograph offering interpretative comment on the complete poems premised upon the judgment that Rochester was not so much a dogmatic nihilist as a perplexed skeptic attracted to heterodox and paradoxical ideas, yet continually in search of certainties.

  • Thormählen, Marianne. Rochester: The Poems in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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    Largest monograph yet written on Rochester, offering interpretative comment on the full range of his poems. Emphasizes substance and the broad compass of the poet’s intellectual interests in politics, theology, philosophy, and poetics, resisting assumptions that he is merely a dilettante versifier.

  • Treglown, Jeremy, ed. Spirit of Wit: Reconsiderations of Rochester. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982.

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    Earliest of four modern essay collections on the poet. Comprises nine pieces written for the tercentenary, some of them studies of his poetic style, others of the works’ social and ideological contexts. Includes Barbara Everett’s celebrated “The Sense of Nothing,” which examines the imaginative vitality lying behind the denials and mockeries in poems such as “Upon Nothinge.”

  • Vieth, David M., ed. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1988.

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    Anthology of essays published between 1958 and 1980 covering the full range of Rochester’s poems. Includes discussions of Rochester’s sexual politics, the tension between venality and moral vision in his verse, and Anne Barton’s celebrated Chatterton lecture on Rochester. The latter analyzes Rochester’s obsession with disguise and role-playing and the multiplicity of perspectives afforded by these and explores tensions between the sensual and the transcendent in his work.

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