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A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester [Hardcover]

James William Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Dec 2004
Of the glittering, licentious court around King Charles II, John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, was the most notorious. Simultaneously admired and vilified, he personified the rake-hell. Libertine, profane, promiscuous, he shocked his pious contemporaries with his doubts about religion and his blunt verses that dealt with sex or vicious satiric assaults on the high and mighty of the court. This account of Rochester and his times provides the facts behind his legendary reputation as a rake and his deathbed repentance. However, it also demonstrates that he was a loving if unfaithful husband, a devoted father, a loyal friend, a serious scholar, a social critic, and an aspiring patriot. An Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Rochester, James William Johnson is the author or editor of nine books and many articles treating British and American Literature.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 478 pages
  • Publisher: University of Rochester Press; 1st Edition edition (2 Dec 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1580461700
  • ISBN-13: 978-1580461702
  • Product Dimensions: 3.1 x 16.2 x 23.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 888,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Johnson (Emer., University of Rochester) wrote this generous biography -- a veritable progress of a rake's rake -- with enthusiasm and engaged fascination with Rochester (1647-1680) . . . Johnson's forte, in addition to the extensiveness of his information, is his strong narrative sweep: this is an exciting biography. Highly Recommended. CHOICE Within the last five years there have been two other new biographies of the poet and courtier, both oriented towards a more general reader than is implied here. However, any reader would be advised to choose Johnson's as the most authoritative account to date. . . . An additional strength of this biography is the way in which it uncovers so much more than an individual life. Interwoven with Rochester's fortunes are those of King and country, court and parliament and a huge array of other personalities. ENGLISH: THE JOURNAL OF THE ENGLISH ASSOCIATION A life of Rochester could not be better done. It is a biography not only for the scholar, replete with footnotes, references and bibliography, but also for the reader, being written in an easy style with learning lightly worn. . . A fine biography unlikely to be bettered in the foreseeable future. THE PRESS (New Zealand)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rich and nuanced portrait of Rochester 28 Jun 2013
By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Rochester has been ill-served by biographers to date so this is a welcome scholarly life which places John Wilmot at the centre of Restoration culture and mores. Johnson `reads' Rochester's life from a range of primary sources, and is particularly good at drawing a convincing narrative from the various letters which circulated between Rochester and his wife, and his libertine friends.

This isn't perfect and depends on some rather old-fashioned frameworks: Freudian readings, for example, that posit various older men as father-substitutes for Rochester; a dependency on modern paradigms of sexuality (`homosexual', `bisexual') in a culture with a more fluid and less fixed understanding of `sexuality' than ours; reading poetic texts as if they're bits of autobiography, almost snippets from a secret diary bequeathed to us.

Despite these flaws, however, the overall work is so well-written, so rich in atmosphere, detail and empathy, that it's easy to forgive the minor niggles - highly recommended.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thouroughly enjoyable and informative read 9 Aug 2008
This book should be enjoyable to those interested in the mores of Restoration English culture and debauchery in general. The author writes commandingly drawing on a wide range of credible sources that reflect the rise and denise of the "pious debauchee". You will not get a more comprehensive review of Rochester in my humble opinion; it is written from a highly scholarly perspective and is impressive in its wide gamut of sources.

An intelligent and comprehensive work dealing with a highly complex and enigmatic character and time in England's history.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Not Only The Good Die Young 29 Dec 2013
John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, died on July 26, 1680, aged thirty-three, ravaged by the effects of syphilis and gonorrhea. In an age noted for its widespread sexual immorality from the King downwards Rochester was considered the worst of a bad bunch. An excellent satirist he was obsessed with sex of which he spoke so explicitly that Channel Four would be hesitant to repeat it in the twenty-first century. Ironically, his first biographers concentrated on his 'last agonising days of suffering, repentance and joyous conversion'. A century later Samuel Johnson wrote of Rochester's 'drunken gaiety and gross sensuality.... (and) avowed contempt for all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral and a resolute denial of very religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness...' Sir Samuel Lee stated 'The sentiment of his love songs is transparently artificial whenever it is not obscene........there is enough foulness in his fully authenticated poems to give him a title to be remembered as the writer of the filthiest verse in the language'. It's a title he still holds. Wilmot had an overwhelming fear of death so that Johnson wrote 'the whole of his life (was) spent keeping away the thoughts of it'.

Rochester was admitted to Wadham College, Oxford at the age of twelve in 1660, not because of outstanding ability but because he was an Anglican and well connected. Later the same year the Parliamentary regime collapsed and was replaced by Charles 11. The effect on Oxford was dramatic as 'lectures gave way to drunken, bawdy songs' and 'in the weeks following, the academic order was lost in anarchy as carousing, rioting and whoring students grew increasingly wild and licentious'.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Biography. 23 Jan 2011
Excellent, if you want to learn about Rochesters' life this is the most thorough and well documented bio available, all of the other available accounts are poorly documented neo-fiction.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know 8 July 2006
By Doug Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
With the release of THE LIBERTINE there is a renewed interest in the life and poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. My own interest began when I was taking a class in Restoration Literature. While I was taking this class it was rumored that there was a movie version of the mad Earl's life out there somewhere (rumor was that it had been finished for some time but that studios were reluctant to release it) but then just a few weeks after the class was over a holiday release date was announced and I saw the film on opening night. I enjoyed it thoroughly as a person with a slightly more than casual interest in this character and time period. And left the film wanting to know more.

I think there are probably several groups of fans for the film. There are the fans who like Johnny Depp and will see anything he is in (I'm not one of those although I will admit to liking DONNIE BRASCO & Jim Jarmusch's DEAD MAN). But then there are those who come to the film because they are interested in Rochester himself. These fans can probably further be divided up into those who are amused by Rochester the legend ( the mad, bad, and dangerous to know libertine) and then there are those who are curious about Rochester the actual historical figure and author of many fine lyrics. James William Johnson's biography will appeal to those who have an interest in not only Rochester but the entire social, political, military, economic, and literary milieu of 1660's and 1670's London. I think the reader with only a casual interest in the subject might find this treatment to be too complete. I for one found this biography to be almost too exaustive; that might sound odd but Johnson spends so much time on Rochester's mother and her family politicking, for instance, that I found myself nodding off during these parts. The family tree at the end of the book is helpful if you are a completist and want to know every detail of John Wilmot AND his extended families lives (before his birth and after his death) but for me this was more than I really wanted or needed. In short Johnson is a Restoration scholar and Johnson's biography is really written for other Restoration scholars.

The Rochester that makes it onto film is, as one might suspect, a sensationalized version of the real thing. Thats not to say that the things in the film did not happen (most of them did) but the film makes it look like the life was all salacious scandal and street theatre. It wasn't. The film also seems to take great pains to show you the great pains that John Wilmot went through in the last three years of his life as his body and face suffered the effects of a syphilis that was greatly aggravated by alcoholism. The film, intentionally or no, creates a martyr. To the filmmakers Rochester's atrophy is presented as a kind of heroic metaphor for unwillingness to compromise (even if that unwillingness to compromise meant that he lived only for the moment and only for himself). This probably tells us more about ourselves and our times and values than about the social times and values of 1660's and 1670's London--we seem to be socially programmed to equate a short life with a beautiful life. This is probably due to the allure of an early death promulgated by rock star's and actor's and artsits's of various stripes dying young; but then maybe this has always been true. I suppose the short beautiful life myth always assumes that its better to burn out than to fade away. That would be the myth on the mind of the filmmakers (or the myth that the filmakers rely on to bring audiences to the film). This mythos implies that some people are just not meant to or able to live a normal life, or at least not able to accept the limits and boundaries that most accept. These types are Depps's specialty. Johnson's book is, however, to its credit, not about perpetuating a legend or a mythos. In fact Johnson's book goes a long way in exploring the life or inhabiting the life in order to show us what Rochester did within the confines of a very limited set of social and intellectual possibilities. Rochester's drink-driven poetry and riotous actions were attempts at a kind of semblance of freedom that he actually did not have. When sober the reality was that he was confined to a very specific social station and almost all of the major decisions of his life were decided by his superiors (his mother, teachers, king). His life was virtually dictated to him every step of the way. It is not surprising that he struck out against authority (including his own). But he also (in verse and in life) struck out against women, and (as his critics were quick to point out) he often caused trouble that others had to pay for (sometimes with their lives).

In his own day Rochester was Restoration England's most celebrated bad boy, but that fame or infamy only lasted about five years ( a time in which he claims he was perpetually drunk). By the time he was 30 he was already a has-been on the London social scene. The public lost interest in him partly because he could no longer do what had made him so famous (the syphilis caused sexual malfunction) and also because the climate of the country had changed and grown more morose due to war, plague, and fire. But also the public lost interest in him because bad boys become tiresome after awhile; they wear out their welcome. In the last years of his life he was someone the public loved to hate.

There are several biographies of Rochester out there. I think each biography has something to offer. If you are interested in this whole time period then Johnson's biography is the best because it situates Rochester's life among the other lives and the major trends and happenings of the time. If Johnson's biography has a weakness it might just be that he does so much contextualizing that you feel like the focus is on the time period as much as it is on Rochester himself. Another option is to track down a copy of the out of print biography of Rochester by the novelist Graham Greene. This biography called LORD ROCHESTER'S MONKEY was written in the 1930's but not published until the 1970's (for censorship reasons). It's concise and lavishly illustrated and I found a nice used first edition here on Amazon for pennies. The advantage of the Greene biography is that he concentrates on the major events of Rochester's life with an especially keen focus on the Elizabeth Barry relationship and an equally keen focus on Rochester's intellectual-emotional world view and temperament. (Many in Rochester's day read Hobbes and were influenced by Hobbes materialism and it was Hobbes' philosophy, some argue, that led to the rampant selfism that Rochester was so famous for but Greene argues that Rochester never totally followed this program of thought and even struggled against it as he attempted to evolve some kind of classically inspired social ethic that is, sometimes, evidenced in his poetry). Perhaps one problem with Rochester the poet is that he almost always writes through some masque or persona and he seems never to have written except when incensed at someone and so the poetry tends to be polemical or invective or scathing satire but rarely, if ever, do you get a measured estimation of his real values and beliefs. Greene, as you would expect, is especially good at analyzing Rochester's lyrics and what makes them so interesting. Johnson's reading of individul poems is informed by current gender theory and since Rochester often wrote in the guise of a woman this works. Greene's book is a nice option for those who are literary but do not require (or desire) the academic armature and trendy theorizing as well as the leave-no-stoned-unturned thoroughness that you get with scholarly biographies. If you have the time read both the Johnson and the Greene.

If you are interested in this period I would also recommend an excellent PBS miniseries called THE LAST KING (available on DVD). Rochester himself makes only a couple of brief appearances but this is an excellent and entertaining way to familiarize yourself with the England of Charles II and the surronding cast of characters (Lady Castlemaine, Duke of Buckingham, Nell Gwynn, etc...) that will be mentioned in any Rochester biography.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bawdy Mirror to His Age 16 Jan 2006
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
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.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars AWESOME!!!! 16 Dec 2005
By HABU122 - Published on Amazon.com
I have to say that if you never knew anything about John Wilmot, this is the book you want to read. The author was precise, historically correct,clever, entertaining and made the subject matter jump off the page. Mr. Johnson used the Earl's poetry and intertwined it into his storytelling. You get a real flavor of just who the Earl of Rochester was. I've read other Wilmot biographies but I have to say, this one really earned the 5 stars.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Tribute to Rochester 18 Sep 2007
By The Mad Lep - Published on Amazon.com
I really couldn't better some of the excellent reviews already made about this book, so I'll keep mine short. I've spent many years enthralled with the Earl of Rochester's work and life. I have read almost all of the biographies ever written about him, which are numerous, and in my opinion this is the crown jewel of Wilmot biographies. It is steeped in depth of detail, but the most important fact about it is that the author manages to keep personal opinion out of the bio the whole way through. He states the facts and leaves it up to the reader's discretion to form their own opinions, unlike some of the other Rochester biographers.
For those of you wanting the most up-to-date, detailed account of this wonderful poet's life, this is it. From birth to death and it's aftermath, this biography is the fullest and most accurate account of John Wilmot's life available. Poet, Libertine, Husband, Father, Lover, Cynic; every possible aspect of Wilmot's life and career are laid out for the reader here. While at times, the author possibly gives a little too much detail on persons not so important to the Wilmot story, the reader is richer for the knowledge in any case. Not only an excellent bio, but a great insight into the life and times of the court of Charles II.
Wilmot fans should not pass up the chance to read this. :)
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Libertine 17 April 2006
By Frank J. Konopka - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I must confess that I had never heard of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, until I saw the Johnny Depp movie "The Libertine". After that, I just had to read a biography of a person who appeared to be extremely interesting. This work was not a disappointment, for it detailed Wilmot's life and times, and also went deeply into both his prose and his poetry. He certainly was a mirror to the Restoration Age, and is unfairly forgotten now, but I hope that the movie, and this well-written book, bring him back to the recognition that he so justly deserves.
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