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3.9 out of 5 stars31
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 1 August 2014
This is an excellent work. For anyone with even the slightest interest in the Earl of Rochester or his poetry it is a stand-out biography – meticulous without being dry, detailed but never losing sight of the wider context. The author’s plain affection for his subject does not descend into apologia or sentiment, though he retains an obvious warmth and empathy throughout that makes one thrill to Wilmot the man as well as Rochester the poet.

Such biographies must always balance the literary and the historical; what makes Blazing Star so readable is that Larman wears his scholarship in the former lightly – and resists the urge to beat the reader over the head with endless practical criticism – whilst bringing a mordant wit and narrative zip to the latter that allows you to disappear to Restoration England whilst on the 18.50 from Waterloo to Reading.

If the book has a minor fault it is that the ambitious scope of taking on the origins, politics (both geo- and gender), theology, culture, sexual and social mores, literature and drama, versification, fashions, &c, mean that one does occasionally feel the need for some companion texts; so many topics are touched on or alluded to that one feels could easily have become a chapter in themselves. But then the alternative would have been a series of, say, ten books, which might have been unsustainable.

I would recommend this without hesitation to almost anyone, with the possible exceptions of easily-shocked maiden aunts, staunch puritans or devotees of John Dryden.
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on 9 August 2015
I am baffled by the complaint reviews accusing this of being about poetry and not about the Restoration era itself!? This is a book on JOHN WILMOT, his life, his poetry- him. This is not a book on the restoration period in general!
For people such as myself who have been fascinated with the Earl and his poetry since I was 15, this is hugely informative and interesting. This is by far the most informative book into the mind, wit and behaviour of a pure genius. With insight into some of his greatest poems like a Satire Against Reason and Mankind. My family has historians and English literature experts who all agree that this book is in comparison to many others is brilliant.
I also see reviews on here claiming the Earl was incapable of love?! Where people get this sort of insight from I do not know? If you read this book along with Rochester's personal letters you will see that he was more than capable of real love and feelings other than sexual, as was he capable of many great poems and letter's that did not revolve around bawdy lewd thoughts. This book blew me away in places, as it delved into the sheer brilliance and sublime thoughts hidden within some paragraphs of his poetry. Some paragraphs that appear to be sexual to most who read them, but are in fact nothing of the sort, areas of word play. I have been reading his poetry, letters and studying The Earl for almost 15 years now and this book for REAL fans is certainly a treat and a delight to read! I am not quite finished yet, I have 79 pages to go and have been moved to tears in some parts.
This is a MUST read for Earl of Rochester fans only.
If you are a featherweight fan of just the movie- The Libertine then this is not for you. If you want to know about the Restoration period itself and King Charles only again, this is also not for you. I, as a huge fan of his work wanted to get as deep within his mind as possible and personally I found the opposite problem, too much time wasted at the beginning going on and on about Cromwell, civil war and the restoration period in general before it hit on the subject of The Earl himself.
Don't get me wrong, I am also a huge fan of Charles II and the period in general as I have read and continue to read many books on Charles and this period.
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on 6 August 2014
An extremely comprehensive and very readable biography which should appeal to those interested in the social history of the period, the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, as well as the life and times of the Earl and Charles II. Larman covers all aspects of his life in detail and must have spent a great deal of time in background research. His biography is well-balanced and very fair to the Earl, who some in the past have considered to be only a debauched libertine who wrote dirty couplets. This biography brings out some of the beauty in Rochester's verse and it is clear that Larman has appreciated the significance of the poems.

It is a handsomely produced book having a good page layout, a selection of relevant illustrations and an excellent bibliography. My only (minor) criticism is that we are told many times that Rochester was suffering from tertiary syphilis - perhaps we didn't need reminding so often.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 2 December 2014
“We have a pretty witty king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.”

In any book you read about Stuart England, particularly after the Restoration, you tend to find any mention of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester as a kind of epitome of the libertine rake, the Stuart cad, the example of the debauched excesses of Stuart England under King Charles II. You might find, in a footnote, some mention of his poetry. But this book proves there was an awful lot more to Rochester than sensual excess or bad behaviour, although there was admittedly a lot of that as well.

Born in 1647, John was the son of Henry Wilmot, created Earl of Rochester by Charles in exile in France in 1652. Wilmot senior had been critical in the successful escape of Charles from England after the debacle that was the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Avoding Cromwell’s forces, Charles, with Wilmot by his side the whole way, had managed to flee to France.

After the Restoration of 1660, England became ‘merry’ again under Charles II. The first Earl of Rochester was dead, his widow had successfully maintained her station under Cromwell, and John was raised to the dignity of the Earl of Rochester. By 1660 he was at university, but he likely already knew his path to success was going to be best served through the Court.

In 1680, Rochester died at the age of thirty-three. In his lifetime he packed a surfeit of experience – warfare, at which he showed valour and proved a worthy man of his times; marriage, at which he first faltered with a failed abduction, then succeeded, then perhaps failed again with neglect of his wife and family; poetry, at which he succeeded when he tried, yet dabbled perhaps all too infrequently and not seriously enough; politics, at which he succeeded in forming part of the Court cliques at times, and at others fell seriously out of favour with the King who held his life and income in his hands; love, at which he played, and of which he wrote, and about which he protested and questioned. But what he is most remembered for are his excesses – behaviour for which he was banished from Court, derided by some, admired by others, yet always larger than life.

It’s sometimes hard to know quite what Rochester was thinking when he indulged in some of his behaviour; I got the feeling that at times he would have liked to have been ‘good’, if only he could. But all too often something got hold of him – a demon of impropriety, a desire to test the limits of his mortality, a hint that he would have liked to have seen what, if anything was on the ‘other side’ of that mortalty. It is perhaps in his poetry, of which much was lost when his mother destroyed it after his death that we can see the closest to who Rochester was, as opposed to who he appeared to be. But even there the evidence seems contradictory, fleeting, as he is pulled from one viewpoint to another, and which is the ‘true’ Rochester?

I really enjoyed this book. The author has done a great job at placing Rochester not only in his own life, but in his times. The context within which he was born, of a country at war with itself, and of the times in which he was raised, from the Commonwealth of Cromwell to the Restoration England of the Stuart Kings was important to the makeup of the man he became. It seems that some of his father’s temperament was inherited by him as well, yet perhaps less of his mother, to her sorrow. The glimpses into Rochester’s life, and the contexts of his poetry within that life help us to try and understand who he was, and why.

At the end, I think we are left still with Rochester as an image, only a glimpse of who and what he really was, and even less of a glimpse of who and what he could have been, or even would have liked to have been. Destroyed by his own lifestyle, he died young, and possibly repentant. His family, about whom he felt perhaps some of the most honest passions in his brief yet turbulent life, did not in the main part outlive him long. His widow died in 1681, their only son died three months later. Only their three daughters lived into maturity, and their marriages and later lives were managed by their paternal grandmother to ensure no taint of Rochester followed them. Sad, yet somehow inevitable, seems to sum up Rochester. He lived life to the full, but I’m not sure you could say he found the peace or understanding he perhaps sought throughout it.
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on 13 July 2014
For anyone interested in life at the court of charles the second this book will delight and scandalizeyou in equal measure. Having come across Rochester before I knew what to expect and this book did not disappoint. Love the extra feature of his works at the end.
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on 20 July 2014
Really enjoying this, very readable but at the same time has obviously been well researched and Larman clearly has an affectionate admiration for his subject.
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on 3 September 2014
Well - what a cad, rogue, amoral scoundrel, charming, handsome, seductive, talented, brilliant but outrageously flawed man Wilmot was!

Although I had tried to read a previous biography about Wilmot, it just didn't seem to get to grips with the paradox of Wilmot's life, career and works. But it is to Alexander Larman's credit that he has written a clear and superbly entertaining life, not just of Wilmot but also of the times he lived in.

Wilmot's life and career set against the more depraved and increasingly corrupt court of KIng Charles II is a tale of sexual, political and social escapades - it leaves the reader breathless that Wilmot's excesses, in all aspects, are pursued with all the energy of an Olympian athlete. Even though he has periods of exile, either self-imposed or royally enforced, he returns with his tail between his legs and is restored to favour. (Mind you, more often than not it is his own over-active appendage that wilts before he recovers its/his position in court!)

If it wasn't a true story it could easily be a perverse farce of manners - but Blazing Star, is a superb read, full of outrageous episodes and ultimately a tragic waste of someone we would all (secretly) envy for the brazenness with which he leads a thoroughly disgraceful but fun-filled life. Oh, and he wrote some hilarious and disgusting poems too! Not for the faint-hearted either!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 August 2014
This is a historical biography written by a journalist and thus may suit general readers who want a light and popular view of Rochester and the Restoration court of Charles II: anyone with a deeper or more informed interest in the man, the poetry, or the times may find themselves increasingly frustrated.

As is frequently the case with writers who are not professional historians or literary scholars, this makes lots of sweeping claims, depends overwhelmingly on the `might haves', `perhaps', and `surely Rochester must haves' which indicate either a lack of sources or, as in this case, a lack of engagement with the primary sources. For example, Larman takes a set of memoirs written by a one-time travelling companion of Rochester and decides to "take this account and retrospectively apply it to his journey with Rochester, even if the latter is not mentioned by name once in the story... assuming for the sake of argument that Balfour's account in his book relates to his travels with Rochester, their adventure can be constructed in precise detail"... the so-called `precise detail' is thus dependent on an unverified assumption and contingencies which Larman simply magics away. The constant stream of `it is likely that', `Rochester might well have', `it seems unthinkable that he was not', `it is possible, with some imaginative license, to reconstruct' began to grate more and more.

As well as this cavalier attitude towards the sources (and Rochester has left many letters written both by him and to him, plus there are plenty of state papers as well as memoirs beyond Pepys from this period), Larman is not a writer to pass up a cliché: Rochester is drawn to conflict `like a moth to a flame', `the gutters ran red with Royalist gore', and `the old order was about to be overthrown forever'.

Readings of Rochester's poetry, too, are unsubtle and unnuanced: either the poetry is supposed to be an authentic outpouring of sincere emotion, or Rochester is acting - the idea of poetry being also shaped by genre, cultural convention and literary tradition is not acknowledged. For example, love poetry which depicts `Rochester' (more properly, the narrator) as in thrall to an inconstant mistress is described by Larman as `surprising' and `unusual' as if Catullus, Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, and the Shakespeare of the 'dark lady' sonnets had never traced exactly the same literary scenario.

I apologise for what some readers may see as nit-picking: any one of these flaws alone might have been forgivable but they stacked together to undermine my enjoyment of this book.

I love Rochester and his poetry and had been looking forward to spending some time in his company via this book - sadly, I never felt Rochester's wit, his charisma or his complex personality really came to life here. For a better biography, I would recommend A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and for a first hand encounter with Rochester the man and the poet, his letters (The Letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester) and this up-to-date edition of some of his poetry, Selected Poems.

General readers may not be bothered by the unscholarly approaches of this book (which is fine) but it is worth knowing what to expect.
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on 1 September 2014
At first, I thought that this book was dishing up traditional history when it set the scene at the court of Charles II. However, when it came to Rochester, this was an excellent biography. I felt very sorry that someone so talented should have been so desparately obsessed by sex and that this gave him tertiary syphilis, which was awful and made him die at 33, but the author does look at his poetry and war experience as well. The court was very sleazy but I think Charles II to have been a cleverer king than is suggested here. He knew the limits of autocracy when he had to deal with Parliament and tided the country over nicely in a difficult time.
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on 22 September 2014
For those of us who don't fall into the history buff camp, the thought of trailing though a historical account of a bygone era is about as appealing as colonic irrigation. So, with that in mind, I was highly skeptical about accepting this novel as a recent gift, much less sure that i'd bother to read it. But how wrong I was, for Blazing Star is full of vice, intrigue, love, poetry, conspiracy, property destruction and much more: the very antithesis of boring. Larman’s tone is witty, conversational and hugely engaging, no doubt helped enormously by his clear love and affection for the subject matter - Blazing Star reads more like a racy novel than a piece of non-fiction.

Larman regales us with the story of John Wilmot, the titular Earl of Rochester in question and his turbulent adventures through Restoration England in the 17th century. Suffice it to say, Rochester was no puritanical shrinking violet and his exploits, both sexual and otherwise, during this period of licentiousness and wild abandon for the privileged upper classes makes for a very entertaining read. Indeed, the tabloid scandal of today’ vacuous, preening celebs are of faint interest compared to what Wilmot achieved in his tragically short existence. But crucially, Larman offers a very complete account of Rochester, drawing on both his infamous exploits in the mattress dancing department and his lesser known feats in battle, bravery and, of course, his shocking and thought-provoking poetry.

If all books were as engaging as Blazing Star, I’d become a history convert.
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