John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester

Christopher Tilmouth

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester

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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.

Article.  8780 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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