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LIFE OF ROCHESTER,
BY DR. JOHNSON,
Joan 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 afterward 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 vicious 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
As he excelled in that noisy and licentious merriment which wine excites, his companions eagerly encouraged him in excess, and he willingly indulged it; till, as lie 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 frolics, which it is not for his honour that we should temember, and which are not now distinctly known. He often pursued low amours in mean disguises, and always acted with great exactress and dexterity the characters which he assumed.
He once erected a stage on Tower-bill, and harangued the populace as a mountebank; and, having made physic 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, be 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, entituled, Sonie Passages of the Life and Death of John Earl of Rochester, which the critic 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 bis 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 gave 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 title-page 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, the Satire against Man, the Verses upon Nothing, and perhaps some others, are I believe genuine, and perhaps most of those which the 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 common-places 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 topic for the boast of his fertility. There is a poem called Nihil, in Latin, by Passerat, a poet and critic of the sixteenth century in France ; who, in his own epitaph, expresses his zeal for good poetry thus :
Molliter ossa quiescent,
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
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 Scrope, who, in a poem called The Praise of Satire, had some lines like these :
He who can push into a midnight fray
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
! I quote from memory, Dr. J.