Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

2nd Earl of Rochester: The Libertine

September 4, 2010 · No Comments

Whilst touring the national portrait gallery, one notices a few immediate similarities:  first, virtually all subjects are men.  Second, all subjects are white.  Within these two parameters, however, the paintings were fairly diverse.  Subjects ranged from masters of the arts to pioneers of the sciences and then, predictably, to the useless courtiers.

Among these portraits, one caught my attention.  The 2nd Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, proved to be a very interesting character.  Known for his poetry, Rochester’s verses ranged from the deeply philosophical and biting satire to obscene sexual fantasies.  Charles II was at times one of Rochester’s closest allies and bosom buddies, for both indulged in similarly licentious and flamboyant social lifes, but at other times proved to be the direct target of Rochester’s biting wit.  Given these two extremes, it is easy to see why the “Merry Monarch” Charles II endured a strong love/hate relationship with Rochester, banishing him from Court about once per year.

Rochester died at the age of thirty three.  The cause is believed to have been venereal disease.  After being a staunch atheist his entire life, Rochester converted to Christianity on his deathbed, after he overcame a long torrent of alcoholic abuse.

Rochester’s portrait, like the poet himself, is deeply satirical.  The portrait’s inclusion of a monkey, which is squatting on a pile of books handing Rochester a mangled page of verse, proves to be a deliciously self-mocking bit of wit, for Rochester then bestows upon the animal the laurels of a poet.  This commentary of Rochester’s proves to hold true to the poet’s general outlook on life.  In his most popular poem, and easily most controversial, “A Satyre against Reason and Mankind,” Rochester condemns the “reason” of mankind and praises the instincts of animals, concluding them to be logical, whereas men use their wits and reason out of fear and lust for power.

Categories: 2010 Luke

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