Ward's Book of Days.

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JULY 26th  

On this day in history in 1680, died John Wilmot.

Wilmot was an aristocrat and a debauchee who wrote faultless verses of obscene poetry.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was the son of a general, the 1st Earl, who received his title for facilitating Charles IIs escape from the debacle of the Battle of Worcester, no doubt saving his life. He was born in 1647, inherited his father’s title in 1658 and obtained his M.A, from Wadham College, Oxford in 1661. Despite his aristocratic heritage, Wilmot had no landed estates and no money. The newly restored Charles II, in recognition of the 1st Earl’s services, granted Wilmot a small pension and sent him on a tour of the Continent, guided by Sir Arthur Balfour, a trusted physician.

On the Continent, Wilmot was able to give his chaperone the slip, on many occasions, and earned a reputation for wildness and debauchery. On his return to London in 1664, he was invited to court, where he became known for his many mistresses and his wild escapades. On one occasion, he waylaid the carriage of one of his mistresses and carried her off. The king was furious and had Wilmot imprisoned in the Tower but, due to his debt to Wilmot’s father, could not have him executed. Wilmot was, therefore, released after a brief stay. Wilmot served with distinction in the Royal Navy in the Second Dutch War and was given a sinecure of ‘gentleman of the bedchamber’.

Wilmot was an accomplished poet, but he used his talents to produce work which was obscene or venomous or both. Wilmot satirised other poets who wrote in a ‘pastoral’ style with sheep as symbols of virtue. For example, here are some lines in which pigs take the place of sheep in a mock verse:

‘Fair Chloris in a pigsty lay;
Her tender herd lay by her
She slept: in murmuring gruntlings they,
Complaining of the scorching day,
Her slumbers thus inspire.’  

We see a well-crafted verse structure. The metre and the style are perfect but the subject matter is used to deprecate the art of poetry. Subsequent stanzas degenerate into lewdness, while the style remains faultless.

Wilmot, knowing that the king could take no action against him, satirised the government and Charles in person in his verses:

‘His sceptre and his prick are of a length
And she may sway the one who plays with th’other
And make him little wiser than his brother.’ 

He wrote a mock epitaph for Charles saying:

‘Here lies a great and mighty king
Whose promise none relied on;
He never said a foolish thing’
Nor ever did a wise one.

To this Charles replied, “That is true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.”

Charles did eventually tire of Wilmot’s lampoons and banished him from the court, appointing him ranger of Woodstock Forest, in 1675. Wilmot was now sick, probably suffering from syphilis. He gradually grew weaker, was unable to write and died in 1680. He is buried under a simple tombstone in Spelsbury Churchyard. [All Saints Church, Church Lane, Spelsbury, Oxfordshire OX7 3JR]

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