Last Friday King’s College Library and Archives hosted an exhibition for the Open Cambridge weekend, focusing partly on Kingsman John Davy Hayward (1905-1965) and his collection of early editions of the works of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680). These are some selected highlights of the exhibition.
Poems on Several Occasions was the first anthology of Rochester’s poems published after his death in July 1680. The false imprint (it was printed in London) and lack of a publisher’s name permitted unrestrained lewdness of content. By November of that year Samuel Pepys had a copy which he kept in the right-hand drawer of his writing desk as he considered it ‘unfit to mix with my other books’, adding ‘pray let it remain there, for as he is past writing any more so bad in one sense, so I despair of any man surviving him to write so good in another’.
Only a handful of Rochester’s works were printed during his lifetime, mainly satires published as broadsides. The most famous was his ‘A Satyr against Mankind’ (1679) which is a scathing denunciation of rationalism and optimism that contrasts human wickedness with animal wisdom. His ‘A Satyr against Marriage’ is written in a similar vein.
Spot the difference: numerous editions of Rochester’s works appeared during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and their salacious content was gradually rewritten to reflect ‘respectable’ tastes. One of these portraits has been doctored, perhaps to suggest the venereal disease that would eventually lead to Rochester’s demise.
The actress Nell Gwyn, a long-time mistress of Charles II, is also believed to have been Rochester’s mistress, perhaps demonstrating his prominent position at court as well as his interest in the theatre. In 1673 Rochester had begun training Elizabeth Barry as an actress. She went on to become the most famous actress of her age and her relationship with Rochester produced a daughter. Whilst bearing all the hallmarks of Rochester’s style, some doubt the authenticity of this explicit (and anonymously published) letter from Rochester to Nell.
Monkey business: this engraving is one of the best known images of Rochester, and provided the title for Graham Greene’s biography of the author, Lord Rochester’s Monkey. In ‘A Satyr against Mankind’ Rochester writes:
Were I, who to my Cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious Creatures Man,
A Spirit free, to choose for my own Share,
What sort of Flesh and Blood I pleas’d to wear,
I’d be a Dog, a Monkey, or a Bear,
Or any thing, but that vain Animal,
Who is so proud of being Rational.
In 1676 Rochester fell into disfavour with the King and fled this time to Tower Hill where he impersonated a physician, one ‘Dr Alexander Bendo’. Under this persona he claimed skill in treating many conditions including ‘barrenness’, apparently gaining him access to many young ladies.
WARNING: This blog post was not suitable for children.