John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester was the celebrity bad boy of his time. He was remarkably handsome and he died young. He drank to excess, boasting at one point that he was never once sober during a period of ten years. He was frequently involved in public brawls. He had countless affairs with famous women. He was a master of disguise and play acting. Above all he thumbed his nose at all authority including the King. He even did time in the Tower for some of his more outrageous antics. But none of this would have accounted for much if it hadn’t been that he was also precociously talented, penning the sharpest and most obscene lyrics which mercilessly lampooned the corrupt and claustrophobic world of the Restoration court.
Looked at objectively, Rochester was a most unpleasant piece of work. He was over-privileged, petulant, self-pitying and an abuser of both women and his social inferiors. In 1671, for example, after several days of partying, he was one of a gang of drunken young men who decided it would be fun to go and smash up a brothel in Whetstone Park. They wanted to revenge themselves on some unfortunate whore whom they blamed for giving some amongst them the pox. The mayhem got out of hand and when the beadle was called the poor man was hacked to death in a frenzied orgy of killing. All the perpetrators of this appalling crime got off because several of them were far too close to Charles himself to allow the scandal to go public.
Nor was this a one off lapse on Rochester’s part. In June 1676 he and some others of his gang who called themselves ‘the Ballers’ went to Epsom for the races. Rochester, drunk as usual, got into a brawl with a local constable. Rochester’s friend called Downs intervened. Rochester ran off, leaving Downs, who was unarmed to fend for himself alone. Downs ended up run through with a pike and died later that night. Rochester’s response to this fracas was to lie low for a few weeks. But being Rochester he didn’t just go into hiding. He adopted an entire new persona, passing himself off as the ‘famous Italian pathologist, Dr Alexander Bendo’. He started selling quack cures, a private satire on the gullibility of man.
His treatment of his long suffering wife was no better. She was a substantial heiress and Rochester’s own financial resources were very constrained. Early on in their courtship, when she was just fifteen, he feared she might succumb to the overtures of a rival, so he abducted her. The abduction was bungled. Rochester ended up in Uxbridge and his heiress somewhere else entirely. No one seems to have understood quite why or how, least of all Rochester himself. He was soon arrested and thrown in the Tower for a few weeks in order to cool his heels.
Remarkably, some two years later, the heiress, who was still unwed, forgave him this escapade and agreed to marry him in a more conventional manner. Having safely got his hands on her property, he insisted she live in the country under the strict eye of his overbearing mother, while he returned to his usual drinking and whoring in London. His desire for control not just over her body but her mind was taken to such an extreme that he insisted she convert to Catholicism even though he was not a Catholic himself. The only explanation for such a strange requirement was that he saw it as a useful way of ingratiating himself with the king and his brother. Shortly before his death he insisted she become an Anglican again.
So why is the elitist, sneering, cowardly and flagrantly misogynistic Rochester still so revered. The only explanation is that his verse dares to go places where few other poets either before or since have cared to follow. Who else has written with such self-coruscating honesty about sexual impotence and revulsion from female flesh.
The marvellous portrait attributed to Jacob Huysman says it all. On one level it is a carefully contrived and wickedly cruel gibe at John Dryden, who was once Rochester’s friend but had become his great literary enemy. Rochester is shown dangling a laurel crown above a monkey’s head. The laurel crown was, of course, the symbolic designation of the poet laureate. Dryden was the poet laureate a position largely obtained through Rochester’s patronage. So Dryden is being pictured here as nothing more than a grinning, chattering monkey fawning on his patron. Rochester was frequently sneering about the fact that Dryden had to write for money something a true gentleman would never stoop to. By having the monkey tear pages out of a book and offer them to his master, Rochester is also implying that Dryden’s poetry has been plagiarised from the classics and is of no value other than for wiping one’s arse on.
There is much more to this painting, however, than just a piece of vindictive mockery. Rochester’s expression is pale and melancholic not triumphant. He was already very ill with tertiary syphilis when this likeness was completed. There is a hectic flush about the cheeks, a lost boyishness. The vermilion red lips of both monkey and man point up the connections between the two figures rather than their differences. Rochester may be poking fun at Dryden but he is surely also satirising the futility of all literary endeavour including his own. There is a wonderful circularity about this painting. The monkey is mocking Rochester as much as Rochester the monkey and in some ways Rochester is being depicted as the bigger fool for dangling the laurel crown in the first place. And while the monkey stares at his master, Rochester stares wanly at the viewer as if to ask ‘What is your role in this farcical merry-go-round’?