Being The Life Of John Wilmot, Second Earl Of Rochester
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This, the life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), is Graham Greene's only biographical venture. Written in the early 1930's, it was not published at the time: Rochester's scandalous reputation as the Restoration's most debauched rake-hell, atheist and pornographer made publishers wary, and delayed for many years a due recognition of his very considerable poetic talents. "He might have been another Donne" had not the infamy of his life overshadowed his art. As it was, Rochester shone brightly for a few years at the head of the "merry gang" of sensualists that flocked about Charles Il in the early days of the Restoration when London cast off Puritanism and all flung themselves into a reckless orgy of merriment. A burnt-out case at 33, Rochester is a perfect subject for Greene who sees him as a "spoiled Puritan" using his wit to wreak vengeance on a corrupt and cynical society, not excluding the King and his many mistresses whom Rochester lampooned mercilessly. It was, as Greene points out, an age when Hobbes set the moral tone; the glitter and repartee at Court masked the most vicious and depraved practices. When banished from royal favor as he frequently was, Rochester continued his madcap adventures by setting himself up as an astrologer or an innkeeper, making love as a porter and traveling the roads as a beggar. Whores and lordly ruffians were his constant companions and when, on his deathbed, he became a penitent and embraced Christianity, friends and enemies scorned the conversion as madness. In the words of a contemporary, Rochester lived "as a torch to light himself to Hell thereby" and Greene charts his passage to that fiery place with the taut, restrained compassion which he always extends to fallen idols and angels.
Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 1974
ISBN: 0140101543
Page count: 197pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1974


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