was born near Woodstock, the son of a loyal Royalist father and a mother who was a Puritan sympathizer. The first earl of Rochester, reputedly a hard drinker, had remained devoted to Charles II in exile. He earned his title in 1652 for meritorious service to Charles II. The younger Wilmot lost his father in 1658 as the first earl died abroad, never to enjoy the Restoration. Wilmot spent a short time at oxford in Wadham College, beginning at age 12, where he reportedly first displayed his penchant for all manner of debauchery. He matriculated by age 14, earning his M.A. degree granted by the university's chancellor, the earl of Clarendon, who happened also to be Wilmot's uncle.
After completion of the fashionable Continental tour Wilmot joined the Royalist forces, distinguishing himself in battle against the Dutch. His military skill and Royalist sympathies made him a favorite of Charles II. After returning to England, Wilmot earned a reputation as the most famous womanizer and master of public perversion of his era, and his constant intoxication was legend. His kidnapping of his future bride, the wealthy Elizabeth Malet, in 1665, became a part of the local mythology. The famed diarist Samuel Pepys wrote details of the kidnapping to his wife. He described Wilmot's hiring horsemen to pull the young heiress from her carriage into his own, where two female escorts waited. Although Wilmot was captured, Elizabeth's whereabouts remained unknown for some time, causing an angry King Charles to order Wilmot to imprisonment in the Tower. once Elizabeth returned safely to her father, Wilmot was released; he married Elizabeth two years later. The two remained oddly devoted to one another, despite her fury and disgust over his long absences and well-publicized affairs, many with the most tawdry of partners.
Wilmot became a popular poet and wit, specializing in pornographic poetry in the libertine tradition, that is, a tradition reflecting the values of the intelligent skeptic who constantly questioned traditional ideas regarding morality. Libertine poetry and drama drew from the political ideas of Hobbes and Machiavelli, applying those ideas to sexual encounters. It also took inspiration from the writings of Epicurus, popular during the
Restoration, in their consideration of hedonism. Their lyrics also were based in the courtly tradition of poetry by John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, and Thomas Carew. Wilmot and others used undisguised sexual references, in some critics' opinions, in order to express disgust. In 20th-century criticism such blatant terms were viewed as part of the language or terminology of eroticism.
The libertines took an extreme interest in women, preferring their company in most cases to that of men. Wilmot's involvement in the theater led to promotion of the stage career of one of his many mistresses, Elizabeth Barry; she became the most famous female actor of the Restoration. Wilmot set upon a self-destructive course of sex and drink, once claiming to have been drunk for five uninterrupted years. He frequently read his poetry at court, where its content, overly bawdy even for Restoration tastes, proved at once scandalous and attractive to the court circle. He at last overstepped civil boundaries in a poetic lampoon of the king and was banished from court for several years. Eventually Charles relented and requested that Wilmot, who by that time was in poor health, return to court.
Wilmot patronized various poets, including George Villiers, earl of Buckingham, who engaged in a public dispute with the poet laureate John Dryden. Villiers was a member of Wilmot's "Merry Gang," so dubbed by the poet Andrew Marvell. That group was believed to have executed the savage physical attack against Dryden that almost killed him. Despite such suspicions, the group held the public's fascination from about 1666 to 1680, the year of Wilmot's death, a result of advanced syphilis and the effects of alcohol. Returning home to die in Elizabeth's care, he apparently underwent a religious conversion, something long desired by his mother. This supposed act of piety became a useful weapon for the church, which publicized it widely.
Little of Wilmot's poetry was published in his lifetime, deemed too sexually explicit, and instead circulated in manuscript form. Despite his choice of unbridled sexual pleasure as a subject, Wilmot's skilled use of satire became a model for later far more conservative poets, including Alexander Pope. His best known and most published poem is his "A Satyre against Mankind."
While Wilmot's poetry most certainly objectified women and clearly identified their sexual organs by profane name, feminist critics find interesting the power he assigns women. They not only control weaker men who engage in sex indiscriminately, in most poems they also prove the better lovers and have much stronger physical constitutions and capacity for sexual enjoyment than do their male lovers, for example in "The Imperfect Enjoyment." Wilmot made clear his great contempt for cultural mores, taking delight in insulting the ideals others professed to value. He did not hesitate to take aim in his poetry at the hypocrisy that produced the double standard in regard to sex from which women's reputations might suffer, while men's reputations benefited. His poetry remained on a list of works too scandalous for public consumption; in the early 20th century his writings were burned by New York Customs. Graham Greene wrote a biography suppressed for more than 40 years prior to publication because of Wilmot's reputation. Wilmot's work attracted interest in the later 20th century as sexual mores relaxed and remains readily available in both print and electronic form. His life was the subject of a 2004 film, The Libertine, with Johnny Depp in the leading role.
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