I have to admit that what has come down to us of Rochester's drunken antics tends to read more like the ill-natured thoughtlessness of the privileged--a court version of frat-boy pranking--than the work of a true wit. And there is no doubt that he had his unpalatable side; he was frequently violent, and even the most generous reading of his marriage has to account for his leaving his wife alone in the countryside for months on end with only his horridly overbearing mother for company. But even aside from the poems, hints of a more interesting and complicated personality break through. When temporarily banished from court for satirizing Charles II, Rochester took on the guise of an astrologer and doctor and plied that trade, incognito, on Tower Hill. At other times, he pretended to be a tinker or a vagrant; in these stories there are shades of the stories of Haroun al-Raschid, a deep-rooted restlessness and desire to shed the self.
By age thirty, Rochester's life of womanizing, whoring, and carousing through stews and rake-hells had caught up with him; he fell into poor health and died of a variety of ailments, syphilis looming large among them, at thirty-three. His apparent deathbed conversion, much bruited about by those hoping to curtail the scandalous behavior of Charles II's court, has been a source of controversy ever since. Greene treats Rochester's deathbed dialogues with ministers as serious inquiries, but he is unwilling to grant that Rochester's conversion and repentance were true. After all, a few months before he died, when, despite a temporary improvement, he surely knew the end was near, he wrote "The Wish":
O that I now cou'd by some chymic art
To sperm convert my vitals and my heart,
That at one thrust I might my soul translate,
And in the womb myself regenerate:
There steep'd in lust, nine months I wou'd remain;
Then boldly ------- my passage out again.
Certainly, Rochester's companions at court viewed tales of his conversion with a jaded eye. But that didn't keep those who wanted from pushing the story wholeheartedly. The following poem, written by a Sir Francis Fane, argues for Rochester's sneaky goodness; even supposing Rochester's repentance to be genuine, I find the only appropriate response to this argument to be laughter:
Satan rejoic'd to see thee take his part,
His malice not so prosperous as thy art.
He took thee for his pilot, to convey
Those easy souls whom he had led astray:
But to his great confusion saw thee shift,
They swelling sails and take another drift,
With an illustrious train reputed his,
To the bright regions of eternal bliss.
Greene's biography is similar to Anthony Powell's reviews of biographies, in that it frequently focuses on odd details and controversial topics at the expense of a straightforward narrative, assuming, perhaps correctly, that any student of English literature will have a more than passing knowledge of the Restoration. At times, though--for example, when he's attempting to settle the question of whether Rochester is guilty, as he has been charged over the years, of having rival John Dryden cudgeled by thugs--Greene's elliptical tendencies get the best of him. It's like reading the corrections box in a newspaper: what you want, and what they will never supply, is both the truth and the original mishandling of it.
But as readers of this blog know, odd details are something I greatly cherish in a biography, and Greene delves deeply into letters and diaries of Rochester and his contemporaries to provide them. The letter I posted a few days ago is a good example; another is this note about a brief stay Rochester made in France, from the pen of William Perwich, the English agent in Paris:
On Monday this Court went to St Germains, where the King [of France] made a general muster of all his Army, with the ceremony of great guns in the field, and that night he went hence my Lord Rochester was robbed in a chaise (of some 20 pistols and his periwig).Or this note about the fate of Rochester's letters:
A greater loss still, a history of the Restoration Court in the form of letters to [his friend] Savile, went to the bonfire. For Rochester had asked his mother to burn his papers, lest the example of his works should lead others to sin, and she obeyed with alacrity. "Apropos," wrote Horace Walpole, "did I ever tell you a most admired bon mot of Mr Bentley? He was talking to me of an old devout Lady St. John, who burnt a whole trunk of letters of the famous Lord Rochester, 'for which,' said Mr Bentley, 'her soul is now burning in heaven.'"Greene quotes from a letter Rochester wrote to Savile,
I have seriously consider'd one thing, that [of] the three businesses of this age, women, politics, and drinking, the last is the only exercise at which you and have not prov'd ourselves arrant fumblers.