The Debt to Pleasure
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The Debt to Pleasure

by John Wilmot

Rochester, incontestably the greatest of the Restoration poets and reprobates, is presented in The Debt to Pleasure both in his own words and the words of those who loved or loathed him. The book is a mosaic in which the poet's voice and the voice of his age sound with a startling, ribald and riotous clarity. As John Evelyn recalls: 'Mr Andrew Marvell (who was

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Rochester, incontestably the greatest of the Restoration poets and reprobates, is presented in The Debt to Pleasure both in his own words and the words of those who loved or loathed him. The book is a mosaic in which the poet's voice and the voice of his age sound with a startling, ribald and riotous clarity. As John Evelyn recalls: 'Mr Andrew Marvell (who was a good Judge of Witt) was wont to say that [Rochester] was the best English Satyrist and had the right veine. Twas pitty Death tooke him off so soon.'

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The Debt to Pleasure

By John Wilmot, John Adlard

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2012 The Estate of John Adlard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-625-9


Those Shining Parts ... Began to Show Themselves'

1647 1 April. John Wilmot bom at Ditchley manor house, Oxfordshire, to Henry Wilmot, Baron Wilmot of Adderbury, Royalist general, and Anne, daughter of Sir John St John.

1652 13 December. Father created Earl of Rochester.

1655 February, March. Father led abortive Royalist rising in Yorkshire.

1657/8 19 February. Father died in exile.

1659/60 18 January. Rochester matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford.

1660 25 May. Charles II, restored, landed at Dover.

1660/1 February. King granted Rochester a pension in gratitude for his father's loyalty.

1661 21 November. Rochester left England for a tour of France and Italy with Sir Andrew Balfor.

1664 Christmas Day. Rochester, returned from his travels, appeared at court with a letter to the king from his sister, the Duchess of Orleans.

His Birth and Parentage

John Wilmot Earl of Rochester was born in April, Anno Dom. 1648. sic His father was Henry Earl of Rochester, but best known by the title of the Lord Wilmot, who bore so great a part in all the late wars that mention is often made of him in the History: And had the chief share in the honour of the preservation of His Majesty that now reigns, after Worcester Fight, and the conveying him from place to place, till he happily escaped into France: But dying before the King's return, he left his son little other inheritance but the honour and title derived to him, with the pretensions such eminent services gave him to the King's favour: These were carefully managed by the great prudence and discretion of his mother, a daughter of that noble and ancient family of the St Johns of Wiltshire, so that his education was carried on in all things suitably to his quality.

Gilbert Burnet, Some Passages of the Life andDeath of the Right Honourable John Earl of Rochester, London, 1680, pp. 1–3

His Birthplace in Oxfordshire


Hence we went to Ditchley, an ancient seat of the Lees, now Sir Hen: Lee's, a low, ancient timber house, with a pretty bowling green: My Lady gave us an extraordinary dinner: This gent: mother was Countess of Rochester, who was also there, & Sir Walt: Saint Johns: There were some pictures of their ancestors, not ill painted; the Gr: grandfather had been knight of the garter, also the picture of a Pope & our Saviour's head....

John Evelyn, [Diary], 20 October 1664


So I walked a mile & an half through a very pleasant country, in a good measure adorned with marvellous pleasant woods, till I came against Ditchley House, about a furlong on the west hand of the road. As soon as I entered in at the great gate I observed an old ditch running directly by the house, & on each side planted with trees, which are very thick. ... As I was gazing at this ditch & admiring the situation of the house, which is placed on the side of a hill, ... I espied an elderly man going to work. I took the opportunity to ask him the name of this ditch. Why, Master, says he, this is Grim's Ditch, & it runs on through the Park & so on to Charlbury, Cornbury and Ramsden, where it joins with the Akeman Street....

This old house is a very notable thing, & I think I was never better pleased with any sight whatsoever than with this house, which hath been the seat of persons of true loyalty & virtue. The front on the south side is very pretty, considering the method of building at that time.

We passed through the kitchen & came into the great Hall, which is above 9 yards in length, & is eight yards & an half in breadth. I was mightily delighted with the sight of this old Hall, & was pleased the more because it is adorned with old stags' horns, under some of which are ... inscriptions on brass plates, which are the only inscriptions I ever saw of the kind. ... I saw this date (1592) upon one of the leaden spouts of the house. The house itself was built before that year. But I cannot tell how old it is. It seems to have been done in the time of K. Hen. VIII.

10 June 1718; Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne, VI, Oxford, 1902, pp. 187, 188, 192

His Tutor

Mr Giffard tells me that he was tutor to the Earl of Rochester (mad Rochester) before he came to Wadham College, which was in the eleventh year of his age, and that he was then a very hopeful youth, very virtuous and good natured (as he was always) and willing & ready to follow good advice. He was to have come to Oxford with his Lordship, but was supplanted. His Lordship had always a very good opinion of Mr Giffard. Mr Giffard used to lie with him in the family, on purpose that he might prevent any ill accidents. ... Mr Giffard says that my Lord understood very little or no Greek, and that he had but little Latin, & that therefore 'tis a great mistake in making him (as Burnet & Wood have done) so great a master of classic learning. He said my Lord had a natural distemper upon him which was extraordinary, & he thinks might be one occasion of shortening his days, which was that sometimes he could not have a stool for 3 weeks or a month together. Which distemper his Lordship told him was a very great occasion of that warmth and heat he always expressed, his brain being heated by the fumes and humours that ascended and evacuated themselves that way.

16 November 1711; Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne, III, Oxford, 1889, p. 263

At Burford Grammar School


[Anthony Wood tells us that he was 'educated in grammar learning in the free school at Burford, under a noted master called John Martin'. Since in 1673 this John Martin, in a friendly reply to Christopher Wase of Oxford, who was making a survey of grammar schools, transcribed the 'Constitutions' of the school without comment, we may suppose that these rules were as applicable in Rochester's day as they were when drawn up by one Simon Wysdom in 1571.]

Every scholar to pay 4d. entrance fee and 2d. a quarter. Everyone that comes out of the country to pay 12d. entrance and 6d. a quarter, except benefactors, and they to pay 4d. entrance and 2d. a quarter. The scholars to go to school at 6 o'clock in the summer and 7 in winter, and stay till 11 o'clock, and return from dinner at 1 o'clock in winter, and stay till 6 o'clock in summer and 4 o'clock in winter, and go to church with their Master; and, if there are no prayers, to sing psalms and to read a chapter in the school.

Schoolmaster every Sunday to appoint his scholars to come to his house by 8 of the clock in the morning to say prayers and to go with the Master to church. The Master four times a year to exhort the scholars to give thanks to God and recite the names of all the Founders and Benefactors, whose names to be written in a table to be put up in the School House, and then sing a psalm and depart from the school.

Simon Wysdom, Constitutions, 1571


When he was at school he was an extraordinary proficient at his book: and those shining parts which have since appeared with so much lustre began then to shew themselves: he acquired the Latin to such perfection that to his dying-day he retained a great relish of the fineness and beauty of that tongue: and was exactly versed in the incomparable authors that writ about Augustus's time, whom he read often with that peculiar delight which the greatest wits have ever found in those studies.

Gilbert Burnet, Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honourable John Earl of Rochester, London, 1680, p. 3

'Wadham College in Oxford'


As for his education, it was in Wadham College in Oxford, under the care of that wise and excellent governor Dr Blanford, the late Right Reverend Bishop of Worcester; there it was that he laid a good foundation of learning and study, though he afterwards built upon that foundation hay and stubble.

Robert Parsons, A Sermon Preached at the Funeral of the Rt Honorable John Earl of Rochester, Oxford, 1680, p. 6


... became a Nobleman of Wadham Coll. under the tuition of Phineas Bury, Fellow, and inspection of Mr Blandford, the Warden, an. 1659, actually created Master of Arts in Convocation, with several other noble persons, an. 1661; at which time, he, and none else, was admitted very affectionately into the fraternity by a kiss on the left cheek from the Chancellor of the University (Clarendon) who then sate in the supreme chair to honour that assembly.

Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, II, London, 1692, cols. 488, 489


It was therefore, some space after the end of the Civil. Wars, at Oxford, in Dr Wilkins his lodgings, in Wadham College, which was then the place of resort for virtuous and learned men, that the first meetings were made which laid the foundation of all this that followed. The University had at that time many members of its own who had begun a free way of reasoning and was also frequented by some gentlemen of philosophical minds whom the misfortunes of the Kingdom and the security and ease of a retirement among gown-men had drawn thither. ... By this means there was a race of young men provided, against the next age, whose minds, receiving from them their first impressions of sober and generous knowledge, were invincibly armed against all the enchantments of enthusiasm.

Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society, 1667


When he went to the University the general joy which over-ran the whole nation upon his Majesty's Restoration, but was not regulated with that sobriety and temperance, that became a serious gratitude to God for so great a blessing, produced some of its ill effects on him: He began to love these disorders too much; his tutor was that eminent and pious divine Dr Blanford, afterwards promoted to the sees of Oxford and Worcester: And under his inspection, he was committed to the more immediate care of Mr Phineas Berry, a Fellow of Wadham College, a very learned and good natured man, whom he afterwards ever used with much respect, and rewarded him as became a great man.

Gilbert Burnet, Some Passages of the Life and Death of John Earl of Rochester, London, 1680, p. 3


[The young Earl 'began', as Burnet put it, 'to love these disorders too much' in the company of Robert Whitehall, Fellow of Merton, whom Anthony Wood describes as a 'useless member' of that college. Some years later he addressed a verse-letter, with his portrait, to Rochester.]

My Lord,
Our picture we have sent,
An emblem of approaching Lent:
But that red letter in each cheek
Speaks Holyday, not Ember Week:
So incorporeal, so airy
This Christmas 'twill be ta'en for fairy.
Hang it or burn it, choose you which.
Yet now I think on't 'tis no witch,
Nor conjuror, for (to its grace)
You'll find It has no Bacon face:
And though orbicular the frame
It bears a more majestic name.
Hang it, but have a care lest [ ]
M[ay] seek to espouse it to Q: M[ab]
That would be what the Greek calls [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
To come to Court to prave K: Oberon.
'Tis not in vest, but in that gown
Your Lordship daggled through this town
To keep up discipline and tell us
Next morning where you found good fellows.
Were I but worthy to advise
My Lord, you should in any wise
Place me directly over right
Your close-stool, so that at midnight
When you come in from play at Court
From masque or ball or such like sport
You may by looking on your friend
Need no foocatt, nor candle's-end.
If with acceptance you befriend it
'Tis for a New Year's gift intended.
Since Janus then two faces had,
Accept of ours, though ne'er so b[ad].


Omnia cu frigent friget et ingeniu.
When all things round about us freeze
Wit is not fine, but on the lees.

My dearest Lord.
Yr. honrs. most entirely devoted.
Ro: Wh:ll.

M: C: Oxon. Jan: 1 6/6 6/7

Nottingham University, Portland MSS., Pw V502

Abroad with Dr Balfour


But the humour of that time wrought so much on him, that he broke off the course of his studies, to which no means could ever effectually recallhim till when he was in Italy his governor Dr Balfour, a learned and worthy man, now a celebrated physician in Scotland his native country, drew him to read such books as were most likely to bring him back to love learning and study: and he often acknowledged to me, in particular three days before his death, how much he was obliged to love and honour this his governor, to whom he thought he owed more than to all the world, next after his parents, for his great fidelity and care of him, while he was under his trust. But no part of it affected him more sensibly than that he engaged him by many tricks (so he expressed it) to delight in books and reading: so that ever after he took occasion in the intervals of those woeful extravagancies that consumed most of his time to read much: and though the time was generally but indifferently employed, for the choice of the subjects of his studies was not always good, yet the habitual love of knowledge together with these fits of study, had much awakened his understanding, and prepared him for better things when his mind should be so far changed as to relish them.

Gilbert Burnet, Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honourable John Earl of Rochester, London, 1680, pp. 4–6


[Years after, Balfour, 'a man of an excellent wit, and of a ripe judgement, and of a most taking behaviour,' wrote a book on travel in France and Italy. He nowhere mentions Rochester, but their itinerary together must have been very much like this.]

I suppose you leave Paris about the beginning of June (for I would not have you lose the month of May in the King's Garden, in regard most things will be then, or a little before, in their prime, which now that the Garden of Blois is no more in condition, is undoubtedly the best you are like to meet with) and therefore, 1. you may go to Orleans by the Messenger: it is but two days' journey; lodge Chez Monsr. Ogilbie, sur l'Estape au Roy de la Grand Bretaigne; a day or two will serve you to see all that is considerable in the place; it will be worth your while to see a place some two leagues from the city, called the Source, where in the midst of a fair green meadow you will see a spring of water so plentiful that it is navigable from its head and pours out a river called Loirette. 2 ly. From Orleans to Blois they count 15 leagues, yet it is but a short day's journey: besides, if you please, you have the commodity of the river to go by boat; be pleased to take notice of a place by the way, some 4 leagues from Blois, called St Die, where the best claret in that country grows, and is ordinarily to be found. Blois of itself is no very considerable town, yet it is famous for making of watches, for the civility of the people, for the sweetness of the air, and purity of the French language. You must stay there some days till you have seen the following particulars; viz. in one day you may get to Chambort, a house belonging to the King, some three leagues off, on the south side of the river, and south-east from the town; it is said to have been built by King Francis I and is a very stately house, though of a far different order of architecture than what is now used. From thence you may go to Herbeau, 3 leagues to the southward of that, a private house belonging to a gentleman that bears the title thereof. It is a very pleasant seat having very fine gardens with an orangery, fish-ponds, woods, maille and meadows belonging to it; from thence you may go to Beau Regard, another private house, where amongst other pretty things, you will see a fine gallery well ornamented with the pictures of such persons as have been illustrious for some age; from thence you return to Blois at night, & as you go and come you will have occasion to see that part of the forest of Blois that lies to the south of the river and town; as also a little village called St Gervais, famous over all that country for excellent cream....

From hence you go to Venice by water, that is in an open boat, by a canal near to the side of the Po, where ye imbark in a bigger vessel, which goes constantly twice a week to Venice. If the wind be favourable, you will easily accomplish the voyage in 10 or 12 hours' time, but if otherways, you may be longer, and therefore you will do well to make provision of victuals, to take along with you. When you arrive at Venice, it will be needful to lodge in a convenient place of the town, and for that end, you will do well to provide yourself of a recommendation to the English Consul; from Rome or from Bologna. Giles Jones was Consul in my time, and entertained lodgers himself; he was a very honest man and did faithfully send my things to London, according to the address I gave him. When you are settled in a lodging, it will be time to take a view of the town, for the doing of which and considering it well, 3 or 4 weeks is little enough. Nothing in Nature can appear more prodigious than to see a vast big town seated in the middle of the sea; every house whereof at one side or another is touched by the water, and the nearest land being 4 or 5 miles distance. It was built at first upon the little island of Rialto in the year 421, perhaps later, by theinhabitants of the firm land that were chased from their own homes by Attila King of the Huns, & forced to make choice of this place for their safety; since that time they have built upon 70 or 71 isles more, which are joined together by upwards of 450 bridges....


Excerpted from The Debt to Pleasure by John Wilmot, John Adlard. Copyright © 2012 The Estate of John Adlard. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Adlard has taught in universities in Eastern and Western Europe. He was the author of a study of folklore in William Blake and edited a selection of Blake's poems. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1648-1680) was born near Oxford and studied at Wadham College, Oxford, where he was awarded an MA. He travelled until 1664, but was then imprisoned in the Tower of London for a time, allegedly for trying to abduct a Somerset heiress, whom he married upon his release from prison. He wrote satires, love poems and plays throughout his adult life, and died at Woodstock Park in July 1680.

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