The Libertine

Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, John. (1648-80)

Poems, (&c.) on Several Occasions: with Valentinian: a Tragedy. Written by the Right Honourable John late Earl of Rochester.

London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, at the Judge’s Head, in Chancery-Lane near Fleet-Street, 1691


Octavo: 19.4 x 12.3 cm. A8, a8, B-R8. [12], xv, [1], 154, [14], 369-449, 449-462, [1] pp. A4, chi2, *8, B-C8, D8 (±D3,D7) E-L8, 2A4, 2B-2G8.

FIRST EDITION of the authentic works.

A nice copy in its original speckled calf binding, corners bumped. The text is crisp and in fine shape aside from a tear to the upper margin of the title affecting the printed rule and the top edge of the word “Poems.” With the preliminary advertisement leaf for Waller’s “Maid’s Tragedy” and the usual cancels D3 and D7. Title printed in red and black.

This is the first authentic edition of Rochester’s poems. The volume was edited by Thomas Rymer who has provided a critical preface, additions, and amendments to correct the pirated editions that had appeared in 1680 and 1685. This is the first edition to include Rochester’s tragedy “Valentinian.”

“During Rochester’s lifetime only a few of his writings were printed as broadsides or in miscellanies, but many of his works were known widely from manuscript copies, a considerable number of which seem to have existed… In February of 1690/91, Jacob Tonson, the most reputable publisher of the day, produced a volume entitled ‘Poems On Several Occasions.’ The appearance of the author’s name and title on the title page is significant. It may indicate that this edition was produced with the approval of the Earl’s family and friends, and it is possible that they may have intervened to prevent the publication of Saunders’s projected edition [license obtained from the Stationer’s Company by Saunders in November of 1690, no edition was ever produced]. Tonson’s edition is introduced by a laudatory preface written by Thomas Rymer, which states that the book contains ‘such Pieces only, as may be receiv’d in a vertuous Court’ and is therefore to be regarded only as a selection of Rochester’s writings. Nevertheless it contains, in addition to twenty-three genuine poems that had appeared in the [pirated] Antwerp editions of 1680, sixteen others, including some of Rochester’s best lyrics. No spurious material seems to have been admitted to this collection, but there is a possibility that salacious passages may have been toned down to suit the taste of a ‘virtuous Court.’”

“[Wilmot] is one of these English poets who deserve to be called ‘great’ as daring and original explorers of reality; his place is with such memorable spiritual adventurers as Marlowe, Blake, Byron, Wilfred Owen and D. H. Lawrence. Like Byron and Lawrence, he was denounced as licentious, because he was a devastating critic of conventional morality. Alone among the English poets of his day, he perceived the full significance of the intellectual and spiritual crisis of that age. His poetry expresses individual experience in a way that no other poetry does till the time of Blake. It makes us feel what it was like to live in a world which had been suddenly transformed by the scientists into a vast machine governed by mathematical laws, where God has become a remote first cause and man an insignificant ‘reas’ning Engine.’ [See ‘A Satyr Against Mankind] In his time there was beginning the great Augustan attempt to found a new orthodoxy on the Cartesian-Newtonian world-picture, a civilized city of good taste, common sense and reason. Rochester’s achievement was to reject this new orthodoxy at the very outset. He made three attempts to solve the problem of man’s position in the new mathematical universe. The first was the adoption of the ideal of the purely aesthetic hero, the ‘Strephon’ of his lyrics and the brilliant and fascinating Dorimant of Etherege’s comedy. It was a purely selfish ideal of the ethical hero, the disillusioned and penetrating observer of the satires. This ideal was related to truth, but its relationship was purely negative. The third was the ideal of the religious hero, who bore a positive relation to truth. This was the hero who rejected the ‘Fools-Coat’ of the world and lived by an absolute passion for reality. In his short life Rochester may be said to have anticipated the Augustan Age and the Romantic Movement and passed beyond both. In the history of English thought his poetry is an event of the highest significance. Much of it remains alive in its own right in the twentieth century, because it is what D.H. Lawrence called ‘poetry of this immediate present, instant poetry … the soul and the mind and body surging at once, nothing left out.” (Quoted from Vivian de Sola Pinto’s edition of Wilmot’s Poems published by ‘The Muses Library’)

Wing R 1756