BY a strange and melancholy paradox the finest lyrical poet of the Restoration was also its worst-natured man. Infamous in a lax age for his debaucheries, the Earl of Rochester was unfaithful as a subject, shifting and treacherous as a friend, and untrustworthy as a man of honour. His habitual drunkenness may be taken perhaps as an excuse for the physical cowardice for which he was notorious, and his early decline in bodily strength as the cause of his extreme bitterness of tongue and savage malice. So sullen was his humour, so cruel his pursuit of sensual pleasure, that his figure seems to pass through the social history of his time, like that of a veritable devil. Yet there were points at which the character of this unfortunate and abandoned person was not wholly vile. Within our own age his letters to his wife have surprised the world by their tenderness and quiet domestic humour, and, above all, the finest of his songs reveal a sweetness and purity of feeling for which the legends of his life are very far from preparing us.
The volumes which continued to be reprinted for nearly a century under the title of Rochesters Poems form a kind of Parnasse Satyrique into which a modern reader can scarcely venture to dip. Of this notorious collection a large part was spurious; the offensive matter that had to be removed from the writings of Dorset, Buckinghamshire, Butler, and other less famous profligate poets, found an asylum under the infamy of the name of Rochester. But readers who are fortunate enough to secure the volume edited by the dead poets friends in 1691 will find no more indiscretions than are familiar in all poetry of the Restoration, and will discover, what they will not find elsewhere, the exquisite lyrics on which the fame of Rochester should rest. His satires, as trenchant and vigorous as they are foul, are not included in this edition; he uses the English language in them as Poggio and Filelfo had used Latin. As a dramatist he is only known by his adaptation, or travesty, of Fletchers tragedy of Valentinian; of which the sole point of interest is that he omitted all Fletchers exquisite songs, including the unequalled Hear ye ladies that despise, and introduced a very good song of his own, the latter as characteristically of the Restoration as the former were Elizabethan.
With Rochester the power of writing songs died in England until the age of Blake and Burns. He was the last of the cavalier lyrists, and in some respects the best. In the qualities that a song demands, simplicity, brevity, pathos and tenderness, he arrives nearer to pure excellence than any one between Carew and Burns. His style is without adornment, and, save in this one matter of song-writing, he is weighed down by the dryness and inefficiency of his age. But by the side of Sedley or of Congreve he seems as fresh as by the side of Dryden he seems light and flowing, turning his trill of song brightly and sweetly, with the consummate artlessness of true art. Occasionally, as in the piece, not quoted here, called The Mistress, he is surprisingly like Donne in the quaint force and ingenuity of his images. But the fact is that the muse of Rochester resembles nothing so much as a beautiful child which has wantonly rolled itself in the mud, and which has grown so dirty that the ordinary wayfarer would rather pass it hurriedly by, than do justice to its native charms.