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Having an active and inquisitive mind, he never, except in his paroxysms of intemperance, was wholly negligent of study; he read what is considered as polite learning so much, that he is mentioned by Wood as the greatest scholar of all the nobility. Sometimes he retired into the country, and amused himself with writing libels, in which he did not p tend to confine himself to truth. * His favourite author in French was Boileau, and in English Cowley. Thus in a course of drunken gaiety, and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard of every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay. At this time he was led to an acquaintance with Dr. Burmet, to whom he laid open with great freedom the tenour of his opinions, and the course of his life, and from whom he received such conviction of the reasonableness of moral duty, and the truth of Christianity, as produced a total change both of his manners and opinions. The account of those salutary conferences is given by Burnet in a book, intituled, Some Passages of the Life and Death of John Earl of Rochester, which the critick ought to read for its elegance, the philosopher for its arguments, and the saint for its piety. It were an injury to the reader to offer him an abridgement. - He He died July 26, 1680, before he had completed
his thirty-fourth year; and was so worn away by a
t and inconstancy, with the common places of artificial courtship. . They are commonly smooth and easy; but have little nature, and little sentiment.
His imitation of Horace on Lucilius is not inelegant or unhappy. In the reign of Charles the Second began that adaptation, which has since been very frequent, of antient poetry to present times; and perhaps few will be found where the parallelism is better preserved than in this. The versification is indeed sometimes careless, but it is sometimes vigorous and weighty.
The strongest effort of his Muse is his poem upon Nothing. He is not the first who has chosen this barren topick for the boast of his fertility. There is a poem called Nihil in Latin by Passerat, a poet and critick of the sixteenth century in France; who, in his own epitaph, expresses his zeal for good poetry thus:
— Molliter ossa quiescent Sint modo carminibus non onerata malis.
His works are not common, and therefore I shall subjoin his verses.
In examining this performance, Nothing must be considered as having not only a negative but a kind of positive signification; as I need not fear thieves, I have nothing, and nothing is a very powerful protector. In the first part of the sentence it is taken negatively; in the second it is taken positively, as an agent. In one of Boileau's lines it was a question, whether he should use a rien faire, or à me rien faire; and the first was preferred because it gave rien a sense in some sort positive. Nothing can be a subject only only in its positive sense, and such a sense is given it in the first line :
Nothing, thou elder brother ev'n to shade.
In this line, I know not whether he does not allude to a curious book De Umbra, by Wowerus, which, having told the qualities of Shade, concludes with a poem in which are these lines:
Jam primum terram validis circumspice claustris
The positive sense is generally preserved with great skill through the whole poem; though sometimes, in a subordinate sense, the negative nothing is injudiciously mingled. Passerat confounds the two senses.
Another of his most vigorous pieces is his Lampoon on Sir Car Scroop, who, in a Poem called The Praise of Satire, had some lines like these * :
He who can push into a midnight fray
This was meant of Rochester, whose buffoon conceit was, I suppose, a saying often mentioned, that every Man would be a Coward if he durst; and drew from him those furious verses; to which Scroop made in reply an epigram, ending with these lines:
* I quote from memory, Dr. J. f - - TOITR
Thou canst hurt no man's fame with thy ill word;
Of the satire against Man, Rochester can only claim what remains when all Boileau's part is taken away.
In all his works there is spriteliness and vigour, and every where may be found tokens of a mind which study might have carried to excellence. What more can be expected from a life spent in ostentatious contempt of regularity, and ended before the abilities of many other men began to be displayed #2
* The late George Steevens, Esq. made the Selection of Rochester's Poems which appears in Dr. Johnson's edition; but Mr. Malone observes that the same task had been performed in the early part of the last century by Jacob Tomson. C.