Some Passages of the Life and Death of... John Earl of Rochester

Bishop Gilbert BURNET   |   John WILMOT

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"BLAZED OUT HIS YOUTH AND HEALTH IN LAVISH VOLUPTUOUSNESS": FIRST EDITION OF BURNET'S SOME PASSAGES OF THE LIFE AND DEATH OF… JOHN EARL OF ROCHESTER, 1680, WITH ENGRAVED FRONTISPIECE PORTRAIT

BURNET, Gilbert, D.D. Some Passages of the Life and Death Of the Right Honourable John Earl of Rochester, Who died the 26th of July, 1680. Written by his own Direction on his Death-Bed… London: Richard Chiswel, 1680. Small octavo (4-1/2 by 7 inches), contemporary full brown calf rebacked in calf gilt, red morocco spine label, raised bands, original endpapers retained; pp. (xvi) 182 (6).

First edition of Burnet's fascinating biography of the notorious 17th-century libertine and brilliant poet famed for his wit—"a kind of secular John Donne and an even more scathing and scabrous Jonathan Swift"— a rare contemporary account based on Bishop Burnett's frank conversations with Rochester as he faced death, issued the same year, with engraved frontispiece, in contemporary calf boards.

Samuel Johnson saw John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, as a man who "blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness… [with] an avowed contempt of all decency and order" (Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets I:217). In Some Passages, the highly regarded historian and theologian Burnet presents an often moving record of candid conversations with Rochester as he faced an agonizing death at the age of 33. Burnet notes: "he told me, for five years he was continually Drunk… there were two Principles in his natural temper… the one involved him in great sensuality: the other led him to many odd Adventures and Frollicks, in which he was oft in hazard of his life." To a recent biographer, Rochester's notoriety is best understood against a time "when every accepted idea, from hereditary monarchy to the role of Parliament, was being challenged… his adventures embraced tempestuous feuds with the great and good of the age including the Poet Laureate, John Dryden; annual banishment from Charles II's court for his outrageous behavior, the abduction of his future wife and subsequent imprisonment in the Tower of London… and—of course—a very great deal of sex" (Larman, Blazing Star).

To David Hume: "the very name of Rochester is offensive to modern ears" (History of Great Britain). Increasingly, however, Rochester's "real claim on our attention is his poetry: he was at his best a kind of secular John Donne and an even more scathing and scabrous Jonathan Swift… The first modern edition of his work, published in England in 1926, had to be limited to just a thousand or so copies to escape prosecution. A few years later, in the early 30s, Graham Greene, who not surprisingly felt a great affinity for him, wrote an excellent biography, Lord Rochester's Monkey" (New York Times). Some Passages, published within months of Rochester's death, is seen as "the finest thing Burnet ever wrote… its value lies in the picture it gives of… a man who was at once a nobleman and a wit, and in the light it throws upon the life and thought of the time" (Clarke and Foxcroft, Life of Gilbert Burnet, xxiii). Thomas Jefferson had numerous works by Burnet in his library, and Washington owned a 1741 edition of Some Passages that was in his library at Mount Vernon when he died. Wing notes three settings, no priority established: this copy without errata on A8 verso; catchword on E1 verso of "Devotion" instead of "Devo-"; with four rear ad leaves. Wither to Prior 125. Wing B5922. See ESTC R223615, R15099. Early 19th-century gift inscriptions; two rear blanks with inked image, marginalia.

Text generally quite fresh, expert restoration to contemporary calf boards. An extremely good copy.

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