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Featured Poem: Love and Life by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Written by The Reader, 3rd December 2012

This week's Featured Poem is the selection of Chantel Baldry, Communications Intern, who has been delving into the pages of our latest anthology Minted and found a poem from a familiar name to treasure...

I have always loved poetry but I have never really read it alone, for fun. I have always preferred reading poetry with other people (probably because two minds are better than one when it comes to deciphering poetry). I also have this knack of really enjoying a poem and then failing to take the name of the poem or the poet. A piece of poetic enjoyment lost forever! So imagine my surprise and joy when I stumbled upon a poet that I absolutely loved, included in Brian Nellist’s collection of ‘inexhaustible riches’. I have a few (remembered) favourite poets and one happens to be John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. He is incredibly important to me because he carried me through my second year of university. In a year full of - who were to me - seventeenth century pretentious and stuffy poets, John Wilmot was a breath of fresh air. He is controversial, a rebel, completely outspoken and wrote about all the ‘wrong’ things and it is for these reasons that I found him fun and I will always respect and remember him.

The poem included in Minted is Love and Life and Brian has decided to place it under the theme ‘Living for the Moment’. I recently read an article on a blog about how to live life to the full (I don’t just search for these types of articles but I had added ‘Well-being’ to my list of interests on Stumbleupon). One piece of advice that really resonated in me was to live within the present, not the past or the future. Wilmot was a strong adherent to this advice:

All my past life is mine no more,
The flying hours are gone;
Like transitory dreams given o’er,
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.

The past is the past, and there’s nothing you can do about it but spend painful hours going over memories that will never be again. Good advice that I could definitely take on board. Next up he goes on to explain that the same is true of the future: ‘The time that is to come is not;/ how can it then be mine?’ We are all powerless to time, we have no control over what will be and therefore ‘The present moment’s all my lot’ I believe that what you do in the present can, to an extent, define your future but Wilmot’s lack of thought for future repercussions is what defines his poetry. Wilmot spends most of his poetical career battling with the idea of living for the moment and trying to cope with the consequences. He drank excessively, was repeatedly banished from court, and published political and religious slander with little heed of consequences. This is what makes you root for the speaker of his poems, despite the often misogynistic and crude language.

The end of the poem sheds light on the speaker’s insistence on living in the moment. He is trying to get the ‘Phyllis’ of the poem to forget his past ‘False hearts’ and ‘broken vows’. I find him rather crafty, trying to entice this woman to ‘throw caution to the wind’ and to trust him, yet saying:

If I by miracle can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
‘Tis all that Heaven allows.

The speaker agrees that it will be a miracle if he can be true to her, but live in the moment and trust him anyway! Rochester is a devilish rogue but he can be very philosophical at times and like many interesting poets, gives you a lot to think about. I definitely recommend that you read more of him and don’t let his bluntness put you off!

Love and Life

All my past life is mine no more,
The flying hours are gone;
Like transitory dreams given o'er,
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.

The time that is to come is not;
How can it then be mine?
The present moment's all my lot,
And that as fast as it is got,
Phyllis, is only thine.

Then talk not of inconstancy,
False hearts and broken vows;
If I by miracle can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
'Tis all that Heaven allows.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester


Minted, edited by Brian Nellist, features fifty classic poems from 1500-1900, with something to suit readers of all tastes. Find out how you can buy your copy on our website - it'd make a perfect Christmas present for the literary lover in your life!

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