On July 26, 1680, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and noted man of letter, passed away. In response, Aphra Behn—at the time a successful if controversial playwright still years away from publishing poetry or the work for which she is most famous today, Oroonoko—published a memorial verse entitled “On the Death of the Late Earl of Rochester.”
The poem itself is mostly famous for the repetition of its central motif “Mourn, Mourn.” The actual contents of the poem almost immediately became less relevant than the biographical circumstances which resulted from its publication. The poem found at least one person who was overjoyed by its contents: Anne Wharton, Rochester’s niece, and also an aspiring poet. In response to Behn’s verse, Wharton promptly published “To Mrs A. Behn, On What She Writ Of The Earl Of Rochester.” With Behn’s response to this poem in a work titled “To Mrs W., On Her Excellent Verses” what seemed to be well on its way to a deep and abiding friendship resulted.
One of those found Behn’s plays to be controversial—more like scandalous, actually—was the influential historian, theologian and future Bishop of Salisbury, the Rev. Gilbert Burnet. Burnet’s critique of Behn extended beyond her literary output to the woman herself and, as minister often do, he felt it was his duty to save the impressionable young Wharton from the ravages of allowing that friendship with Behn to abide and grow any deeper. His intrusion into the business of others became scandalously famous in its own right. Of Behn, he wrote to Wharton:
. “…She is so abominably vile a woman, that I am as heartily sorry she has writ any thing in your commendation as I am glad, (I had almost said proud) that you have honoured me as you have done…”
And so the legacy of “On the Death of the Late Earl of Rochester” is that it was responsible both bringing into Behn’s life a new and valued female friend and for ensuring that the friendship would end prematurely. Against her better instincts, Anne Wharton decided to take Burnet’s advice and broke off her relationship with the woman whose career would go on to eclipse both the Earl of Rochester and the Bishop of Salisbury.