The story of the ‘legendarily dissipated’1 Earl of Rochester (1647–80) being ‘outmanoeuvred in repartee’ by the royal chaplain and theologian Isaac Barrow (1630–77) has been an accepted part of Rochester folklore since Vivian de Sola Pinto made reference to it in his revised biography of the poet in 1962.2 Pinto relied on the account supplied by J. H. Overton in his entry for Barrow for The Dictionary of National Biography;3 Overton’s source was a manuscript, now in the British Library, which dates from around the middle of the nineteenth century, and itself seems to be a word for word copy of the entry about Barrow in An Universal Biographical and Historical Dictionary that had been published some years earlier. It forms the earliest and fullest record of the encounter yet discovered: As a proof of [Barrow’s] wit, we are told the following story: Meeting lord Rochester one day at court, his lordship, by way of banter, thus accosted him: ‘Doctor, I am your’s to my shoe tie.’ Barrow, seeing his aim, returned his salute as obsequiously, with ‘My lord, I am your’s to the ground.’ Rochester, improving his blow, quickly returned it, with ‘Doctor, I am your’s to the centre’; which was as smartly followed by Barrow, with ‘My lord, I am your’s to the antipodes.’ Upon which, Rochester, scorning to be foiled by a musty old piece of divinity as he used to call him, exclaimed, ‘Doctor, I am your’s to the lowest pit of hell.’ On which Barrow, turning on his heel, answered, ‘There, my lord, I leave you.’4 The absence of contemporary reference inevitably casts doubt on its accuracy, but it would have been feasible for the exchange to have occurred between 19 February 1669, when Barrow was first listed as a Chaplain in Ordinary to the King, and 27 February 1673, when he was admitted as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; throughout this period Rochester was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber.5 The balance of probability becomes more weighted in favour of the accuracy of the narrative when regard is taken of a hitherto unnoticed connection with a work published in 1670. In The Grounds & Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy and Religion (London, 1670), John Eachard comments: It is very curious to observe, what delicate Letters your young Students write after they have got a little smack of University Learning! In what elaborate heights, and tossing nonsense will they greet a right-down-English Father, or Country Friend! If there be a plain word in it, and such as is used at home, this tasts not, say they, of Education among Philosophers, and it is counted damnable Duncery and want of Phansie: Because, Your Loving Friend, or Humble-Servant, is a common phrase in Countrey-Letters; therefore the young Epistler is Yours to the Antipodes, or at least to the Centre of the Earth; and because ordinary Folks love and respect you, therefore you are to him the Pole Star, a Jacob’s Staff, a Loadstone, and a Damask Rose (pp. 29–30). Two factors suggest that the reported conversation between Barrow and the Earl of Rochester is not apocryphal, and that it occurred in early 1670. First, Eachard’s volume bears the date ‘August 8. 1670’.6 This indicates that the phrases ‘Yours to the centre of the earth’ (misrecorded by Watkins in 1800?) and ‘Yours to the Antipodes’ were still enjoying vogue as a modish exchange, and therefore were of relatively recent coinage. And secondly, Barrow is referred to in February 1669 as ‘Mr Isaack Barrow’, but by August 1671, when detailed as one of the four ‘Chaplaynes in Wayteinge’ for that month, he is described as ‘Dr Barrow’.7 Barrow was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the King’s mandate in 1670; it is conceivable that Rochester by his manner of address was making a bantering reference to this recent award, and that the conversation therefore occurred during the first half or so of 1670.8 The identification of the likely date of this witty exchange allows a more nuanced evaluation of Barrow and Rochester. Nick Davis described the encounter as ‘a memorable faceout, implying continuing mutual hostility’,9 and its context as the publication of Glanville’s ‘Character of a Coffee-house Wit’ (1673), a sermon by Stillingfleet attacking the Court Wits in 1675 and the Epilogue to Rochester’s ‘A Satyr against Mankind’ (c. 1675); Barrow’s departure from the Court in 1673, however, makes this unlikely. Given that some of Rochester’s most biting criticism in his poetry, and as recorded in Gilbert Burnet’s biography, was reserved for hypocritical, self-seeking clergy,10 the description of Barrow as ‘a musty old piece of divinity’ can be interpreted as an affectionate, even respectful, comment. Barrow was patently not one of those clergy ‘[w]ho hunt good Livings, but abhor good Lives’, whom Rochester abhorred; next to God, Barrow loved his Cambridge college, and it was the efforts of his friends rather his own ambition that obtained for him the mastership of Trinity College. In this brief exchange, Barrow perfectly evidences his formidable sharpness of mind and absence of malice, and Rochester the good humour that made him such ‘enormous fun to be with’.11 Footnotes 1 Alexander Larman, Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester (London, 2014), 297. 2 Vivian de Sola Pinto, Enthusiast in Wit: A Portrait of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester 1647–1680 (London, 1962), 35; see also The Debt to Pleasure: John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in the eyes of his contemporaries and in his own poetry and prose, ed. John Adlard (Cheadle Hulme, 1974), 33; Nick Davis, ‘On Not Being a Very Punctual Subject: Rochester and the Invention of Modernity’, in Edward Burns (ed.), Reading Rochester (Liverpool, 1995), 116; and The Works of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, ed. Harold Love (Oxford, 1999), 388. 3 John Henry Overton, ‘Barrow, Isaac (1630–1677)’, The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Leslie Stephen (London, 1885). 4 An Universal Biographical and Historical Dictionary, ed. John Watkins (London, 1800); BL Add. MS 19,117 (‘Davy’ MSS), f. 61r; the manuscript refers to events that occurred between 2 December 1809 (fol. 1) and 1837 (fol. 202). A shorter version, omitting the first of the three pairs of exchanges, exists in Rochester's Jests: or, The Quintessence of Wit, 2nd edn (London, 1758), pp. 1–2, and it seems probable that the memory of the meeting was sustained through the medium of as yet untraced late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century jest books. 5 National Archives, London, Lord Chamberlain’s records, ref. LC 3/25, fols. 7r, 31V; Mordechai Feingold, ’Isaac Barrow (1630–1677)’ (ODNB). 6 Grounds & Occasions, 131. 7 National Archives, London, Lord Chamberlain’s records, ref. LC 3/27, fol. 99r. 8 Oliver Lawson Dick, Aubrey’s Brief Lives (London, 1992), 17. 9 Davis, ‘On Not Being a Very Punctual Subject’, 116; Love, Works of John Wilmot, 388, 389. 10 ‘Tunbridge Wells’, ll. 53–55, 59–63, 68–73; ‘Satyr against Mankind’, ll. 191–206, 216–223. Burnet records ‘He … told me plainly, There was nothing that gave him, and many others, a more secret encouragement in their ill ways, than that those who pretended to believe, lived so that they could not be thought to be in earnest’ (Some Passages of the Life and Death Of the Right Honourable John Earl of Rochester (London, 1680), 120. 11 Richard Harries, ‘Rochester’s “death-bed repentance” ’, in Nicholas Fisher (ed.), That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (Manchester, 2000), 194. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 16, 2018
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