John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester
(1674 [anon. pub.])
Genre: verse satire, and translation.
Form: most are heroic couplets (rhyming iambic
pentameter), but "Upon Nothing" is composed of three-line stanzas, two
pentameter lines and a hexameter, rhyming aaa (!!!).
Characters: Various allegorical characters ("Upon
Nothing") are mixed with court and town types (the Debauchee, the Postboy, the
courtiers and pimps, "courtesans" and open prostitutes) who made the Restoration
court a famous and notorious place. His more ribald poems openly name members of the
court known to have engaged in licentious sexual conduct, but not always naming them in an
un-admiring fashion. (Additional
readings in Rochester, especially the satires "Upon Nothing," "Against
Mankind," and the passage from Seneca referred to below, are available in
the standard scholarly print edition
of his works (826.3
R67Hp 1988), but beware the extreme obscenity of the other lyrics. The
advantage of reading contemporary satire in a scholarly edition is that the more
obscure in-jokes about court personalities will be explained in the footnotes.
Reading Rochester's footnotes is a form of education that no well-rounded
liberal arts graduate ought to omit.)
"A Satyre Upon Charles II":
This apparently was the cause of his banishment from court when
Rochester accidentally handed it to the king instead of another, safer poem
he had just written. Why wasn't he executed?
Good question. Perhaps its satire was truthful in a world of court flattery.
Note that the facts are essentially correct.
"Upon Nothing": This poem mocks both Milton (PL, Book II) and
Genesis with audacity and skill. He points out the paradoxical notion of a creation
ex nihlo ("from nothing") which makes "Nothing" our progenitor,
the "great united What" (6). At line 37, the poem turns to direct satire
of the court, itself, especially Charles II and his inner circle, whose reign is
characterized by such a strange powerless-power as a result of the Restoration's founding
in Parliament's grudging compromise. He has his throne, but he has no authority,
just the outward showing of it.
"A Translation from Seneca's 'Troades,' Act II, Chorus":
Rochester clung to his atheism nearly to the end. Stories of his "deathbed
conversion" were circulated by the court religious almost immediately after his death
as proof of Christianity's triumph over a sinful soul, but atheists might suggest he
merely lost his nerve and succumbed to folly. This translation from the Roman Stoic
playwright, Seneca, captures the essence of the Stoics' disdain for mere life, especially
as it endangered their autonomy of soul (Cf. Oroonoko).
"A Satyr against Reason and Mankind": Rochester's most powerful
work, and least pornographic, skewers the developing English faith in "Nature"
(as in "what we believe nature to be") and "Reason" (as in "don't
rock the boat or think too hard"). The rationalist trends of his opponents he
attacks in the description of the human being as "the reasoning engine"
(29). The phrase was invented by proponents of reliance on reason alone, but his
point is that their attempt to claim all life is rationally understandable tends to reduce
life to what the masses can understand--the "low norm" of satire as interpreted
by mass culture (TV replaces the sonnet). Of course, he also attacks higher
education, lambasting the "busy stirrer up of doubt" who seeks to discover
mysteries, "Filling with frantic crowds of thinking fools / Those reverend bedlams,
colleges and schools" (82-3). Ouch!--feel it yet?
- "The Disabled Debauchee": The Debauchee ("one
debauched," partied out, a persona somewhat ironically appropriate for the aging
Rochester, in the year of his death at 33) describes love as a combat (see Wyatt, Surrey,
Petrarch) from which, repeatedly wounded by STDs and emotional exhaustion, he is
retiring. He has been a bad, bad, bad boy, and loved it.
He's not dismissive of
functional knowledge, however, so Hoffberger's safe: "But thoughts are given for
action's government; / Where action ceases, thought's impertinent" (94-5).
It's the old "gnosis-praxis" argument from Sidney's "Defense."
However, he pushes it further and (voila, the 'Sixties!) says: "Our
sphere of action is life's happiness, / And he who thinks beyond, thinks like an ass"
(96-7). He claims that "right reason" will bring our passions and
intellects into a balance that will not extinguish pleasure, so he's not against all
reason, just oppressive reason. He accepts limits on desire, but demands that desire
be allowed its function, and reminds us that most of us rarely can pursue desire because
we are bound by fear (139ff.).
At l. 174 (as in the case of "Upon Nothing"--see a pattern?) he turns to the
court and the church, which receive the full force of his lash. In ll. 212-219, he
almost seems to be evoking the Parson of Canterbury Tales in imagining a good churchman,
humble, continent, and sensible. However, like Donne ("Song: Go And Catch a
Falling Star"), he turns away from this rare beast (as he imagines him) and claims
"Man differs more from man, than man from beast" (221).
Issues and Research Sources:
- In "Upon Nothing," note the return of the "devouring time" motif,
but note his use of it radically differs from Spenser's or Shakespeare's.
- How does his poem suggest yet another response to the Mannerist dilemma that afflicted
John Donne and George Herbert?
Rochester lived during the era in which the Royal Society for the study of science was
founded by Charles II.
- What might the scientific thinking of the late C17 have done to the earl's attitude
toward the great shared social faith of Chaucer's time?
- When Rochester claims (in "Satire upon Reason") that "Man differs more
from man, than man from beast" (221), he attacks a great, a priori scientific
belief. Why do scientists need to believe in the great gulf separating humans from
"animals," and what has this meant for our description of aberrant humans (Volpone?),
superior animals, etc.?
- Rochester argued for a kind of absolute liberty of conscience. What might be the
social consequences of such an absolute liberty, especially if it were joined to political
- After accidentally giving Charles II the "Satyre on Charles II,"
Rochester was banished from the court. To pass the time,
disguised himself as "Doctor Bendo," and advertised to wealthy
noblewomen and merchants' wives that, among other ills, if they had failed to conceive
children, he could cure them. His efforts were said to be highly
successful. Who is the model for "Doctor Bendo," and how is
Rochester reading the work in which that character occurs?
- Rochester's poetry could not be found in Norton Anthologies
before 2000, and academic study of Rochester really only began in earnest
with the publication of his scholarly biography (Vivian De Sola Pinto's
Enthusiast in Wit, Lincoln, Nebraska: U. Nebraska P, 1962) and a
scholarly edition of his works (David M. Veith's The Complete Poems of
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, New Haven: Yale UP, 1968, now superseded
by Keith Walker's 1988
Oxford UP edition). In Rochester's case, this was not only because
his poems dealt with opinions that were considered scandalous well into the
1950s, but also because his poems were therefore condemned for much of that
time to manuscript circulation and anonymous publication in editions of
uncertain accuracy. Oddly, this places Rochester's work in the same cultural
situation as that of major unpublished women writers of the era. You
cannot study what you cannot read, and when nobody reads an author, people
do not miss the author's works
unless some critical theory tells them the works should be there but
- To see his portrait with his famous monkey, click here.
He's crowning it with the symbolic laurel wreath awarded victorious poets in Classical
Greece, implying what, exactly about poetry, the monkey, himself, and/or us?
For the general
website address of "Voice of the Shuttle" which contains a variety of tools and
information for Seventeenth-Century studies, click here.
Be especially careful, however, when using VOS material as a source for
papers. Some of its materials are distinctly not scholarly (undergraduate
student work, popular sites, etc.). Keep your wits about you and test your sources
like a good scholar.
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