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.)


Issues and Research Sources:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.?
  3. 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 protection?
  4. After accidentally giving Charles II the "Satyre on Charles II," Rochester was banished from the court.  To pass the time, Rochester 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?
  5. 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 are not.
  6. Click here for Sebastian Vrancx' early seventeenth-century painting of street vendors, including a pamphlet seller of the type whose wares later in the century might have included Astell's Some Reflections upon Marriage, Swift's A Modest Proposal, and Rochester's handbill advertising the services of Doctor Alexander Bendo.  One of my long-term research projects involves trying to figure out when independent booksellers with fixed "shops" became the norm, and how their relations with printers, and later publishers, and authors, evolved.  The current trend toward Internet self-publishing (fan fiction, blogs, Amazon e-books) presents us with a "devolving" marketplace for literature which flattens out the intermediary levels of production between authors and readers.
  7. 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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