Poem, An Unsweet Nothing from the Earl of Rochester

Rochester was a Restoration rake, suicidal in his excesses, and excessive in his cynicism.  Much of his thought consists of the fag-ends of the French literature he picked up during the nightmare years of the regicidal commonwealth.  His deathbed conversion has done little to improve his general reputation, but I am tempted to compare him with other poets of despairing disbelief, Baudelaire and Lou Reed.  John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, might have said of himself, one of Lou Reed's lines: "Some kinds of love are mistaken for vision."  Please don't go looking for the source of the line, because decent people should be offended. 

Upon Nothing

Nothing! thou elder brother even to Shade:
That hadst a being ere the world was made,
And well fixed, art alone of ending not afraid.
Ere Time and Place were, Time and Place were not,
When primitive Nothing Something straight begot;
Then all proceeded from the great united What.
Something, the general attribute of all,
Severed from thee, its sole original,
Into thy boundless self must undistinguished fall;
Yet Something did thy mighty power command,
And from fruitful Emptiness’s hand
Snatched men, beasts, birds, fire, air, and land.
Matter the wicked’st offspring of thy race,
By Form assisted, flew from thy embrace,
And rebel Light obscured thy reverend dusky face.
With Form and Matter, Time and Place did join;
Body, thy foe, with these did leagues combine
To spoil thy peaceful realm, and ruin all thy line;
But turncoat Time assists the foe in vain,
And bribed by thee, destroys their short-lived reign,
And to thy hungry womb drives back thy slaves again.
Though mysteries are barred from laic eyes,
And the divine alone with warrant pries
Into thy bosom, where truth in private lies,
Yet this of thee the wise may truly say,
Thou from the virtuous nothing dost delay,
And to be part with thee the wicked wisely pray.
Great Negative, how vainly would the wise
Inquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise,
Didst thou not stand to point their blind philosophies!
Is, or Is Not, the two great ends of Fate,
And True or False, the subject of debate,
That perfect or destroy the vast designs of state—
When they have racked the politician’s breast,
Within thy Bosom most securely rest,
And when reduced to thee, are least unsafe and best.
But Nothing, why does Something still permit
That sacred monarchs should at council sit
With persons highly thought at best for nothing fit,
While weighty Something modestly abstains
From princes’ coffers, and from statemen’s brains,
And Nothing there like stately Nothing reigns?
Nothing! who dwell’st with fools in grave disguise
For whom they reverend shapes and forms devise,
Lawn sleeves, and furs, and gowns, when they like thee look wise:
French truth, Dutch prowess, British policy,
Hibernian learning, Scotch civility,
Spaniards’ dispatch, Danes’ wit are mainly seen in thee.
The great man’s gratitude to his best friend,
Kings’ promises, whores’ vows—towards thee may bend,
Flow swiftly into thee, and in thee ever end.
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Any poet fond of alliteration already has my eager attention, whatever the merits of the work itself. I was surprised to find that Wilmot was considered second only to Dryden in that era (at least according the the Poetry Foundation) so that is high praise indeed.

    It appears he could not be accused of hypocrisy, as Clarendon described him as one who “loved debauchery” and “valued no promises, professions or friendships according to any rules of honour or integrity.” Wished he told us what he really thought of him.

    Looking forward to reading more of Wilmot.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Rochester was certainly a major figure in his day, though his versification can be a bit harsh, perhaps as an expression of. virility. He’s not for women, children, or epicoenes. His “Satire on Man,” a more ruthless version of a poem of Boileau, is alarming in its brutal cynicism. He was the model for all sorts of characters in Restoration comedy and for romantic libertines ever since. Ever since I first read him, well over 50 years ago, I have admired his brilliance and lack of most self-delusions–save only the delusion that he could rise above the frailty of other men one the stepping stones of extreme hedonism.

    His conversion, at the hands of Bishop Burnet who described it, has been doubted bug almost always by people who love him only for his libertinism. If I were to write his epitaph, it would read: ‘Too damned smart for his own good.” H