The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Disabled Debauchee,” called in some texts “The Maim’d Debauchee” or “The Maim’d Drunkard,” is written in a form known as the heroic stanza. The heroic stanza was used by poets of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester’s day for epic verse; some notable examples include John Dryden’s Heroic Stanzas (1659) and Annus Mirabilis (1667) and Sir William Davenant’s Gondibert (1651).

The speaker in “The Disabled Debauchee” cannot necessarily be identified with Rochester himself. Though part of the poem’s intent is to mock the speaker, it is possible that Rochester is offering his audience amusement at his own expense. It seems more likely, however, that the speaker is a fictitious character whom Rochester sets up as a target for derision.

The speaker gives a tongue-in-cheek description of the way in which, when he is “disabled” sometime in the future by drink and debauchery, he will exhort others to the debauchery that he had practiced himself when he was able. He compares himself to a retired “brave admiral” from a long-past war who takes vicarious pleasure in watching battles (from a safe distance!) and reliving his days of glory.

He describes the social milieu in which he moves as being like a battleground, and the ladies and gentlemen of his company who drink and flirt as combatants in a war. The speaker relishes the thought that he will inspire those who are still able to “fight” in this kind of “war” to new heights of revelry and debauchery by telling them about his past exploits. He will encourage the combatants who are frightened at his battle scars by telling them that “Past joys have more than paid what I endure,” and he will rouse the dull and lazy participants by telling what he used to do when he was “able to bear arms.” In this way, he will spur all his fellows to “important mischief.” The scenes of debauchery and mischief he conjures up grow from harmless jibes at the dinner table to all kinds of wanton and destructive acts.

In the final stanza, the speaker makes a witty assessment of his future role that seems at once both self-mocking and smug; he says that he will “safe from danger, valiantly advise,” and that “Shelter’d in impotence . . ./being good for nothing else,” he will “be wise.”

The Disabled Debauchee Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central device in “The Disabled Debauchee” is a conceit, or elaborate, extended metaphor. The conceit in this poem, the comparison of the speaker to an admiral and his social setting to a battleground, is maintained throughout. Metaphors are nested within metaphors as the poet embellishes his central conceit with other fanciful images. The eyes of the “brave admiral,” for example, flash with fierce rage as he views the battle, like “black clouds when lightning breaks away.” The poem is marked by a complex grammatical structure and rhetorical flourishes. These qualities, combined with the intricate clustering of metaphors, result in a clever, intellectual, and highly artificial poem. This type of complex and slyly humorous poem was much admired in Rochester’s era, the Restoration, in which refined, well-educated gentlemen vied to be the wittiest of King Charles II’s courtiers.

The imagery is an important element of the satire in “The Disabled Debauchee.” The poem begins with whimsical images: “fleets of glasses sail around the board” (“board” here being a dining table), with “volleys of Wit” as their artillery. The effect is gently humorous as the scenes of the dining table and ballroom offer a comical contrast to the speaker’s chosen metaphor of warfare. As the poem progresses, though, the scenes he describes become uglier and more violent, and move into line with the metaphor of the battle. He speaks of “whores attack[ing] their lords at home,/ Bawds’ quarters beaten up . . ./ Windows demolished, watches overcome.” The speaker gleefully describes these activities as “handsome ills by my contrivance done.” The speaker is soon exhorting his companions to set fire to “some ancient church.”

Even as the images take on the quality of an actual battle, however, the speaker is careful to remind his audience subtly that this “battle” is an inversion of the kind of battle usually described in a heroic stanza, in which courageous soldiers fight for a just cause. “The Disabled Debauchee” urges his fellows not to valor but to “mischief” and “lewdness.” When the “ghost of [his] departed vice” urges a reluctant reveler to repent, the repentance consists of forswearing virtue for vice and joining the others in drinking.