The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“A Satire Against Mankind,” sometimes called “A Satire Against Reason and Mankind” or simply “Satire,” is one of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester’s best-known poems. Written in iambic pentameter with a slightly irregular rhyme scheme (rhyming couplets occasionally give way to triplets), it is a humorous but bitter denunciation of human nature and all its vain pretensions to wisdom and virtue. The first forty-five lines of the poem form a general reflection on the failings of reason, which misleads and deceives people. People believe themselves to be eminently wise, but they are in fact the greatest of fools. Reason is compared to an ignis fatuus (literally a “false fire,” or will-o’-the-wisp) that leads people through the treacherous landscapes of their own minds. Clever people who profess to be “wits” are singled out for particular criticism, wit being decried as “vain frivolous pretence.”
Rochester then introduces an interlocutor, a “formal Band, and Beard,” or conventional, venerable clergyman, who agrees with the speaker in the poem that wit is abhorrent, but who takes issue with him for railing against humankind and reason in general. This interlocutor praises humankind as being made in God’s image and possessing souls, which, he says, raise people above the beasts by allowing them to comprehend the universe, Heaven, and Hell.
The speaker retorts that people are mites who presume to compare their...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Rochester supports his satire with vivid and sometimes fanciful images and metaphors, many of which extend for line after line. His images are often deliberately ridiculous, so as to point out the ridiculousness of human pretensions. When he describes reason as “an ignis fatuus of the mind,” for example, he describes how it leads the stumbling follower through “fenny bogs, and thorny brakes,” over “Mountains of whimseys” to a “boundless sea” where he tries desperately to stay afloat on books and to “swim with bladders of philosophy.” Some of the humorous comparisons are more barbed; wits, he says “are treated just like common whores,/ First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors.” Combining his criticism with humor makes it more palatable to the reader, and ensures that the poem will be taken more as a clever satire than as a vicious diatribe.
Rochester’s intent is not entirely to amuse, though. Many of his images are wickedly persuasive as they expose the darker side of human nature. He compares people to beasts who are armed by nature with teeth and claws, and says, “Man, with smiles, embraces, friendships, praise,/ Unhumanely, his fellow’s life betrays.” He chooses as his examples of humankind the types who are supposed to be the most just and least self-interested of men. The statesman, he says, should “his needful flattery direct,/ Not to oppress, and ruin, but to protect.” Instead, the statesman is proud and corrupt, receives bribes, and advances his family’s interests over the country’s. Clergymen receive the same satirical treatment. Rochester asks, “Is there a churchman who on God relys?/ Whose life, his faith, and doctrine justifies?” Rochester’s answer is an emphatic no. The clergyman, he says, “from his pulpit, vents more peevish lies,/ More bitter railing scandals, calumnies,/ Than at a gossiping are thrown about.” The clergymen is, moreover, proud, licentious, and greedy. By choosing as his particular subjects figures who should be examples of virtue in the community, Rochester broadens his satire from the individual to society.