Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Upon Nothing” has been described as one of the most nihilistic poems in English literature. It may well be; it seems to assert that nothing matters because Nothing is the alpha and the omega of the universe. Yet it also illustrates an inescapable paradox of nihilistic art: Is not a work of art in itself an assertion that something—art—does matter? Is not Rochester’s intellectual and linguistic cleverness an assertion of some aesthetic value? And does not his disparagement of the illusions promoted by theologians, politicians, the French, the Dutch, and others necessarily imply an assertion of some moral standard?

“Nothing” figures both positively and negatively in the poem. On one hand, “Nothing” acts like a thing: It is “a being”; it can beget and embrace and bribe; it can be described as a “brother” or a “self”; it has a face, a bosom, hands, and a womb. On the other hand, “Nothing” is the absence of all things: It is the formless, substanceless vacuum from which, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, God created the universe. Rochester conspicuously omits God from his account of the creation of the world and of its eventual dissolution. No providential deity plans the lives of humans or the fate of the universe. Creation and destruction are equally self-generated; the first is spontaneous, and the second is inevitable. Rochester deliberately rejects the pieties of his age. Most specifically, he mocks the pious poems “Hymn to Light” and Davideis by his celebrated contemporary Abraham Cowley. Until his own conversion to Christianity prior to his early death, Rochester was strongly influenced by the atheistic, materialistic philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.

There is a sharpness to the last lines that is characteristic of Rochester’s satire. His reduction of the great man’s gratitude, the king’s promises, and the whore’s vows to equal emptiness is a pointed gesture. The circle of aristocratic wits to whom he circulated the poem—none of Rochester’s verse was published by him—might comfortably share his jibes at the delusions of the self-righteous metaphysicians, but even they, as “Great men” themselves, should have been pricked by the sting of these last lines.