John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), was described by Charles Whidbley in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Literature as
. . . the one man of undisputed genius among them (the Court Poets) [who] will ever be memorable for the waywardness and complexity of his character, for the vigour and energy of his verse. . . .
Rochester's earlier poemSatyr Against Mankind (1675, 1679) is considered his poetic masterpiece, but "Upon Nothing" (1711) runs a close second because it espouses Rochester's belief that life is meaningless, in part, from England's political situation at the time--a king on the throne, Charles II, who had the perogatives of a king (that is, was outwardly respected) but no real power and certainly no say in how England was governed. In short, men like Rochester, who used to rule England, were left to entertain themselves with trifles rather than exercise real political power.
As several scholars argue, "Upon Nothing" is a satire on much more serious works--John Milton's Paradise Lost and Genesis, the first book of the Christian Bible--and speaks to the nihilism, the belief that man's institutions and life itself is essentially meaningless, felt by many aristocrats during the reign of Charles II.
"Upon Nothing" is about, well, nothing, and despite its generally light tone, it treats a serious subject, the lack of belief in man's future and the futility of working to make life different or better. In a direct reference to the creation sequence of Genesis, Rochester argues that creation came from nothing:
Yet Something did thy mighty power command,/And from thy fruitful emptiness's hand/Snatch'd men, beasts, birds, fire, air, and land. (ll. 10-12)
The Christian God of creation has been reduced to a great nothingness from which came life. Rochester's logic here dictates that if life derives from nothingness, life itself--and all its components (men, beasts) are nothing.
In the sixth stanza, Rochester makes it clear that the Creator, which is Nothingness, lost control of its creation:
With Form and Matter, Time and Place did join;/Body, thy foe, with thee did leagues combine,/To spoil thy peaceful realm, and ruin all thy line. (ll. 14-16)
Rather than having man as the epitome of God's creation, Rochester has turned man ("Body, thy foe") into the instrument Nothingness's ruin. In other words, mankind is not the goal of creation but the unintended consequence of a conspiracy against Nothingness.
The saving grace--if one can call it grace--is that just as mankind has been created, mankind is destroyed by its very nature:
And, bribed by thee, assists thy short-liv'd reign,/And to thy hungry womb drives back thy slaves again. (ll. 20-21)
That is, Nothingness, which has ultimate control even over its "mistakes," controls the lifespan of its creations, and so mankind return to its birthplace, which is Nothingess. It is not coincidental that Rochester, when he uses the phrase "bribed by thee," fails to capitalize the word thee, which, in a biblical reference, would always be capitalized as a reference to God. Here, thee is not capitalized because it refers not to God but to Nothingness.
Rochester, who was a great friend and thorn in the side of Charles II, even attacks the government in stanza 13 when he argues that
But Nothing, why does Something still permit,/That sacred monarchs should at council sit,/With persons highly thought at best for nothing fit? (ll. 37-39)
Here, Rochester argues that the King is trying to govern the land or, at least, pretending to govern the land, with the advice of powerful people who are obviously not up to the task.
The poem's last stanza encapsulates Rochester's belief in the Nothingness that prevails in his world--the French, who cannot speak the truth; the Dutch, whose military, especially their Navy, is useless; the British, who do not know how to govern; the Irish, who are supremely ignorant; the Scots, who are uncultured; the Spanish, who cannot act in a timely manner; and the Danish, who are dull-witted, are all part of the great Nothingness that governs the world.