Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

Framing his mocking and comical treatment of the subject of his poem in the heroic stanza form enables Rochester to give two edges to his satire. He mocks the language and attitudes of conventional heroic verse and at the same time mocks the wanton, decidedly unheroic society depicted in his poem.

The notion that the social and the amatory are essentially combative and akin to war is a common theme in Rochester’s poetry, particularly in his satires, lampoons, and bawdy verses. “Insulting Beauty” describes a beautiful woman as “killing fair” (“fair” here meaning lovely rather than just), with “conquering eyes” that enslave the admiring speaker. “While on those Lovely Looks” offers a similar view of love, in which the battle between the lovers ends with the paradox that “The victor lives with empty pride,/ The vanquished die with pleasure.”

This outlook is partly a romantic convention, in which the lover is struck and wounded by Cupid’s arrow and whose life thenceforth is at the disposal of the beloved. Another source of Rochester’s particular perspective on the combative nature of love and social relations is the cynicism common to the literary wits of Charles II’s court, which can also be found in Restoration comedies such as George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676) and William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700). This cynicism is partly a result of the intellectual climate of the times and partly a fashionable literary affectation.

Rochester’s poetry, however, has a dark and ambivalent side that sets it apart from other conventionally cynical and satirical works of his day. Rochester’s psyche seems to have contained an element of nihilism and a genuine hatred and contempt for humankind’s flaws that show through even in his lighter satires. Paradoxically, his poems also exhibit an uncommonly exuberant relish for the very vices he deplores. In “The Disabled Debauchee,” Rochester exhibits this paradoxical tendency to celebrate and condemn vice in equal measure. He clearly scorns the companions of the “brave Admiral” who can so easily be encouraged to attack people and destroy property. Yet part of Rochester is the “brave admiral”; biographical details of Rochester’s life show him as a rioter and reveler of the same cloth as the ones he mocks in his poem, and within the poem itself one senses that he takes some pleasure in describing the mischief and vice. He seems to feel keenly that the mind and the emotions or senses are frequently at odds and that human nature has several conflicting sides, and many of his poems are expressions of this ambivalence. In “Absent from Thee I Languish Still,” for example, the speaker upbraids himself for his infidelities, which cause heartache not only to his mistress but to himself as well, yet he acknowledges his inability to remain faithful and predicts that he will die miserably in the arms of another.

In “The Disabled Debauchee,” the narrator speaks fondly of love and wine and claims that the joy of debauchery is worth the attendant “scars,” but the depictions of many of the scenes are deliberately and brutally ugly. Rochester cannot wholeheartedly enjoy or condemn the society he satirizes; the scenes he describes simultaneously attract and repel him. “The Disabled Debauchee” shows Rochester as a realist who understands man’s self-contradictory impulses and the complexity of human nature.

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