Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 561 words.)