“The Disabled Debauchee,” called in some texts “The Maim’d Debauchee” or “The Maim’d Drunkard,” is written in a form known as the heroic stanza. The heroic stanza was used by poets of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester’s day for epic verse; some notable examples include John Dryden’s Heroic Stanzas (1659) and Annus Mirabilis (1667) and Sir William Davenant’s Gondibert (1651).
The speaker in “The Disabled Debauchee” cannot necessarily be identified with Rochester himself. Though part of the poem’s intent is to mock the speaker, it is possible that Rochester is offering his audience amusement at his own expense. It seems more likely, however, that the speaker is a fictitious character whom Rochester sets up as a target for derision.
The speaker gives a tongue-in-cheek description of the way in which, when he is “disabled” sometime in the future by drink and debauchery, he will exhort others to the debauchery that he had practiced himself when he was able. He compares himself to a retired “brave admiral” from a long-past war who takes vicarious pleasure in watching battles (from a safe distance!) and reliving his days of glory.
He describes the social milieu in which he moves as being like a battleground, and the ladies and gentlemen of his company who drink and flirt as combatants in a war. The speaker relishes the thought that he will inspire those who are still able to “fight” in this kind of “war” to new heights of revelry and debauchery by telling them about his past exploits. He will encourage the combatants who are frightened at his battle scars by telling them that “Past joys have more than paid what I endure,” and he will rouse the dull and lazy participants by telling what he used to do when he was “able to bear arms.” In this way, he will spur all his fellows to “important mischief.” The scenes of debauchery and mischief he conjures up grow from harmless jibes at the dinner table to all kinds of wanton and destructive acts.
In the final stanza, the speaker makes a witty assessment of his future role that seems at once both self-mocking and smug; he says that he will “safe from danger, valiantly advise,” and that “Shelter’d in impotence . . ./being good for nothing else,” he will “be wise.”