Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Rochester lived at the dawn of the Enlightenment, a time when new scientific discoveries and new ways of thinking were sweeping aside long-held traditional beliefs. Rochester was probably very familiar with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), and much of his poetry seems to reflect a Hobbesian influence. It was in Rochester’s era that the traditional notion of humanity being at the center of a divinely ordained universe, in which God took an active and pervasive interest, was replaced by a new vision of the cosmos as a vast, impersonal world, in which the role of humankind was minor. God was still a presence in this new vision, but He was seen as being like a clockmaker; He created the world, set it in motion, and sat back to watch impartially as it operates.

In such an intellectual environment, doubt of human’s importance and distrust of, or contempt for, older ideas of people’s divine nature as common in literature. “A Satire Against Mankind” is a compelling and particularly dark enunciation of these doubts. Rochester mocks humankind for thinking that the gift of reason raises them to a status close to the divine: “This supernatural gift, that makes a mite,/ Think he is the image of the Infinite:/ Comparing his short life, void of all rest,/ To the Eternal, and the ever blest.” He sneers at human intellectual pretensions: “This busy, puzzling, stirrer up of doubt,/ That frames deep mysteries, then finds ‘em out.”


(The entire section is 598 words.)