The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Satire Against Mankind,” sometimes called “A Satire Against Reason and Mankind” or simply “Satire,” is one of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester’s best-known poems. Written in iambic pentameter with a slightly irregular rhyme scheme (rhyming couplets occasionally give way to triplets), it is a humorous but bitter denunciation of human nature and all its vain pretensions to wisdom and virtue. The first forty-five lines of the poem form a general reflection on the failings of reason, which misleads and deceives people. People believe themselves to be eminently wise, but they are in fact the greatest of fools. Reason is compared to an ignis fatuus (literally a “false fire,” or will-o’-the-wisp) that leads people through the treacherous landscapes of their own minds. Clever people who profess to be “wits” are singled out for particular criticism, wit being decried as “vain frivolous pretence.”

Rochester then introduces an interlocutor, a “formal Band, and Beard,” or conventional, venerable clergyman, who agrees with the speaker in the poem that wit is abhorrent, but who takes issue with him for railing against humankind and reason in general. This interlocutor praises humankind as being made in God’s image and possessing souls, which, he says, raise people above the beasts by allowing them to comprehend the universe, Heaven, and Hell.

The speaker retorts that people are mites who presume to compare their...

(The entire section is 515 words.)