The Poem

“Upon Nothing” has always been regarded as one of the earl of Rochester’s most important poems. Samuel Johnson called it “the strongest effort of his Muse.” In seventeen short stanzas, it moves from philosophical satire on the vanity of human attempts to comprehend the meaning of existence to social satire on particular human pretensions to importance. In the end, Rochester implies, nothing means anything, because in the end, as in the beginning, there is only Nothing.

The first seven stanzas offer a brief, difficult account of the process by which the known universe of things came into existence. “Nothing,” the primeval reality, is established as a character. Rochester presents three similar, but not identical, descriptions of the emergence of Something: Nothing “begets” Something (stanza 2), Something is “severed” from Nothing (stanza 3); Matter is the “offspring” of Nothing (stanza 5). Stanza 4 focuses on the moment when abstract Something particularizes itself into individual created things: “Men, Beasts, birds, fire, water, Ayre, and land.” However, as stanza 3 had asserted, all particular things, like their abstract source Something, are only a temporary aberration in the universe. All must inevitably fall back into their source, “boundless” Nothing. Stanzas 5 through 7 describe the creation process in terms of political revolt undertaken by a new set of philosophical abstractions. Matter, Form, Time, Place, and Body form a conspiracy of existing things united in opposition to Nothing. Then one of the allies—Time—turns against his fellow conspirators. Things require time to exist, but Time also...

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Forms and Devices

“Upon Nothing” is a panegyric that celebrates the universal significance of nothing. It is composed as an apostrophe, with Rochester addressing the personified abstraction, “Nothing.” The character of Nothing is, however, ambiguous; its sex, for example, is uncertain. In stanza 1, it is a “brother” who “begets,” but in stanza 7 it has become a mother with a “hungry wombe.” The confusion here, like that caused by the three slightly differently phrased accounts of creation in the first seven stanzas, may constitute a deliberate parody of what Rochester saw as the fatal inconsistencies in the biblical account of creation.

There is a paradoxical aspect to the phrase “hungry wombe”; wombs should produce, not consume. Paradoxes abound in the poem. “Fruitfull Emptinesses” (stanza 4) is, in effect, an inversion of “hungry wombe.” In another paradox, “Rebell-Light” does not enlighten but rather “obscures” (covers over, darkens) the dark face of Nothing. The phrase “Rebell-Light” also recalls the two most common names of the devil in the Christian tradition: Satan (adversary) and Lucifer (light-bearer). Rochester’s satanic Lucifer, however, is the enemy not of the Creator but of uncreative Nothing.

The end of the poem is openly paradoxical, as Rochester ironically praises the empty knowledge of philosophers, the empty treasury of the king, the empty veracity of the French, the empty courage of the Dutch, and...

(The entire section is 442 words.)