The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 675 words.)