The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675

“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.

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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 relentlessly measures their progress into disintegration. In the end all things dissolve back into Nothing’s “hungry wombe.”

The middle stanzas of the poem (8 to 12) “move” from abstract philosophical satire to the personal, social satire that ends the poem. In these middle stanzas Rochester directs his attack upon three types of pretentious thinker: the theologian (“the Divine”), the philosopher (“the wise”), and “the Politician.” These are precisely the individuals who hold themselves to be the knowing intermediaries between high abstract truth and ordinary minds. The latter—“Laick Eyes”—remain happily ignorant of the envelope of Nothing that surrounds their existence. The theologian pretends to superior knowledge—which is, Rochester implies, really a knowledge of Nothing. Nothing is the reward of both good and evil; as a result, the virtuous may expect the small consolation of not being punished (“Nothing” will be taken away from them), while the wicked, who might expect punishment, may rejoice at receiving the identical fate. In stanza 10, Rochester turns to philosophers, mocking their methods and terms: “Enquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise”). Nothing, which is the ultimate answer to all questions, repudiates all analyses. Finally, when the most pragmatic of thinkers, the politicians, attempt to apply high-minded philosophy (“Is or is not . . ./ And true or false”) to practical matters, they too are frustrated. The “least unsafe and best” solution to these philosophical questions seems to be a nihilistic belief in Nothing.

In the final five stanzas of the poem, Rochester moves to a more familiar Restoration satire of social types. Having established Nothing as a positive character, he can wittily describe the king’s counselors as fit for “nothing.” Moreover, he notes that “Something” (gold, although he does not use the word) is absent from the king’s treasury. (Charles II’s exchequer was often in an embarrassing state, and “Upon Nothing” was probably written at the time of a 1672 declaration of bankruptcy.)

England’s “Statesmen” also lack “Something”—intelligence. Stanzas 15 and 16 extend the satire beyond the center of the realm to include the categories already touched upon and to expand beyond England. Bishops (“Lawn-sleeves”), noblemen, scholars, and judges (“ffurrs and Gowns”) are full of pompous Nothing. The prides of the French, Dutch, British, Irish, Scots, Spaniards, and Danes prove equally vacant. Rochester concludes by leveling three more items, the gratitude of a great man, the promises of a king, and the vows of a whore: All are equally empty. In making the whore his ultimate instance of nothingness, Rochester emphasizes his contempt for all attempts to inflate the importance and the permanence of human achievement.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

“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 empty content of the king’s word. This avalanche of particular paradoxes is rooted in the core paradox of the poem, the idea that “Nothing” is a thing that may act and which may be addressed.

Rochester develops two principal patterns of imagery in the first half of the poem as he narrates the actions of his personified abstractions. The first is the imagery of sexual generation, beginning with the metaphor of Nothing “begetting” Something and a probable obscene pun on “what” (punning with “twat”) in stanza 2. It continues with references to Nothing’s “offspring,” “embrace,” and “wombe.” The introduction of “Rebell-Light” in stanza 5 begins a pattern of references to politics and revolt: Nothing’s “foes” join in “Leagues”; Time is a traitor whom Nothing bribes into betraying his allies back into Nothing.

“Upon Nothing” is composed in rhymed triplets, a relatively rare form in a period when the heroic couplet had established itself as the standard for poetry. Scholars have pointed to the verse letters of John Donne and the Divine Emblemes of Francis Quarles as possible sources. Lines 1 and 2 of each stanza are iambic pentameter; with the exception of stanzas 4 and 14, the third line is an Alexandrine (iambic hexameter). The additional syllables of the concluding line emphasize Rochester’s use of the stanza as an end-stopped unit of thought.

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Themes