Upon Nothing

By John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647–1680 John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Nothing! thou Elder Brother ev’n to Shade,
That hadst a Being ere the World was made,
And (well fixt) art alone, of Ending not afraid.
Ere Time and Place were, Time and Place were not,
When primitive Nothing something straight begot,
Then all proceeded from the great united . . . What?
Something, the general Attribute of all,
Sever’d from thee, its sole Original,
Into thy boundless Self must undistinguish’d fall.
Yet Something did thy mighty Power command,
And from fruitful Emptiness’s Hand
Snatch’d Men, Beasts, Birds, Fire, Air, and Land.
Matter the wicked’st Offspring of thy Race,
By Form assisted, flew from thy Embrace,
And rebel Light obscur’d thy reverend dusky Face.
With Form and Matter, Time and Place did join;
Body, thy Foe, with thee did Leagues combine
To spoil thy peaceful Realm, and ruin all thy Line.
But Turn-coat Time assists the Foe in vain,
And, brib’d by thee, assists thy short-liv’d Reign,
And to thy hungry Womb drives back thy Slaves again.
Though Mysteries are barr’d from laic Eyes,
And the Divine alone, with Warrant, pries
Into thy Bosom where Truth in private lies:
Yet this of thee the Wise may freely say,
Thou from the Virtuous nothing tak’st away,
And, to be Part with thee, the Wicked wisely pray.
Great Negative! how vainly would the Wise
Enquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise,
Didst thou not stand to point their dull philosophies?
Is, or is not, the Two great Ends of Fate,
And, true or false, the Subject of Debate,
That perfect or destroy the vast Designs of Fate;
When they have rack’d the Politician’s Breast,
Within thy Bosom most securely rest,
And, when reduced to thee, are least unsafe and best?
But Nothing,—why does Something still permit
That sacred Monarchs should at Council sit,
With Persons highly thought at best for Nothing fit?
Whilst weighty Something modestly abstains
From Princes’ Coffers and from Statemen’s Brains,
And Nothing there, like stately Nothing, reigns.
Nothing who dwell’st with Fools in grave disguise
For whom they reverend Shapes and Forms devise.
Lawn Sleeves, and Furs, and Gowns, when they, like thee, look wise.
French Truth, Dutch Prowess, British Policy,
Hibernian Learning, Scotch Civility,
Spaniards’ Dispatch, Danes’ Wit, are mainly seen in thee.
The great Man’s Gratitude to his best Friend,
Kings’ Promises, Whores’ vows, towards thee may bend,
How swiftly into thee, and in thee ever end.

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Poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647–1680


SCHOOL / PERIOD 17th Century

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Philosophy, Humor & Satire, Social Commentaries, History & Politics

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza


John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester and Baron of Adderbury in England, Viscount Athlone in Ireland, infamous in his time for his life and works and admired for his deathbed performance, was the cynosure of the libertine wits of Restoration England. He was anathematized as evil incarnate and simultaneously adored for his seraphic presence, beauty, and wit, even from his first appearance at the court of Charles II. This . . .

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SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Philosophy, Humor & Satire, Social Commentaries, History & Politics


SCHOOL / PERIOD 17th Century

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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