John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: “Upon Nothing”
Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t the first to make a big show about nothing; nor was the notorious 17th-century figure John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the first writer to choose “nothing” as his subject. Traditions of paradoxical, funny poems and speeches on “nothing” (the word or the idea) stretch back into antiquity. Read one way, Rochester’s poem shows off that comic tradition. Read in another, it’s a sour political and religious (or irreligious) satire; and, reread closely, it’s also a serious meditation on the limits of trust, the uses of cynicism, and the extreme difficulty—for a skeptical, brilliant, volatile, pleasure-loving man in a luxurious, cynical age—of finding meaning in anything. “Upon Nothing” may not say everything about nothing, but it surely seems to try.
Rochester’s life was a scandal, and so were his poems. Many of them portray bisexual orgies, public sex, prostitution, impotence, drunkenness, masturbation “in a pigsty,” and rampant sexually transmitted diseases, in songs, satires, verse-letters, and impersonations. His writings circulated in manuscript, among his friends and enemies, most of them printed soon after he died. The great 18th-century critic Samuel Johnson, who admired the poetry, described the aristocrat’s “drunken gaiety and gross sensuality,” by which he “blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness.”
The author of such verses was bound to survive for the life they appear to record. Johnny Depp played him in a 2004 film; both Graham Greene and Germaine Greer have written biographies. But Rochester’s poetry has lasted for other reasons: Ezra Pound considered his ear for meter one of the best in the history of the language. We can also admire his attitude, which is part YOLO, part philosophical skepticism: he had a gift for shock, but also a habit of seeing through everything. If nothing else has any value, the poems seem to say, at least pleasure is real, albeit fleeting. And if we cannot believe in our own appetites, perhaps we can believe in nothing. What would that be like?
We can read “Upon Nothing” as one way to answer that question. We can also see it as a way to show off. Anybody can praise justice or beauty, but only a masterful poet could complete a fancy poem about something negligible—there was a long line of such poems, from Renaissance odes on fleas to Samuel Wesley’s “A Pindaric upon the Grunting of a Hog” (1685). Rochester also draws on narrower traditions of writing about nothing, or about the word “nothing.” Johnson thought Rochester adapted a Latin poem called “Nihil” by Jean Passerat; modern scholars add Shakespeare (“Nothing will come of nothing”), John Donne, Nicholas Billingsley (a poem entitled “Much A-do About Nothing”), and a ribald anonymous broadside, also in rhyming tercets (or “triplets”), called “A Song of Nothing.”
Those triplets matter. Most long, serious poems from Rochester’s era used couplets. Rochester chose rhyming three-line stanzas with hexameters at the end: they slow down and tend to pause in the middle and bring the stanza to a full halt, so that the poem tends to break apart into separate units, each one heard as if it could stand alone. Rather than put forward one sort of nihilistic, cynical, or unstable view, Rochester stacks up several, like sitcom episodes, each one appropriating—or making fun of—something new. Address to the Muse, prayer, philosophical creation narrative, proverb, political protest, and topical satire—all amount to Nothing in the end.
“Upon Nothing” also speaks to a serious line of atheist poets and philosophers—from the ancient poet Lucretius to Rochester’s contemporary Thomas Hobbes—who try to believe only in what they can see. For such writers, in a phrase that Rochester translated into English from the Latin of Seneca, “After Death nothing is, and nothing Death”: they believe that there’s no afterlife and no spiritual otherworld that rewards, punishes, or defines the bad and the good.
Such readings, as the scholar Marianne Thormählen says, risk “losing sight of the irreverent flippancy.” In other words, Rochester is not putting forward a philosophy; rather, he is mocking philosophers in addition to priests, and courtiers, scholars, and poets. Yet the poem does find it hard to get away from its own attraction to Nothing, an attraction that becomes more than a joke. The poem is a kind of acid that eats through everything, even itself: Thormählen calls it “the apex— or, rather, the nadir—of nihilism in English poetry.”
Rochester starts the poem with a parody of the Biblical Creation, and of the epic poet’s address to a Muse:
Nothing! thou elder brother even to Shade:
That hadst a being ere the world was made,
And (well fixed) art alone of ending not afraid.
He blasphemes both by worshipping (or seeming to worship) Nothing, and by asking a question forbidden by many theologians: what “hadst a being ere the world was made.” These early lines invert the story of Genesis, where God separates light from darkness (“Shade”), something from nothing: if darkness is some thing, since we have a name for it, then “nothing” must have existed even before that.
Like all stories of nothing, Rochester’s relies on a pun, treating “nothing” sometimes as if it were the name of a thing, the opposite of some other thing, and at other times, more properly, as the absence of any nameable thing.
Ere Time and Place were, Time and Place were not,
When primitive Nothing Something straight begot;
Then all proceeded from the great united What.
The entity of Nothing fears nothing (because it has no hopes, no fears), and therefore cannot fear death, but Nothing is also uniquely equipped to face death without fear, since if there is no Heaven or Hell, death is simply a return to the state of nonexistence that “nothing” has denoted all along.
So far the poem may feel like a word game, less Seinfeld and more Monty Python: it isn’t an argument, but a contradiction. But the poem also takes a serious, rueful look, centuries before the existentialists, at how it might feel to live in a universe where nothing was guaranteed. What if the only creation story we had, or the only one we could believe, posited not an active God with intentions, but merely the emergence of something from “primitive Nothing,” “from the great united What”?
While he explores the frontiers of disbelief, Rochester characteristically finds time for sexual jokes, which map out another way through the poem, a way that undercuts the sexual braggadocio of Rochester’s complicated life. “Nothing,” in which all things were “begot,” could certainly be a kind of womb, more powerful than the phallus, the Something, cut out to fit within it. And once you start seeking such puns, you will likely find more:
Something, the general attribute of all,
Severed from thee, its sole original,
Into thy boundless self must undistinguished fall;
Yet Something did thy mighty power command,
And from fruitful Emptiness’s hand
Snatched men, beasts, birds, fire, air, and land.
The world as we know it is created “at first” when “Something” was “snatched”: but, the ejaculation over, the something, or self, or begetter, has fallen back into nothing, into a detumescence that is equally a vagina and a void. Rochester seems to anticipate modern feminism in thinking that all the organizing principles of patriarchal society—a personal God, a stable meaning for words, a phallus organized and controlled by men—depend on one another for support: a threat to any is a threat to all, and though their possessors believe they are (like a king) subject to nothing, they are subject to Nothing, subsumed into Nothing, instead.
Such rhetoric, according to the scholar David Quentin, “emphasizes the spurious existence afforded Nothing by its having a name.” Not only does Rochester treat Nothing as if it were something, but he treats it as if it were a divinity, superior to the Creator who came afterward:
Matter, the wicked’st offspring of thy race,
By Form assisted, flew from thy embrace,
And rebel Light obscured thy reverend dusky face.
With Form and Matter, Time and Place did join;
Body, thy foe, with these did leagues combine
To spoil thy peaceful realm, and ruin all thy line;
Nothing, as well as darkness, chaos, and night, deserves to be “reverend” (that is, revered); and “Form and Matter,” along with “Light,” are wicked. In fact, measurement itself, perhaps even cognition, might count as a bad thing, since it works against the original void: “leagues” can mean both combinations of actors (like diplomatic coalitions) and measures of distance, which “spoil” the “peaceful realm” of the unknown.
By this point the parody hymn has incorporated a wish for non-being, akin not just to wordplay but to Sophocles’s reflection “Never to have been born is best ... .” Rochester then shifts to mock-epic, making his story of Nothing vs. Something a brief tale of battles, debates, and double-crossings. “Time” is a “turncoat” because, at first, it sides with form, order, and Something—cities are built, human beings are born and grow. But only at first: empires fail, buildings fall, we are born to return to the void.
Rochester narrates this progress, or regress, with the hyperbolic brevity of a heavy metal lyric, and like many metal bands, he is trying to shock; but he may also sound shocked, himself, by the extent to which puns about Nothing, games about the word “nothing,” can open us up to doubts about everything. His next triplet—last to take part in his mock cosmogony—sounds positively reverent:
Though mysteries are barred from laic eyes,
And the divine alone with warrant pries
Into thy bosom, where truth in private lies,
Nothing is worthy of worship: the implicit pun folds together the materialism Rochester shared with Hobbes and the weird awe, the phantom limb pain, of somebody who once expected to find God. “The divine” can mean “God”—that is, “God only knows what the universe means.” But “the Divine” can also mean “the clergyman”: read this way, this tercet inaugurates Rochester’s attacks on professions and social classes. “Laic eyes” (laypeople) cannot understand the mysteries of “nothing,” since there is no mystery: the nonsense and fuss of metaphysics can be understood, explained, or tolerated only by educated priests and bishops, who think they are peering into eternal mysteries rather than staring at cosmic TV snow.
It is not only the priests who understand nothing: “the wise” who “Inquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise” all “point”—i.e., direct, guide, but also punctuate, and sharpen—what would otherwise appear to everyone as their “blind philosophies”—including “natural philosophy,” the experiments and measurements sponsored by the Royal Society (founded in 1660), what today we call “science.” It is as if the wise people in this stanza were stupid, drunk fencers, poking around in the dark, until “nothing” fortunately directed them, or as if they had been writing nonsense all along. “The two great Ends of Fate,” and the two ends of a propositional argument (“true or false”) are all alike: experimental science, logic, and diplomacy, like theology, “within thy Bosom most securely rest, / And when reduced to thee, are least unsafe and best.”
Here, Rochester appropriates, or parodies, yet another genre: the eulogy, the sort of thing we might say at a funeral. Even the most unsettled life finds peace in death: all earthly struggles end. Say as much at a funeral and you may console the bereaved, whether or not they believe that souls linger in Heaven; say the same thing all the time, and you have expressed a resignation so deep as to have given up on life.
But Rochester does not give up. Why not? And why doesn’t his poem end there? One answer: the rhyming tercets here proceed by simple addition, and do not have to follow any overarching narrative. Like parts of a stand-up comic’s routine, this poem could simply go on until its author runs out of paradoxical things to say, and it has the potential to be both antisocial and thoroughly sociable. If you believe in nothing, and nothing attracts your loyalty (let alone love), you might still want to entertain your friends.
And—like today’s stand-up comics—you might complain. Having set up Nothing as his God, Rochester can complain to Nothing (or no one) about the iniquity of his times, as Jeremiah complained to the Jewish God: why do the wicked prosper? And why do “sacred monarchs”—that is, King Charles II—take bad advice? Why do princes (and other aristocrats, among them Rochester’s drinking buddies) spend money they do not have, leaving “nothing” in their “coffers”? Why are politicians and diplomats, “statesmen,” so dumb? Since Nothing rules the universe, it rules the statesmen, who have Nothing in their heads. Nothing, moreover, stands behind the impostures of other professions—priests and church officials, Oxford scholars, and lawyers, who would have worn fine linen (lawn), furs, and academic robes. Experts on a nonexistent God and a manipulable law, they have nothing to be wise about.
The poem will now pause for a series of broad ethnic jokes. Slurs on the French as duplicitous, the Spanish as lazy (“mañana”), the Scots as direct to the point of being rude, remain familiar. The Dutch, however, were not exactly devoid of military “prowess” in the 1670s: in 1667 the Dutch Republic sent warships up the Thames. By 1678—the last year when “Upon Nothing” could have been written—the Dutch and the English were military allies, but slurs against them had already entered the language (compare “Dutch courage,” i.e., alcohol). As for “policy,” the word could mean both a particular government program (more or less what it means now) and something like “canniness,” or “practicality,” of which court and Parliament—divided, tumultuous, and scandal-driven—had none.
But Rochester will not end with topical humor. Since all human history amounts to nothing, all courts and all professions are the same. He finds consolation there—if nothing changes throughout history, then no one can complain that his own time is particularly bad. Things in general—and things around kings, in particular—have always been, and will “ever” be, thus:
The great man’s gratitude to his best friend,
Kings’ promises, whores’ vows—towards thee they bend,
Flow swiftly into thee, and in thee ever end.
It’s not so much that King Charles II breaks his word, but (according to the poem’s timeless present-tense verbs) that any “great man” anywhere at any time succumbs to the unreliability of “gratitude,” “promises,” and “vows,” which flow together like tributaries to one great annihilating tidal “end.”
This almost majestic conclusion—as well as the way it breaks up into quotable parts—might help explain why “Upon Nothing” appealed so strongly to writers who came slightly later. Johnson called it Rochester’s best poem; both the young Alexander Pope (“On Silence”) and Henry Fielding (“An Essay On Nothing”) imitated it directly. Pope drew on it again for the thundering conclusion to his satiric epic The Dunciad, where “Chaos! is restored … And Universal Darkness buries All.”
But Rochester’s Nothingness, his mock God or Goddess, is not Pope’s Darkness. Nor is it the devil. Nothing is not so much the enemy of existence as its completion. The river of life moves inevitably toward nonbeing, a progress we can approach, in Rochester’s hexameter, with an understated bemusement. It is not as if there were anything else we could do.
Jerry Seinfeld, for what it’s worth, now says he never intended to make a whole show “about nothing.” Rochester’s poem about nothing also turns out to have something to say. If it belongs in a tradition of paradoxical gamesmanship, it also reflects the serious suspicion that nothing lasts, that nothing means anything; it reflects the distrust of abstraction and idealism that Rochester shared with Hobbes and other thinkers in his day.
That distrust fueled both the pleasure-loving extremes of Rochester and his fellow libertines—half glam-rocker, half frat boy—and the experimental, test-everything, take-nothing-for-granted stance of the first experimental scientists. Rochester could not mount the apocalypse of a Pope, or the cosmic narrative of a Milton; what he could do, as well as anybody who wrote poetry in English, was to turn every idea inside out and back-to-front, to break every rule of ethics, conduct and decorum—to leave nothing untouched or untried.
Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...