Upon Nothing

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.
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,
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.
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;
But turncoat Time assists the foe in vain,
And bribed by thee, destroys their short-lived reign,
And to thy hungry womb drives back thy slaves again.
Though mysteries are barred 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 truly say,
Thou from the virtuous nothing dost delay,
And to be part with thee the wicked wisely pray.
Great Negative, how vainly would the wise
Inquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise,
Didst thou not stand to point their blind 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 state— 
When they have racked 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,
While 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,
Flow swiftly into thee, and in thee ever end.

Writing Ideas

  1. Rochester’s poem joins a roster of works praising, or thinking about, the concept of “nothing.” For some 20th century examples, see Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” Thom Gunn’s “The Annihilation of Nothing,” and Peter Gizzi’s “In Defense of Nothing.” After reading these poems a few times, compose your own praise, defense, or meditation on “nothing.”
  2. Stephen Burt points out in his poem guide that “Upon Nothing” builds upon a series of paradoxes, or self-contradictory statements. Find some of these paradoxes for yourself. Take a minute to examine how they work. Now compose your own list of paradoxical propositions upon a theme (it could be “nothing” or something else entirely).
  3. Burt describes Rochester as a kind of stand-up comic of his day: jokey, irreverent, and often scandalous. But Burt also notes that Rochester’s expertise at meter and rhyme is part of why we continue to read his work. Taking Rochester’s cue, try writing a poem that, like stand-up routines, is shockingly funny but do so, if you dare, in Rochester’s triplet hexameter meters.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Rochester’s use of apostrophe—literally addressing “nothing” as if it were a person or present thing—contribute to his poem’s premises? What would change if the poem discussed nothing without directly addressing it? Try rewriting some lines to see what is altered, and how.
  2. How does Rochester’s title cue the poem to come? Is the title just ironic? Stephen Burt notes that Rochester’s poem is a contribution to a long history of riddles, odes, speeches, and philosophical tracts on “nothing.” (Burt also suggests the poem’s affinity with contemporary forms like stand-up routines and sitcoms). How would you classify Rochester’s poem? Does he seem to be praising, blaming, making fun of nothing, or what? Make a list of possible alternative titles or subtitles for “Upon Nothing.”

Teaching Tips

  1. Because Rochester’s poem may have unfamiliar language, ideas, and is written in an elegant but riddling meter, spend some time with your class unpacking each tercet. Ask students, either in pairs or as a class, to paraphrase or “translate” each stanza into a contemporary idiom, i.e. one that they understand. You might have them go a step further and put their initial “translation” into either slang or a tweet. How does this work of paraphrasing alter their understanding of the poem? What does compressing dense ideas in 140 characters leave out? After you’ve gone through the entire poem, read Stephen Burt’s helpful and erudite poem guide. (Depending on the age of your students, you might also have them explore the Earl of Rochester’s other poems and his biography on the Poetry Foundation archive.) Does it seem like Rochester would have appreciated social media? Discuss the kinds of statements and jokes he’s making in “Upon Nothing” as similar to or different from the kinds of statements social media encourages.
  2. Using the first writing idea as a jumping off point, ask students to gather examples—either poetic or not—of contemporary writers, artists, mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists grappling with the concept of “nothing.” Students might bring in poems, or articles about scientists attempting to explain or prove the existence of “nothing” (a paradoxical idea worthy of Rochester). Try to develop as rich an archive of nothingness in contemporary culture. Are there songs about nothing? Burt points out that Seinfeld is a good example: it’s a show “about nothing.” Once you’ve had students present their entries into the class “nothing archive,” try to come up with a definition of the word. You might write a class poem, making each student or group of students responsible of a stanza.
More Poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester