Satyre Against Mankind A John

Wilmot, second earl of Rochester (1680) Known for his focus on sexual matters in his poetry, John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester, also wrote the libertine-style satire "A Satyre against Mankind," considered among his highest achievements. Probably written around 1675, the poem has among its sources works on rationality by Hobbes and Montaigne. The copy later published and now best known appeared in its basic version in the 1680 Poems on Several Occasions, presently housed in the Huntington Library. A portion of the modern version also appeared in a 1679 broadside and another in Miscellaneous Works of Rochester and Roscommon (1707). The poem's format varies, with its 225 lines appearing in stanzas composed of two to 26 lines, occasionally departing from rhyming couplets. Rochester considers the folly that he sees as inherent in man's attempts to lead rational lives.

The opening seven lines make clear the speaker's opinion, that animals live superior lives to those of men:

Were I—who to my cost already am

One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man—

A spirit free to choose for my own share

What sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,

I'd be a dog, a monkey, or a bear, Or anything but that vain animal, Who is so proud of being rational.

The speaker notes that man ignores his five senses to adopt a sixth, that of reasoning. Believing his power to reason superior to that of instinct in guiding his actions, he leaves "light of nature, sense, behind" and instead "Pathless and dangerous wand'ring ways" takes. He stumbles from one thought to the next and finally falls "Into Doubt's boundless sea where, like to drown, / Books bear him up awhile," keeping man afloat through "bladders of Philosophy." Rochester makes a major point early on, noting that most of man's attempts at rational thought are made to delay having to face his own mortality, that is, "In hopes still to o'ertake the escaping light." Expert at the use of figurative language (figure of speech), Rochester enhances reader interest with abundant use of metaphors and similes. He finally uses the term death when closing the second stanza, writing,

Then old age and experience, hand in hand, Lead him to death, make him to understand, After a search so painful, and so long, That all his life he has been in the wrong.

That said, the speaker continues to expound on man's error, supplying examples and trying to explain human behavior.

The third stanza proposes that pride acted upon man, "drew him in, as cheats their bubbles catch," causing him to seek a wisdom that destroyed his happiness. Wit supplies a "frivolous pretence / Of pleasing others, at his own expense," he claims, as wits are regarded as no better than whores. Rochester probably reflects on his own position in society, as he was considered one of his era's greatest wits. His bitter statements reveal that when "fops," the wits like himself "escape," "'Tis not that they're beloved, but fortunate, / And therefore what they fear, at heart they hate." Rochester introduces the idea of fear, a term that will reappear multiple times in his poem for emphasis. Popular thinking held that rationality helped overcome fear of the unknown; according to Rochester's speaker, instead it actually promotes fear. His cynical attitude proved typical of the libertine approach to poetry.

The next section introduces a second voice, which wonders of the speaker, " 'What rage torments in your degenerate mind, / To make you rail at reason, and mankind.'" This outside voice concludes by repeating the prevalent attitude toward reason, that it helps dignify man, distinguishing him from beast. It allows him to "take a flight beyond material sense" and "Dive into mysteries, then soaring pierce / The flaming limits of the universe." The speaker takes issue with this comment, but, as God spoke to the prophet in the Bible regarding his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, tells the adviser that if he can find one man fitting the description of "reasonable," he may relent.

Rochester includes references to several figures known to his readers, which he believes represents the false reason against which he argues. They include the Reverend Nathaniel Ingelo, author of a popular religious allegory in the romance tradition titled Bentivolio and Urania (1660); Simon Patrick, bishop of Ely, whose work resembling Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, The Parable of the Pilgrim, was published in 1664; and the Puritan Richard Sibbes, who published various inspirational pieces labeled Soliloquies by Rochester. The references are not flattering, as the speaker describes Ingelo's "pathetic pen" and notes that because of the types of writing produced by these three individuals, he despises "This supernatural gift that makes a mite / Think he's an image of the infinite." The speaker continues in this stanza to reflect on what he sees as a ridiculous and arrogant claim by man to resemble God. In his opinion such belief offers a false promise that makes "a whimsical philosopher / Before the spacious world his tub prefer," a reference to Diogenes' belief that one practices virtue by resisting all pleasure. The speaker uses this example to note that many retire from life simply to think, but that thought should be "given for action's government," and to cease action results in impertinence. Thus "Our sphere of action is life's happiness, / And he that thinks beyond thinks like an ass."

In the next stanza the speaker labels his own reason right and claims to obey it, as it is distinguished from false reasoning by sense, giving "us rules of good and ill" and boundaries for "desires, with a reforming will /

To keep 'em more in vigour, not to kill." Further stanzas hold that the wisest creatures attain reason "By surest means." He refers to Sir Thomas Meres, a political figure and prominent Whig Party member, whom he compares to a hound to indicate that the dog is more reasonable. The speaker argues through many lines the superiority of beasts, who kill only for practical reasons, to man, who lacks reason for various atrocities he commits. Man betrays his fellow man through fear:

Not through necessity, but wantonness.

For hunger or for love they [beasts] bite, or tear,

Whilest wretched man is still in arms for fear.

For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid:

From fear, to fear, successively betrayed.

Base fear, the source whence his best passions came.

His boasted honour, and his dear-bought fame.

The speaker notes that if a reasonable man may be discovered, he will recant. Among places where he believes no "just man" exists are the court, a place for bribes and avarice, and the church, where pastors commit adultery with drunken women, gossip, "rail at men of sense," and view their bastard progeny from the pulpit. He defines a good man, a godlike man, as

Who preaching peace does practice continence;

Whose pious life's a proof he does believe

Mysterious truths which no man can conceive.

Rochester concludes with a couplet that adds a caveat, should such a godlike man exist. He writes, "If such there are, yet grant me this at least, / Man differs more from man than man from beast." Critics note Rochester's influence on writers who may have disagreed with his sentiment but drew from his style, most notably Alexander Pope. Such influence may be seen in a comparison and contrast of Rochester's "A Satyre against Man" with Pope's An Essay on Man.

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