A Close-Reading of the Unrhymed Couplets in the Honorable Earl of Rochester’s,
“A Satyr against Reason and Mankind”
In the first distich, of “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind”, John Wilmot presents
the speaker of the poem: “Were I (who to my cost already am / One of those strange
prodigious creatures, man). . .” (1-2). “Cost” implies there is a price to pay for being one
of mankind. Wilmot will continue to develop the idea through the treatment of a working
thesis, antithesis, counter-thesis, and conclusion in the body of the poem. Another
important word choice in the couplet is “prodigious”. By tracking its etymology,
“prodigious” aids the negative idea of “cost” because of abnormality. By defecting man
with an unknown fault Wilmot gives rise to curiosity in his audience to identify what the
particular failing is. The speaker is highly critical of mankind within his role and presence.
Here is an example of Wilmot’s logic: in order to treat a subject one must have a pure
understanding of it. For Lord Rochester, to further critique reason, man must first exist.
To establish reason as something concrete versus something abstract, Wilmot has to
establish a symbol. There are several diverse figures of language which follow to represent
reason. For example the second distich that Wilmot creates is a conceit drawn between
books and bladders: “Books bear him up awhile, and make him try / To swim with bladders
of philosophy. . .” (20-21). However, what is far more entertaining than creating the
object of reason out of books is that dissecting their matter would spill in a fluid of nasty
Properly creating a treatment of man and reason, Wilmot continues with an example
of mankind. The figure that is closest to the poet is a Wit. Rochester presents for the
reader a portrait of a Wit’s dealings with relationships, having a good understanding of the
Wit’s philosophy on love being a wit himself. Therefore, two concepts of love must exist:
romantic love versus sexual love. When the Restoration Wit writes the following distich,
“Pleasure allures, and when the fops escape, / ‘Tis not that they’re beloved, but fortunate;
/ And therefore what they fear at heart they hate…” (43-44) it is to portray a particular
man’s need of sexual appetite, his fear for committing to a relationship, while gravitating
upon the seriousness of creating another being between two individuals, consummating
and connecting as one. The word choice of “fops” further establishes a negative context in
which to read this couplet. Therefore, a comment is being made on the seriousness of
which individuals take the creating of mankind. As creation is not being taken seriously,
that the sexual act is only being made consummate for relief of pleasure, the Earl is
suggesting the seriousness to which individuals take their own being. However, in
existence is an opponent contrary to Wilmot’s working thesis. Drawing between man and
reason, definitive types of the former and definitive types of the latter, the working thesis
aims to suggest that man comes from such animalistic practices. Further developing a
hypothesis that dismisses two primary practices of mans’ existences: creating thoughts
and the working of thoughts, and creating men, and the mechanics of creating men. The
testing of the premise brings about the antithesis.
An act of the flesh needs a parallel treatment of like-mind; in the restoration period,
the poet would find his challenger in a church. For the former act, committable
sin—taking of the flesh, outside a marriage—needs a proper judge. The antithesis is
present in the fourth distich, in which Wilmot crafts the persona of a priest in these
following critical lines: “But now methinks some formal band and beard / Takes me to
task. Come on, Sir I’m prepared…” (46-47). The word choices of band and beard allow for
the creation of a symbol that represents the priest, and their personification develops
from the symbol acting through the verbal phrase, “takes me to task”.
The fifth distich is a fragment of dialogue in the voice of the priest. The priest makes a
judgment call against the Wit in the following lines, “Likes me abundantly, but you take
care / Upon this point not to be too severe” (50-51). However, what is important to note,
the taste (that the priest does not have for the likes of the wit) is fragmentary. Further
comment is being made upon the Wit. Wilmot gives the priest the knowledge to know that
Wits are “severe” upon “points” and matters of opinion. Even more important to note is
that the “point” is in a manner of personification because with the application of logic it is
impossible to be severe on a point. In the next distich, quite similarly, God is a form of idea
or reason for personification (64-65). The seventh distich simply hashes out the opposite
senses of warmth and freezing having the reader “Dive into mysteries, then soaring pierce
/ The flaming limits of the universe. . . ” (68-69), and immediately following these
feelings the priest handles a major critical point of the academic aptitude of religion by
presenting abstractions asking the reader to “[s]earch heaven and hell, find
out what’s acted there, / [a]nd give the world true grounds of hope and fear” (70-71),
allowing for a response to the antithesis.
The counter-thesis, and re-working of the initial premise Wilmot creates follows in
the voice of the Wit. The re-introduction of the initial speaker allows the priest and the
wit to debate about religion. Immediately each couplet that follows is a critique of the
former antithesis of the priest. The first couplet treats sources of the religious material,
and both of them being of particular disdain: “From Patrick’s Pilgrim, Sibbs’ soliloquies; /
And ‘tis this very reason I despise” (74-75). A recount, of the feelings of hot and cold the
priest perceives in lines 68-69, morphs with the witty speaker’s experience, of having to
learn religion in school: “Borne on whose wings each heavy sot can pierce / The limits of
the boundless universe” (84-85). The abstraction of religious feelings “hope” and “fear”
from salvation or “heaven”, or from damnation and “hell”, transmit into the wit’s
negative personification of the abstraction of god: “’Tis this exalted power whose business
lies / In nonsense and impossibilities” (88-89). Therefore the speaker concludes that the
only way to live properly is not to think outside of the bounds of Earth, but to breathe and
be here, opposes somewhere else and all the hard work it takes to fabricate something
from nonexistence: “Our sphere of action is life’s happiness, / And he who thinks beyond,
thinks like an ass” (96-97). All of these first hand experiences and thoughts leads to a re-
evaluation of “reason” into instinct which is more akin to what the speaker perceives as
The Witty speaker further debates the priest ending “This plain distinction, Sir, your
doubt secures, / ‘Tis not true reason I despise, but yours” (110-11). Supplanting the word
choice of “doubt” creates a paradox, considering most would be arguing against the priest
on the grounds of religious faith. Considering the use of life experience in the evidence
and testimony of the Wit during the debate may suggest the Wit’s reason for thinking that
faith exists. This adds to the debate on Reason and Mankind, and clarifies that the Wit
believes the priest shares a kinship with himself in the doubts of their reason and their
species. While one has the luxury to turn away from Earth and posit about a future life, the
latter must stare into it and make peace with it. Yet, the concept of instinct is not fully
present until the following two lines.
The only other living things, besides mankind and their imaginations, are present in
the animal kingdom. The priest leaves the company of the wit, as the wit turns his thought
from teleological debate to “creatures”. The Wit forces itself to comprehend the
differences between man and animal, relaying a positive comment on the thought-to-be
inferior beings: “Those creatures are the wisest who attain / By surest means, the ends at
which they aim” (117-18). Since the Wit finds nothing in common with anything else in
existence, now it forces itself to enter commune with animals. Much like the wit satiates
its appetites, so do animals. Just as animals in a corner will snap and bite, the wit finds
something in common with reacting viciously when the wit itself is in a corner: “With
teeth and claws by nature armed, they hunt / Nature’s allowance to supply their want”
(113-14). It is in the uses of “allowance” and “want” that Wilmot matches what man’s
want is, perhaps out of moral or religion or any other ethical philosophies have here
before proven hindering.
The want to attack another living, innocent sentient being is a violation of moral code
and ethic. This leads to a life of destruction and chaos for the wit which upon its life states:
“Leading a tedious life in misery / Under laborious mean hypocrisy” (151-52). Recognizing
this weakness the Witty speaker concludes that man, at the core of its being, is an animal
asking the reader, “Look to the bottom of his vast design, / Wherein man’s wisdom,
power, and glory join” (153-54).
After a close read of the distiches present in the first part of the poem, seeing where
previous scholars abound in thoughts on form, psychology, language study, arrive at a
distinction of the poem ahead of its time in historic, and/ or speculation on sociologic
theory. A character persists throughout the poem. Postmodern and deconstructionist
theory and beliefs in this character argue that it needs to exist. The character must exist
because of the turmoil the character witnesses. This is a testament to the triumph of “A
Satyr against Reason and Mankind”. Where other scholarly attempts fail in recent years is
to explore how Wilmot chose to go against the common grain of form from the period.
Everything written, during the 17th century, follows the pattern of the heroic couplet,
not often turning from a precision with the form. Initially, Wilmot might come into
contempt for his doggerel sounding verses. The question (I would pose to the most critical
of scholars is) thus: what is the need for the persistent, heroic couplets, if what is so
triumphant in this piece is against the grain of popular 17th Century poems, against all
philosophy of the time, against that period’s popular opinion?
Many scholars see an over-arching nihilism present within the poem. The poet calls
not only for the absence of religion, not only the current state of man to return to a more
primitive time, when dealing in the treatment of creatures because man is a creature, but
the poet, also, enlivens an argument for the complete relishing of desire. The problem is
not the destruction of religion, but rather that the poet cannot unleash its vengeance like a
common animal upon another animal. As much as Wilmot might be tempted, he is
trumped by his own, humanist, morals and ethics. Therefore, everything Wilmot presents
within the poem calls for the reader to go against the common thread of society.
Presenting what the poet learns firsthand, readers have an account which gives them a
guide to refer to.
The close-reading of the poem necessitates a paper that will lead to the argument for
the unrhymed couplets to be the ground from which to arrive at literary analysis of John
Wilmot’s “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind”. This further sets him apart from the
wits and the restoration Poets of the time on his own merits, and without the trials of
biographical and critical contempt that the Wit in his period faces, which he blatantly
demands to end.
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29 November 2013, revised 21 May 2016