Upon Nothing

I used to live in Wilmot Street in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. I’d been resident there quite a while before I realised that the street was named after John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, one of the great metaphysical poets, who lived from 1647 to 1680 (although I doubt he ever lived in Bethnal Green).

John Wilmot was a lifelong atheist, bon viveur and generally dissolute individual who famously converted to Christianity on his deathbed, causing much debate about whether he actually meant it.

Much of Wilmot’s literary output is actually quite crude (and often pornographic). However, first published in 1679, Upon Nothing is  certainly among the cleverest of his works and is possibly the most important poem he wrote. It’s clearly a satire  on John Milton‘s Paradise Lost (especially Book II). Starting out with a dig at the vanity of man’s attempts to solve the problem of existence, it moves into a more general lampoon of fashion victims, pompous politicians and self-important persons generally.

Updated by a few hundred years, this poem could equally be applied to the programme of quantum cosmology advocated by, e.g. Alexander Vilenkin which tries to explain the existence of the Universe by quantum tunneling  ex nihilo.  I always have a problem understanding how the equations of quantum mechanics could exist, as it were, in advance of the material they try to describe. I suppose the point is that there’s really no such thing as nothing, but then I’m no metaphysicist…

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 thy fruitful emptiness’s hand,
Snatched men, beasts, birds, fire, air, and land.

Matter, the wickedest 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, assists thy 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 thy truth in private lies,

Yet this of thee the wise may freely say,
Thou from the virtuous nothing takest away,
And to be part of thee the wicked wisely pray.

Great Negative, how vainly would the wise
Inquire, 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 perfects, or destroys, the vast designs of Fate,

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?

Whist weighty Something modestly abstains
From princes’ coffers, and from statesmen’s brains,
And Nothing there like stately Nothing reigns,

Nothing, who dwellest 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,
Spaniard’s dispatch, Dane’s wit are mainly seen in thee.

The great man’s gratitude to his best friend,
King’s promises, whore’s vows, towards thee they bend,
Flow swiftly to thee, and in thee never end.

Incidentally, the first use of the word metaphysical to describe the particular “poetic style, characterized by wit, syntactic complexity, and the use of elaborate and intricate schemes of imagery to express abstract ideas and emotional states” was in 1693, by John Dryden who clearly meant it to be pejorative. Those whose philosophical inclination is in the direction of positivism would look down on the more orthodox meaning of the word metaphysical, i.e. meaning “of or relating to the  branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things or reality, including questions about being, substance, time and space, causation, change, and identity”. Dryden, however, was alluding to another meaning, now quite rare but prevalent in the 17th Century, that has something to do with magical or supernatural things beyond the bounds of respectable thought. Thomas More used the word “metaphysical” to attack William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English, for example.

You can find other examples of  metaphysical poetry in the collection I blogged about here.

6 Responses to “Upon Nothing”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “No such thing as nothing” is why I believe the Bible says simply that God created the world, rather than saying he created it ex nihilo. The Bible writers didn’t mean that God created it out of anything pre-existing (which is what Plato believed) but they didn’t want to get sidetracked into windy philosophical discussions about what “nothing” means. Even today we tend to thing of nothing as meaning nothing in 3-dimensional space, whereas genuine nothing doesn’t even have dimensionality.

    Writing a metaphysical poetic parody of qiuantum cosmology would be a greater challenge than clerihews…

    Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    Anton

    It’s very tricky, nothing. Space clearly isn’t just nothing as it possesses attributes of various types, such as dimensionality and curvature. At popular talks people (usually kids) ask “If the Universe is finite then what is outside it?”. Since the Universe by definition contains everything that exists, the only answer I can give to this question is “nothing” but I’m still not happy about “is” and “outside”…

    Wilmot’s interesting structure of three-line stanzas (two pentameters and a hexameter) with an AAA rhyme is crying out for a parody, but as you say it’s quite a task to do anything like as clever as his poem. Most of his other works aren’t nearly as interesting, primarily being straightforward heroic couplets in iambic pentameter.

    Peter

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    Peter,

    On a mundane level, Wilmot Street, Bethnal Green, is just somewhere I tend to go past on my way to Tesco’s supermarket. It’s unlikely that it has changed much since you lived there, although the Woolworth’s store at the end of it on Bethnal Green Road recently changed into an Iceland shop.

    Following your posting, I did a web search and found a item in an online book A History of the County of Middlesex that refers to land being leased by a David Wilmot. It doesn’t mention his connection to the Earl of Rochester, but it seems as though he brought the name Wilmot to the area. Perhaps he chose the name to honour Rochester?

    Curiously, my web search located a blog called Wilmot Street at the same blog server as you use. That is an odd coincidence.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Bryn

    There is a small road off Wilmot Street called Rochester Court. That made me think there was a connection with the Earl. While I was living in Wilmot Street I saw an episode of Inspector Morse (Last Bus to Woodstock ) in which there was some discussion of Wilmot and Rochester so I put two and two together.

    Peter

  5. “the word metaphysical to describe the particular “poetic style, characterized by wit, syntactic complexity, and the use of elaborate and intricate schemes of imagery to express abstract ideas and emotional states”” I guess in the 1970s the equivalent would be progressive-rock concept albums. 🙂

  6. […] Not long ago I put up an item containing a  poem by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Since I’ve been reading a collection […]

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