Monday, July 6, 2009

Upon Nothing

Aphra Behn based some of the most baudy characters in her plays on John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, whom she knew because they were both among the most notable figures of the court of Charles II. Wilmot was, in a court of outrageous hooligans, perhaps the most perverse of them all.

Yet, I am reminded of Salieri's complaint, that God should have chosen to give such talent to such a childish reprehensible fool as Mozart. (At least such a rephrehensible fool as the movie version of Mozart.) For Wilmot's talent as a wordsmith is great, and although most of his poetry will not find its way into this blog for reasons of taste, the ease with which he worked his ideas into verse is astonishing. It clearly was a gift from God, an ill used gift from God most of the time, but still a gift.

I think he was (at least sporadically) aware both of the source of his gift and also of the incongruous use he made of it. The following is a lovely piece of metaphysics, with slight hints at theological undertones. I love the satyric way that he has Nothing and Something interacting. Much was made of his deathbed conversion; it provided a text for evangelistic writing for at least two hundred years. And yet it is not entirely clear that it was anything more than another game that Wilmot played. That we won't know for sure until we meet him, if we do.


Nothing! thou elder brother even to Shade,
Thou hadst a being ere the world was made,
And (well fixt) 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,
Sever'd from thee, its sole original,
Into thy boundless self must undistinguish'd fall.

Yet something did thy mighty pow'r command,
And from thy fruitful emptiness's hand,
Snatched men, beasts, birds, fire, air and land.

Matter, the wickedest off-spring 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 thee did leagues combine,
To spoil thy peaceful realm, and ruin all thy line.

But turn-coat Time assists the foe in vain,
And, bribed by thee, asists thy short-lived reign,
And to thy hungry womb drives back thy slaves again.

Great Negative, how vainly would the wise
Inquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise,
Didst thou not stand to point their dull philosophies?

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


John W. May said...

I wonder if in the history of existentialism this poem was known (it’s literally creedal to their ‘philosophical’ position- especially when French existentialist are considered).

It was through Heidegger that I came to know about the Kyoto school of philosophy in Japan: they elaborated on the concept of Nothingness more than any other branch of Western philosophy that I know of. In fact- and some might readily dispute this- I’m convinced that the contemporary shape of German philosophy wouldn’t exist were it not for some of the leaders of that school (Nishida comes to mind).

Anyhow- existentialism aside- I’d love to know the theological background that influenced the character of this poem (I ask because the terminology and dualism presented in this piece seems very ‘Greekish’ to me … e.g. ‘brother even to Shade’, ‘primitive Nothing’, ‘dusky face’, ‘Form and Matter’).

Though dark, the poem is awesome! You post some of the coolest stuff … thanks.

Doug P. Baker said...

I'm afraid I have little info on his theological slant. His early life was Anglican, Protestant. But to what extent it ever filled his mind I don't know. At twelve he entered Oxford, where he spent his time drinking and learning about sex. At fourteen he got his Masters degree. The next three years were spent traveling Europe (seemingly sober). But on arriving back in Merry Old England he devoted himself, as he proudly said, to the "only important business of the age: Women, Politics, and Drinking."

That the Christian God continued to work in his mind over the next fifteen years is my own feeling, from slight twinges of conscience that seem to appear in some of his poems at what would seem to be inopportune times.

On his death bed (OK, he lay on his deathbed for two years before he finally got around to dying) he did indeed profess a profound conversion from his vulgar life to faith in Christ. One wants to believe it.

But a "proof" of his sincere conversion is this poem, written in his last year.


Tired with the noisome follies of the age
And weary of my part, I quit the stage;
For who in Life's dull farce a part would bear
Where rogues, whores, bawds, all the head actors are?
Long I with charitable malice strove,
Lashing the Court those vermin to remove.
Yet though my life has unsuccessful been
(For who can this Augean stable clean),
My generous end I will pursue in death
And at mankind rail with my parting breath.

The trouble with this "proof" is that it is all a lie. Nobody else remembered him ever trying to purify the court. In fact he was always the instigator who led Charles II into his greatest follies. Were it not for Wilmot, Charles II might almost have been a king.

So the jury (the human jury that is) is still out on that count.

But his education at home and at Oxford was typical Protestant, Reformed, Anglican. Of course any real education at the time included the classics, in which Homer and the Greeks played a great part. You are quite right that there are many Greek allusions in this poem.

But Greek mythology was not considered antithetical to Christian doctrine. Consider what enormous use Milton makes of the Greek gods in Paradise Lost! They play their part, and not only in hell.

Where I hear in this poem the greatest hint of Wilmot's looking beyond creation and his own life to a Creator is in what sound to my like highly ironic lines. Of course it may be only my own notions that make them sound ironic.

Yet something did thy mighty pow'r command,
And from thy fruitful emtiness's hand,
Snatched men, beasts, birds, fire, air and land.

Death seems the ultimate end, yet Donne mocks it because he sees someone greater still who, from Death snatches Life. (Death Be Not Proud) So too, I think, Wilmot is here mocking Nothingness, because he sees someone who from Nothing has formed all that is, even the poet himself. That the poet was not on good terms with the one who did that is another matter.

So, John, all this to say that I really don't know anything about Wilmot's real theological understanding. Wish I did, but all is really conjecture. The main thing I know is that whatever he understood, he tried to ignore for the vast majority of his life.

Cass said...

An interesting afternoon's work might be to compare/contrast the conceit of Nothing in this piece and that described in the philosophy of Scotus Eriugena, in his Periphyseon.
There, God Himself is understood to have originated from Nothing.
I think Eriugena's attempt at articulating a Christian Neo-Platonic metaphysics goes far astray, as have thought many other steadfast Christians, nevertheless, that is what he was attempting. I wonder what was Wilmot's familiarity with the Periphyseon.