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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 9. Rochester as a Satirist: The Satire against Mankind

His masterpiece, without doubt, is A Satire against Mankind. Imitated from Boileau, it bears in every line the impress of Rochester’s mind. The energy of its thought and style separates it sharply from its original, and, if you compare the two works, you may find a clue to the difference between French and English. The one is marked by order, moderation, and good sense. The other moves impetuous like a torrent, and sweeps out of its way the prejudices of all time. In cynical, closely argued contempt of man this satire is unmatched; in expression, it surpasses the most vivid of Rochester’s works. The denunciation of reason,

  • an ignis fatuus of the mind,
  • Which leaves the light of Nature, Sense, behind,
  • is a purple passage of English poetry, in which the optimist can take no delight. Its conclusion is the very quintessence of hopelessness.
  • The misguided follower climbs with pain
  • Mountains of Whimsies heaped in his own brain;
  • Then old Age, and Experience, hand in hand,
  • Lead him to Death, and make him understand,
  • After a Search so painful, and so long,
  • That all his life he has been in the wrong.
  • Like many of his contemporaries, Rochester followed Horace in making verse a vehicle of criticism. His “Allusion to the Tenth Satire of the First Book” may be said to contain his literary preferences. With candour and sound judgment, he characterises the most eminent of his contemporaries. He declines to be “blindly partial” to Dryden, defends Jonson and Shakespeare against detraction, ridicules the “tedious scenes” of Crowne, whom he had used as the instrument of his jealousy, and detects a sheer original in Etherege, who returned the compliment by painting him as Dorimant. He finds the right epithets for “hasty Shadwell” and “slow Wycherley,” chooses Buckhurst for pointed satire, and extols the “gentle prevailing art” of Sir Charles Sedley. For the uncritical populace, he expresses his frank contempt. “I loathe the rabble,” says he, “’t is enough for me”

  • If Sedley, Shadwell, Sheppard, Wycherley,
  • Godolphin, Butler, Buckhurst, Buckingham
  • Approve my Sense, I count their Censure Fame.
  • It is Rochester’s added distinction that, almost alone in his age, he wrote lyrics touched with feeling, even with passion. Though, at times, he makes sport of his own inconstancy, though, like the rest, he rimes “kisses” with “blisses” and “heart” with “smart,” he could yet write

  • An Age in her Embraces past,
  • Would seem a Winter’s Day;
  • or, still better, those lines to his mistress, which begin, “Why dost thou shade thy lovely face,” and which none of his fellows approached. Here, the metre is as far beyond their reach as the emotion:
  • Thou art my Way: I wander if thou fly.
  • Thou art my Light: if hid, how blind am I.
  • Thou art my Life: if thou withdraw’st, I die.
  • Nor should ever be forgotten that masterpiece of heroic frony The Maim’d Debauchee, who, like a brave admiral, crawling to the top of an adjacent hill, beholds the battle maintained, “when fleets of glasses sail around the board.” You can but say of it, as of much else, that it bears the stamp of Rochester’s vigour and sincerity in every line, and that he alone could have written it.