Analysis of Rochester's A Satyr Against Mankind
Although John Wilmot, better known as the Earl of Rochester, wrote "A
Satyr Against Mankind" in 1679, his ideas are still relevant over three
centuries later. His foresight in satirizing humankind's use of reason
reinforces the intrinsic role of rationality in the human condition. But
implicit in his condemnation of rationality is an intentional fallacy—the
speaker of the poem uses reason in the same manner as those that he claims
to abhor. In doing this, Rochester widens the perimeter of his criticism
to encompass the speaker as well as those he admonishes, a movement that
magnifies the satire. Considering this, the anti-reason cadences of the
poem become exaggerated so greatly that the speaker's words must be taken
lightly. Accordingly, Rochester's intent in "A Satyr Against Mankind" is
to persuade readers to use their gift of reason humbly, a sentiment
expressed by making the poem's narrator one of the "unreasonably
reasonable" people of whom he speaks.
In the first line of the poem, the narrator immediately interjects a
handicap that accounts for his potential poetic ineptness: he is a man. He
establishes the poem's prevailing attitude that man is a "strange,
prodigious creature" (Wilmot 2), monstrous because of his vainglorious
rationality. Rochester is careful not to detach the narrator from the
humans he criticizes, but let him glow with a misleading aura of
objectivity, as if by acknowledging that he is a man with unjust pride of
reason he is partially exempt from the criticisms he bestows upon his
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... rational observations and conclusions.
A great thread of irony lashes together the speaker's arguments in "A
Satyr Against Mankind"—his use of reason undermines his disapproval of it.
As he deplores rational thinking as kindling for interpersonal discord and
fuel for useless pursuits of truthful resolve, he places himself in the
same position of those he criticizes. Rochester manipulates the narrator
with this paradox to heighten the satire, which ultimately exaggerates the
human tendency of proudly flouting rational aptitudes to praise those who
use reason with sensible restraint.
Wilmot, John. "A Satyr Against Mankind." Eighteenth-Century English
Literature. Ed. Geoffrey Tillotson. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
College Publishers, 1969. 33–36.