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The Well Read Poem

Dec 6, 2021

In this sixth season of The Well Read Poem, we will read a number of examples of classic satire in verse. English poetry is particularly rich in satire, and we will take a close look at some of the best instances of literary mockery that the past several centuries have bequeathed to us. Some of these are playfully teasing, while others are deliberately savage. All of them taken together, I trust, will provide a happy introduction to the fine art of verbal annihilation. Today’s poem is  a selection from “A Satire Against Mankind” by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Poem begins at timestamp 3:50.

Selection from “A Satire Against Mankind” 

by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Were I - who to my cost already am

One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man - 

A spirit free to choose for my own share

What sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear, 

I'd be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,

Or anything but that vain animal,

Who is so proud of being rational.

His senses are too gross; and he'll contrive 

A sixth, to contradict the other five;

And before certain instinct will prefer 

Reason, which fifty times for one does err. 

Reason, an ignis fatuus of the mind,

Which leaving light of nature, sense, behind,

Pathless and dangerous wand'ring ways it takes, 

Through Error's fenny bogs and thorny brakes;

Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain 

Mountains of whimsey's, heaped in his own brain; 

Stumbling from thought to thought, falls headlong down, 

Into Doubt's boundless sea where, like to drown,

Books bear him up awhile, and make him try 

To swim with bladders of Philosophy;

In hopes still to o'ertake the escaping light; 

The vapour dances, in his dancing sight,

Till spent, it leaves him to eternal night. 

Then old age and experience, hand in hand, 

Lead him to death, make him to understand, 

After a search so painful, and so long,

That all his life he has been in the wrong:

Huddled In dirt the reasoning engine lies,

Who was so proud, so witty, and so wise.