What is the subject matter of the poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes'' by Samuel Johnson?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This excellent work is actually an imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal, and is a critique of the various "vanities" of humans and how they constantly desire what will only bring them harm in the end, and seem unable to learn from this. Johnson turns his gaze on various human ambitions that he sees as being "vanity," such as learning, power, military glory and beauty, and cites the examples of various historical figures as to why it is vanity to wish for such things. The overall conclusion of the poem suggests Johnson's feelings about wishing for what we don't have:

Still raise for good the supplicating voice,

But leave to heav'n the measure and the choice.

Johnson, after examining the various vanities that humans long for, finally suggests that it is alright to ask God for what we want, but at the end of the day it is important to trust God and his wisdom in terms of what he actually bestows, and how much. If humans were able to give themselves what they wanted, chaos would descend on the species, Johnson suggests.


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