"Poetry is a mirror held up to nature and life." Discuss with reference to Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes."

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

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This satirical poem certainly seeks to reflect mankind in all of its folly rather than try to distort or beautify the rather crass reality of man's mistakes. The premise of the poem is that man is unable to discern what is good for it and ends up asking for the wrong things that actually bring sadness and tragedy rather than happiness. The central theme of the poem is therefore the ridiculous nature of man's prayers. Johnson, from the very start of this poem, presents a distinctly unflattering image of man and his folly, as indicated by the following quote:

How rarely Reason guides the stubborn Choice,
Rules the bold Hand, or prompts the suppliant Voice,
How Nations sink, by darling Schemes oppres'd,
When Vengeance listens to the Fool's Request.

Here the speaker argues that humans have free will but abuse it by not making decisions and choices that are governed by reason and how generally humans let their judgement be clouded by emotions such as "Vengeance" that lead to tragedy, referenced in the phrase "How Nations sink." Writers such as Johnson thought that poetry should not present a false image, and certainly this poem seeks to expose the true folly of man in the way that it exposes relentlessly man's folly and inability to know what is good for himself.

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