Johnson's poem, even before we examine it more closely stanza by stanza, can be divided into three basic sections. The first presents his general theme, the second gives illustrations of the theme throughout history, and the last is a summary in which the moral of the poem is restated more forcefully, as well as offers a kind of solution to the impediments to man's happiness which have been described so fully. (In my quotations I've decided to modernize, for the most part, Johnson's spelling and punctuation.)
In the first stanza, Johnson indicates that people are usually deluded in believing their wishes can be fulfilled. This happens on the personal level and the collective: "How nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed." The theme of political folly is developed much more extensively as the poem goes on. Stanza 2 deals with the folly of greed: "But scarce observed the knowing and the bold / Fall in the general massacre of gold," and so on. Stanza 3 then begins to focus more on the destructive folly of world leaders: "Let history tell where rival kings command, / And dubious title shakes the maddened land."
At this point, Johnson reaches a new level of specificity, in the next several stanzas imagining what Democritus, if transported from antiquity to the present, would think of the political goings-on in Britain. Though he has now begun, in the overall articulation of his theme, to particularize, he still at first writes about Britain in general, with the intention of indicting her politicians as having lost an honesty they possessed in the past: "Through Freedom's sons no more remonstrance rings, / Degrading nobles and controlling kings;/Our supple tribes repress their patriot throats,/And ask no questions but the price of votes"—an obvious reference to bribe-taking.
What follows, in the stanzas beginning with "In full-blown dignity, see Wolsey stand, / Law in his voice and fortune in his hand" is an enumeration of English statesmen (Wolsey was a cardinal in Henry VIII's administration who rose to great power and fell) who illustrate Johnson's theme: Villiers, Harley, Wentworth, Bodley. But the focus broadens to the European world as a whole and even to the fate of a man of science such as Galileo, who was forced to recant his belief in the Copernican view of the solar system when confronted by the Inquisition. In other words, even a man with the "pure" aims of a scholar is vain in his wish that he will be successful and not ultimately destroyed by the forces surrounding him.
In the stanza beginning "The festal blazes, the triumphal show, / The ravished standard, and the captive foe" Johnson's purpose is to debunk the glory of military success, to expose the vanity of thinking that victory in war accomplishes anything. And then, the specificity of his indictment is heightened with a long account of Charles XII of Sweden, who attempted to conquer Russia and was defeated. More examples from recent European history follow: "The bold Bavarian, in...
a luckless hour, / Tries the dread summits of Cesarean power." This is a reference to the War of the Austrian Succession, fought in the 1740s, in which the Elector Charles Albert of Bavaria believed he should succeed Charles VI as Holy Roman Emperor, instead of the latter's daughter Maria Theresa.
Johnson next deals with the vanity of those who wish to live long lives: "Enlarge my life with multitude of days, / In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays," debunking this by counting off all the ills, both emotional and physical, that torment people in old age,. He concludes with this couplet about two very famous men of the time, one a military leader, and one a great writer, who ended up with (what we now know as) dementia: "From Marlborough's eyes the streams of dotage flow, / And Swift expires a driveler and a show." One more stanza ("The teeming mother, anxious for her race/Begs for each birth the fortune of a face") deals with a specific manifestation of the general theme of how vain our wishes are, in this case the desire to maintain physical beauty.
Johnson then concludes with what I have described as the third section overall, a kind of summary of the theme and the moral to which it points: "Where then shall hope and fear their objects find? / Must dull suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?" His answer, simply, is the injunction to the reader:
Still raise for good the supplicating voice / But leave to heaven the measure and the choice / Safe in his power, whose eyes discern afar / The secret ambush of a specious prayer, / Implore his aid, in his decisions rest, / Secure whate'er he gives, he gives the best.
In the end, Johnson is advising submission to the will of God, the acceptance of what God grants, and the uselessness of wishing for more.
Johnson was a devout member of the Church of England, and all of his writings can be said to have a religious message at their core. Though Johnson was later critical, in his Lives of the English Poets, of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, which was published about 15 years before The Vanity of Human Wishes,Johnson's theme here of the acceptance of God's plan is quite similar to Pope's message. Also, one must observe that, although Johnson's poem is an updating of the Roman satirist Juvenal's Tenth Satire, and is itself now about 270 years old, the points regarding corrupt politicians and the futility of war are still valid today, and there are many examples of the same follies taking place in our own time.