The Vanity of Human Wishes

by Samuel Johnson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated was published eleven years after London. It, too, is a long poem. It consists of twenty-five stanzas of varying lengths, written in heroic couplets. It is also concerned with morality. Its rhetorical style is similar to that of London: It also has a speaker who uses the same kind of personifications, the same kind of pointed sentences, the same kind of figures of speech as Johnson’s earlier poem. Yet The Vanity of Human Wishes is a more philosophical poem than London. Its scope is larger and its manner is more mature.

The poem opens with a magniloquent invitation from a speaker stationed above and beyond the earth to “Let Observation, with extensive View/ Survey Mankind, from China to Peru” to see how, in the whole inhabited world, various patterns of destruction thwart human efforts. The eye can discern the wavering of an individual who pursues a dangerous solitary course, as well as the larger movements resulting from the sinking of whole nations. The scene encompasses the entire human condition, from humble to exalted. It also takes in the whole of human history, which, from earliest times, was preoccupied with a single question: Can human beings achieve security, fortune, and happiness? Until close to the end of the poem, the answer is no.

The reader is presented with a series of portraits, arranged in what seems to be an order of increasing mischance, of splendid and ambitious persons, such as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Charles XII of Sweden, and Xerxes I, who meet with defeat and shame by merest accident. These alternate with vignettes of nameless and typical figures who are also undone by life. Life’s anonymous victims include the scholar, like Johnson himself, whose desire for knowledge and fame is destroyed by “Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.” The rich old man who hopes to buy health and a fresh appetite for enjoyment instead acquires heirs who hope soon to get their hands on his estate. The ambitious mother who thought beauty, rather than virtue, would help her children to advance sees them destroyed because of it.

The multiplication of images, which is accompanied by an increasing complexity of language, also suggests rising tension. The compression of human problems in the question near the end of the poem, “Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,/ Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?” indicates not merely the compounded horror of the human condition but also a tension that is nearly unbearable. The distance between the speaker and the reader is diminished. Also, the distance from what the speaker and the reader see is eliminated, so that both are on the verge of the fate that they witness.

For Johnson, the only possible answer is found in resignation based on religious hope and prayer that asks for love, patience, and faith. With these three, “celestial wisdom” creates the gift of calm and happiness that the human mind cannot obtain on its own.

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