The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes imitates, as its subtitle states, Juvenal’s tenth satire. The 368 lines of iambic pentameter in rhymed couplets do not claim to provide an exact translation but rather to apply the poem to eighteenth century England. While Johnson therefore feels free to modernize the allusions, he follows his model closely. The poem opens with the proposition that people ask for the wrong things and points out the folly of the first common request, riches. An interlude follows during which the poet invokes Democritus, known as the “laughing philosopher” because of his amusement at human folly. Here Johnson repeats the poem’s central idea, the absurdity of people’s prayers.

The poem then resumes its catalog of vain desires. Many seek political power, but no one can remain supreme for long (lines 73-90). As proof of this general proposition, Johnson, after attacking parliamentary corruption (lines 91-98), offers the example of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the great favorite of Henry VIII. Wolsey enjoyed preeminence in church and state but fell from power and died, abandoned, in a monastery (lines 99-120). Johnson then offers several other, shorter examples of powerful men who have lost their positions, even their lives, in the vain pursuit of political success (lines 129-134).

Wisdom, though one of the four pagan virtues, also yields no joy (lines 135-173). The beginning student confronts many...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In this philosophical poem, Johnson often relies on that “grandeur of generality” that he said he missed in the poetry of Abraham Cowley. Even in his portraits, where he might detail particulars (as Juvenal does), he prefers to let the reader imagine the specifics. He does, however, employ a number of image patterns—of battles, disease, animals, the flux of time, and fire—to develop his argument. Often, the metaphors are implied; when he writes, “Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy” (line 259), he is alluding to time as a vulture. This avian imagery is more explicit earlier in the poem when he describes “Rebellion’s vengeful talons [that seize] on Laud” (line 168).

Johnson constructs his argument through synecdoche, offering a few examples to stand for the infinite number of wishes one might make. So, too, the few people cited suggest the many others the reader can imagine. Preferring the general to the specific, Johnson finds synecdoche a convenient device for description. He does not paint a beautiful face but offers “rosy lips and radiant eyes” (line 323). The gifts of nature are suggested by “The fruits autumnal, and the vernal flower” (line 262).

Personification abounds from the first line, in which Observation surveys humankind, to the last: “Wisdom calms the mind/ And makes the happiness she does not find” (lines 367-368). Hope, fear, desire, and hate spread their snares. Preferment has a gate, History...

(The entire section is 521 words.)