The Vanity of Human Wishes

by Samuel Johnson

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What themes and examples does Samuel Johnson use to describe "vanity" in his poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes"?

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"The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated" is a long poem of 368 lines written by Samuel Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century. Just as the title implies, Johnson's poem is an imitation of "Satire X" by the Roman poet Juvenal. However, unlike Juvenal, Johnson emphasizes the importance of Christianity in a life of happiness and fulfillment.

Before we look at examples of vanity in Johnson's poem, let's define the term. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vanity as "Inflated pride in oneself or one's appearance, or, something that is vain, empty, or valueless." These two definitions blend together in Johnson's poem, as he emphasizes the emptiness of human desires and wishes through examples that include the pursuit of riches, political power, knowledge, long life, and sexual conquest.

The language of the poem is difficult to follow, but reading slowly and thoughtfully will help you find these themes and their respective examples of "wav'ring man, betray'd by vent'rous pride to tread the dreary paths without a guide." In other words, vanity causes people to be led astray from reasonable paths by their errant desires.

For instance, Johnson first writes of the vanity of riches. He points out that many people lust after gold, but it brings them no peace of mind:

Wealth heap'd on wealth, nor truth or safety buys

The dangers gather as the treasures rise.

He goes on to say that rich people can never find peace. During the day, their treasures are exposed to the view of others, while at night thieves can come out and steal from them:

Nor light nor darkness bring his pain relief

One shows the plunder, and one hides the thief.

Johnson goes through examples of several famous historical figures to illustrate the vanity of political power. These include Thomas Cardinal Wolsey; Charles XII of Sweden; and George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. All of these men desired power, but it left them empty. As Johnson points out:

Let hist'ry tell where rival kings command

And dubious title shakes the madded land

When statutes glean the refuse of the sword

How much more safe the vassal than the lord.

A vassal is a servant or a peasant. Johnson is here emphasizing that when you obtain power over others you only draw hatred and envy—not respect.

As far as intellectual prowess is concerned, Johnson writes that even if scholars master science and reason, they are not free from grief:

And pause awhile from letters to be wise;

There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,

Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.

Even people who aspire to long life are not exempt from sorrow, Johnson points out. Long life in itself does not bring happiness:

Life protracted is protracted woe.

Time hovers o're, impatient to destroy,

And shuts up all the passages of joy.

As we can see, a careful reading of the poem yields numerous themes and examples that Johnson uses to illustrate the futility of vanity.

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