The Vanity of Human Wishes

by Samuel Johnson

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Can you explain each stanza of Samuel Johnson's "Vanity of Human Wishes"?

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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.

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Please paraphrase the first ten lines of the poem ''The Vanity of Human Wishes'' by Samuel Johnson.

As the subtitle indicates, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is an imitation/homage to Juvenal's Tenth Satire. Both poems have a moral agenda and Johnson and Juvenal satirize the sins (i.e., pride, pursuit of wealth, greed, etc.) of their respective times.

The speaker begins the poem describing an objective or even God-like point of view. "Let Observation, with extensive view, / Survey mankind, from China to Peru;" (1-2). The speaker is indicating that this will be a comprehensive view of everything from the historical movements of nations and continents to emperors all the way down to the motivations of each individual:

Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,

And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;

The speaker goes on to say that everyone pursues his/her hopes, fears, desires and hate. In pursuing these goals, everyone has obstacles and temptations to face en route to each of our respective fates. The "clouded maze of fate" is "clouded" because these obstacles and temptations distort our paths.

When a person chooses pride over virtue, it is as if this person proceeds without a (moral or logical) guide. Thus, the person is deluded (confused or misled) by these "treacherous phantoms" (choices which mislead).

The tenth line is a bit confusing. Basically, if one "shuns fancied ills," this seems to mean that one avoids an immoral temptation and thus, "chases airy good" meaning the righteous path.

The subsequent lines express a skeptical outlook; that is, to say it is rare that people and nations make reasonable, ethical, or "good" choices. The rest of the poem is similarly skeptical in its satire but the end does offer some hope.

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Please analyze the first twenty lines of the poem '' The Vanity of Human Wishes''  by Samuel Johnson?

The opening two lines of "The Vanity of Human Wishes" by Samuel Johnson indicate one taking a broad view of the world, and its societies, and the actions of its people. This broad view is to get an overview and understanding of what man is really all about - and what the toil of human beings is on the earth, as well as what this toil results in for individuals.

In the next two lines of the first twenty lines of the poem, the poet conveys the thought that one can look at the toil and strife in life, and see that men and women often have busy lives in this crowded world. He's alluding to mankind's striving to achieve goals and getting caught up in our 'striving.'

Johnson then indicates that our hopes, fears, dreams, desires, and more have a direct affect on our lives. Our station in life is dependent in part on our internal thoughts, which lead to actions - our thoughts and actions have consequences - for better or for worse. The poet then indicates that our pride leads us into unguided actions that can result in less than ideal results:

    Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride

    To tread the dreary paths without a guide,

Johnson further indicates that human beings are susceptible to negative outside influences as we dally with good and evil:

     As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude,

Johnson says that people do not always use sound reasoning when making choices and living their lives. Nations, whole societies, can and do falter with unsound schemes. Individuals and nations often are foolish and let vengeance control their thoughts and actions, which can result in terrible results. We may be courageous at times, but it's an "impetuous" courage, not based on wisdom, but courage that is more passion than reasoned thought based on the analysis of situations. The poet states that our wishes are often influenced by the hand of fate, which can hamper our plans. In addition, he concludes that our passionate, but not always sound actions, can lead us into the fire of tragedy and/or despair.

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Please analyze the first fifteen lines of the poem '' The Vanity of Human Wishes'' by Samuel Johnson.

This satirical poem, as the title suggests, comments upon the ways in which human wishes are actually very unwise and create far more problems than humans ever expect or imagine, but because of the vanity of humans, they are unable to identify why their wishes would have such a catastrophic impact on them. The first stanza of this poem therefore introduces this theme, recognising how this tendency to wish for things that are actually not good for humans is something that is universal. Note the first four lines:

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crowded Life;

Observation is personified, as are many abstract qualities, as it is imagined to be a character examining the entire globe and watching the "busy Scenes of crowded Life" in order to identify the way in which human wishes are always based on vain desires. A number of different examples follow, including "How rarely Reason guides the stubborn Choice" and "How nations sink, by darling Schemes oppress'd." Each example gives the reader further proof of what Observation has noted: it is a most lamentable human instinct to want and desire what will actually be bad for them in the long term.

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Please explain the first ten lines of the Poem ''The Vanity of Human Wishes'' by Samuel Johnson.

The first ten lines of this satirical poem by Samuel Johnson basically introduce what the rest of the poem is all about and the focus of the text. Johnson uses personification in depicting "Observation" as a character examining human nature the world over, from "China to Peru," as Observation surveys mankind and watches the "busy Scenes of Crowded life." As the title suggests, what Observation sees is ample evidence of the "vanity of human wishes," which is defined in these lines as a propensity to always want things that will actually negatively impact them:

Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O'er spread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav'ring Man, betray'd by vent'rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach'rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

Note how man is depicted in these lines. He is "wav'ring" and "betray'd" by his "Pride" to pursue things that he feels will be good for him but actually are insubstantial. Johnson in these first ten lines therefore depicts man as lacking the judgement to decide what is best for him, and as a result of his "vanities" he always yearns or tries to acquire things that will actually damage him in the long run.

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Please explain the first twenty lines in the poem '' The Vanity of Human Wishes''?

Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" explains how the speaker believes that all of mankind needs to be observed in order to identify the problems associated with humanity.

The first twenty lines of the text prove to define life as busy, crowded, and filled with a spectrum of different emotions. Diving further into the desires of mankind, the speaker states that mankind is "betray'd by venturous pride" (7). In fact, pride seems to be responsible for leading all of mankind astray and without a guide.

Soon after, the speaker states that mankind fails to use reason enough in life. Instead, mankind's choices are lead by vengeance and treacherous phantoms. At the end of the stanza, the speaker states that everything which should matter (nature and art) does not. Instead, the only thing which matters is the fiery death which follows pride and "clouded fate."

Essentially, the speaker is raising the reader's awareness about the ills of mankind. Mankind, driven by busy, prideful, and vengeance filled lives, is doomed to death based upon their inability to see what really matters in life. By ignoring what really matters, mankind is destined to be forsaken by others and themselves.

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