The Vanity of Human Wishes

by Samuel Johnson

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"To Point A Moral, Or Adorn A Tale"

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Context: In this 368-line poem Johnson develops the theme that "All is vanity" by describing the fortunes and fates of men in general and of contemporary kings, statesmen, politicians, and soldiers in particular. Lines 191-221 depict the career of Charles X (1682-1718) of Sweden, who sought through military conquest to control most of northern continental Europe. He defeated the Danes, the Poles, and the Saxons, but was himself defeated by the Russians under Peter the Great in 1709. After five years of exile in Turkey he finally died during a minor military campaign in Norway. Johnson begins the section by inquiring, "On what foundation stands the warrior's pride,/ How just his hopes let Swedish Charles decide. . . ." He then recounts the monarch's exploits and concludes:

But did not Chance at length her error mend?
Did no subverted empire mark his end?
Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound?
Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
His fall was destin'd to a barren strand,
A petty fortress, and a dubious hand;
He left the name, at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral, or adorn a tale.

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