The Vanity of Human Wishes

by Samuel Johnson

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"Toil, Envy, Want, The Patron, And The Jail"

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Context: The poet assails the love of wealth and tells how those who possess it live in fear of losing it, whereas the poor have little dread from confiscation and robbery. Those who strive for political power lead equally insecure and anxious lives. The rising politician is courted by suppliants, but when he begins to decline he is scorned by those who courted his favors. Cardinal Wolsey is the type of statesman who rises to supreme power, only to see it evaporate. He acquired so much power that there was none left to seize, but at that point his king began to frown, and he was ruined. The course of the young soldier is no better; he studies to make himself famous, but he should pause to contemplate the scholar's rewards, which are nothing but hardship. Johnson himself toiled mightily at his literary projects and lived in abject want during most of his life. The support of his supposed patron, Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, was so small during the time of the composition of the Dictionary that Johnson came to loathe the very name of patron. Johnson at one time was in debtors' prison. Some of his general bitterness is expressed as follows:

Yet should thy soul indulge the generous heat
Till captive science yields her last retreat;
Should reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
And pour on misty doubt resistless day;
Should no false kindness lure to loose delight,
Nor praise relax, nor difficulty fright;
Should tempting novelty thy cell refrain,
And sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;
Should beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a lettered heart;
Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;
Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee.
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
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.

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