The Vanity of Human Wishes

by Samuel Johnson

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"What Ills From Beauty Spring"

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Context: Samuel Johnson, looking at the world and finding all the things that people most desire to be delusions and vanities, in turn assails wealth, which in its insecurity produces only fear and anxiety; high place in politics, which brings forth a host of sycophantic beggars while the holder of office is in the ascendant but which causes them to fall away when adversity sets in; wide and deep learning, which leads to poverty and woe and is never appreciated until the wise man is dead; military glory, which causes the general himself and, indeed, all the world to think him almost a god so long as he is winning his battles but which can depart forever with the losing of but one battle and leave him for all time an object of contempt; long life, which leads to dotage, ingratitude of dependents, miserliness, and general anxiety; a seemingly happy prime of life, which is attended by the sickness of near relatives, the death of kin, and gradual aging into senility; and beauty. Every mother desires her daughter to be beautiful, but the fairness of the daughters may lead them into becoming great men's mistresses, and as such they will lead lives of misery. But if this situation does not develop, the beautiful girl is worried by her rival beauties, her lover seeks to undermine her virtue, and she generally ends her career betrayed, despised, and distressed:

The teeming mother, anxious for her race,
Begs for each birth the fortune of a face;
Yet Vane could tell what ills from beauty spring;
And Sedley cursed the form that pleased a king.
Ye nymphs of rosy lips and radiant eyes,
Whom Pleasure keeps too busy to be wise,
Whom Joys with soft varieties invite,
By day the frolic, and the dance by night;
Who frown with vanity, who smile with art,
And ask the latest fashion of the heart;
What care, what rules your heedless charms shall save,
Each nymph your rival, and each youth your slave?
Against your fame with Fondness Hate combines,
The rival batters, and the lover mines.
With distant voice neglected Virtue calls,
Less heard, and less, the faint remonstrance falls;
Tired with contempt, she quits the slippery reign
And Pride and Prudence take her seat in vain.

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