Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

In the thirty-second issue of his periodical, The Rambler (1750), Johnson wrote, “The armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side; the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armour which reason can supply, will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them.” This same tragic sense pervades The Vanity of Human Wishes; indeed, the controlling metaphor of the Rambler passage is an elaboration on the poem’s central thesis: “Fate wings with every wish the afflictive dart” (line 15). As Johnson implies through his use of antithesis, wealth, power, learning, glory, longevity, beauty—all that this world offers—prove vain because these things deceive. Johnson does not suggest that if they could endure they would yield happiness. The poem recognizes that the things of this world pass away and laments the mutability of existence. Even when these gifts are at their greatest, though, they breed discontent. The more the wealth, the less the tranquillity of the possessor; the more beautiful the woman, the more likely she is to fall “betray’d, despis’d, distress’d” (line 341).

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The gifts are flawed, as are those who seek them. At the beginning of the poem, Johnson speaks of “wavering man” (line 7). Human happiness is ultimately impossible, because one always wants more than what one has. Sweden’s Charles XII cannot rest until all is his “beneath the polar sky” (line 204). Wolsey gains so much power that “conquest unresisted ceased to please” (line 107). The irony in the poem reflects the irony of the world and its inhabitants.

Although Johnson draws on Juvenal and invokes Democritus, his poem is less satire than tragedy. Whereas the original, for example, mocks the old man with his dripping nose and toothless gums, the one-eyed Hannibal riding his last surviving elephant, Johnson pities his subjects. The characters he paints are heroic, sympathetic though fatally flawed. Satire posits distance from, tragedy identification with, the figures portrayed, and Johnson felt kinship with those in the poem: Reading the section on the scholar at the home of Mrs. Henry Thrale, Johnson burst into tears.

As Johnson parts company with Juvenal in his outlook on the world, so, too, does he differ in his solution for coping with the evils inherent in existence. For Juvenal, a stoic resignation and endurance are the best one can achieve. Johnson had much of the antique Roman in him, but he was also devoutly Christian. The title of the poem suggests Ecclesiastes’ pronouncement that all is vanity; the work itself embraces the Augustinian view that while worldly goods cannot bring happiness, religion can. “Our heart is restless until it rests in thee,” Saint Augustine wrote in the opening passage of his Confessions (397-400 c.e.), and so Johnson concludes. Trusting in divine Providence to shape one’s ends, seeking those things that abide—faith, hope, and love—one can achieve the tranquil mind that eludes those who seek happiness in the wrong places.

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