The Vanity of Human Wishes Summary
by Samuel Johnson

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The Vanity of Human Wishes Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated was published eleven years after London. It, too, is a long poem. It consists of twenty-five stanzas of varying lengths, written in heroic couplets. It is also concerned with morality. Its rhetorical style is similar to that of London: It also has a speaker who uses the same kind of personifications, the same kind of pointed sentences, the same kind of figures of speech as Johnson’s earlier poem. Yet The Vanity of Human Wishes is a more philosophical poem than London. Its scope is larger and its manner is more mature.

The poem opens with a magniloquent invitation from a speaker stationed above and beyond the earth to “Let Observation, with extensive View/ Survey Mankind, from China to Peru” to see how, in the whole inhabited world, various patterns of destruction thwart human efforts. The eye can discern the wavering of an individual who pursues a dangerous solitary course, as well as the larger movements resulting from the sinking of whole nations. The scene encompasses the entire human condition, from humble to exalted. It also takes in the whole of human history, which, from earliest times, was preoccupied with a single question: Can human beings achieve security, fortune, and happiness? Until close to the end of the poem, the answer is no.

The reader is presented with a series of portraits, arranged in what seems to be an order of increasing mischance, of splendid and ambitious persons, such as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Charles XII of Sweden, and Xerxes I, who meet with defeat and shame by merest accident. These alternate with vignettes of nameless and typical figures who are also undone by life. Life’s anonymous victims include the scholar, like Johnson himself, whose desire for knowledge and fame is destroyed by “Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.” The rich old man who hopes to buy health and a fresh appetite for enjoyment instead acquires heirs who hope soon to get...

(The entire section is 504 words.)