The Vanity of Human Wishes

 Overview

We’ve only got a small section of this poem in our collection. The full poem is a whopping 25 stanzas and is generally acknowledged to be one of the seminal pieces of English poetry.

Our little slice is the beginning of the poem. Johnson sets out the human condition of emotional affliction, which leads us astray. Our hopes and dreams conjure our fears and leave us constantly striving, but never contented with our lot.  When emotion takes over, reason buggers off.

Initially Johnson doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered about this condition, but in the second he becomes scathing about how we are also led astray by our greed and thirst for gold – presumably something he thinks we want to pursue making our wishes come true.

Mini-Glossary
vanity – (1) worthless or useless; (2)thinking only about yourself;
toil – difficult work;
strife – worries or concerns;
snares – traps used for hunting;
wav’ring – (wavering) shaking with fear;
ven’rous –  (venereous) exciting, passionate;
suppliant – somebody who is pleading for something, a beggar;
impetuous – thoughtless actions;
precipitates – brings on.

The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, Imitated

Let observation with extensive view,
Survey man kind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wav’ring man, betray’d by ven’rous pride
To read the dreary paths without a guide,
As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good.
How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice,
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d,
When vengeance listens to the fool’s request.
Fate wings with ev’ry wish th’ afflictive dart,
Each gift of nature, and each grace of art,
With fatal heat impetuous courage glows,
With fatal sweetness elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the speaker’s pow’rful breath,
And restless fire precipitates on death.

               But scarce observ’d the knowing and the bold,
Fall in the gen’ral massacre of gold;
Wide-wasting pest! That rages unconfin’d,
And crowds with crimes the records of mankind,
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heap’d on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys,
The dangers gather as the treasures rise.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Samuel Johnson is a hugely important literary figure. Not only has he written some fine poetry, been the subject of one of the first comprehensive biographies, but he is the father of the dictionary. I know that the dictionary can be something of a dull read dull, but just think of its importance and usefulness.

Anyway, his life story has very little connection with the ideas within the poem so I am going to outsource biographical information to Wikipedia on this occasion and focus on important contextual information specifically relating to the poem.  You may be interested to know that this poem was composed while working on the dictionary, possibly to give his mind a bit of a break from tedium.

As it states above the poem, this is an imitation of a poem written by the Roman poet, Juvenal. However, Juvenal’s poem, written in the 1st century AD is a little bit more judgemental and cruel towards its subject – the Carthaginian general Hannibal – than Johnson is to his –  Charles XII of Sweden.

In our small snippet of the poem we don’t actually get onto comment on a specific figure, only focusing on the general condition of human folly that is the subject of both works. Both poems preach the value of abandoning our self-centred wishes and desires and instead place our trust in the hands of the divine. Johnson explores this in his final stanza – ‘But leave Heav’n the measure and the choice’ – although we could probably reach that conclusion from his negative portrayal of what human vanity leads to in these two opening stanzas.

 

 Themes

I suppose this would be the first poem in this section to mainly fall into the Wisdom bit of Part 4’s title. Johnson explores how humans by nature pursue their own interests and allow themselves to be guided – or rather misguided – by passionate emotions.

Content

I will keep this short as each stanza really just develops the same idea in greater and greater depth.

We open with a general judgement on all humanity. Man is filled with trouble and strife, which Johnson puts down to the pitfalls associated with our determination to follow the twin passions of desire and hate, and pursue our hopes or avoid our fears. Life is presented as being tough, but made even tougher thanks to our reckless emotions leading us astray.

The second stanza moves on from discussing how our wishes and emotions lead us astray and now presents the corruption that money or greed has upon humanity. Johnson tells us that greed is unstoppable or unchallenged by the world, each man will abandon principle or reason in order to get their hands on gold. However, the stanza ends with a reflection upon this leading only to more trouble and worries.

Language and techniques

I’d run out of space in my notebook, so I am a bit scared I might ramble on forever here. Stop me if I am boring you; I will try to be good.

The title here gives us a clear understanding of the message of the poem. Although nowadays we more commonly associate ‘vanity’ with being a bit self-opposed, it is used here to mean worthless. Thus we have a very bleak outlook on ‘human wishes’ or in other words or desires. Johnson tells us all our hopes, dreams and wishes are worthless… well, thanks :(.

Haha! Don’t worry, it’s okay! He’s only kidding. Well, sort of.

This is an imitation of Juvenal’s satire and as a such is basically meant to poke fun at the human condition. It’s like when people laugh at your hopeless romantic efforts; they aren’t really being horrible, they are just having a bit of fun… at your expense. Johnson is just having fun at the expense of… the whole of humanity. Right, hmmm.

We know from the title that this is being presented as a general criticism/satire upon mankind, but if we were in any doubt he tells us that his ideas would be reflected should we ‘Survey man kind, from China to Peru’. Although you can travel from China to Peru across the ocean without having to go around any other countries, Johnson uses these two countries to represent the opposite ends of the Earth (for reason of rhyme and rhythm primarily) and thus captures the entirety of mankind within his survey.

He then proceeds to paint a bleak picture of our lot in the world. We are told to notice the ‘anxious toil’ and ‘eager strife’, which immediately presents us with an image of humans dealing with worries, troubles and having to struggle in life. You could probably comment on a pessimistic semantic field that links the passionate emotions consistently to death and suffering.

Next we have a neat piece of imagery, which takes us to the ‘clouded maze of fate’ that is clearly confusing and it is made difficult for all of us to find the right path. Within this maze the polar opposite spikes of emotion, ‘desire and hate’, and the polar opposite motivations or perspective, ‘hope and fear’, are described as ‘snares’ ready to trap us or cause us pain.

This pair of polar opposites can be linked directly to the idea of human wishes. These are strong emotional drivers for our actions, but in this poem they are metaphorically referred to as ‘treach’rous phantoms’ or ghosts who ‘betray’ us and seek to guide us from the right path and ‘delude’ us as to the purpose of our lives.

These phantoms are presented in the form of fear through the ‘wav’ring man’ who shakes with terror, and hope by ‘ven’rous pride’ with one who lets their excitement at the prospect of fulfilling their hopes cloud their judgement. We are told that these emotions make us abandon our ‘guide’, which could relate to either dedicating ourselves to God, as the end of the full poem indicates, or guiding ourselves with reason as suggested in the eleventh line of this stanza.

At the end of the tenth line, we find our first full stop – phew! Johnson now tells us that ‘rarely reason guides’ our choices and instead these passions make us continue to make the ‘stubborn choice’, which flies in the face of reason. Johnson presents the ‘bold hand’ as someone gambling reason in favour of hopeful ambition. Within the same line he also mentions the ‘prompts of the suppliant voice’. A suppliant can be understood to be a beggar and thus within the line we see the gambler find destruction in his abandonment of reason and then once again relying on the hope of charity rather than using reason to restore his fortunes.

This propensity to make idiotic decision is put in more grandiose terms as ‘nations sink’ and are lost when passionate desires for ‘vengeance’ push reason aside for a ‘fool’s request’. With this image of a ruler risking everything simply to satisfy injury against themselves, makes it clear that the message of this poem is equally applied to ruler and subjects.

However, Johnson doesn’t provide us with any solution to this problem and basically suggests that we are buggered and there is nothing we can do about it. If ‘each gift.. and each grace’ has been hit with the ‘afflictive dart’ of passion, then everything that makes us who we are can lead us astray. Courage is something we all aspire to demonstrate, but can become ‘with fatal heat impetuous’ and thus again thoughtless and without reason.

Johnson sums this up neatly at the end of the stanza saying that ‘restless fire precipitates on death’, thus implying that uncontrollable and passionate emotions actually bring about early or untimely death, as well as the misery alluded to earlier in the stanza.

If Johnson was pretty pessimistic about our prospects of happiness with our tricky emotions causing all sorts of problems, in the second stanza he becomes positively scathing about the corrupting power of greed. Greed is seen as overtaking even ‘the knowing and the bold’ and as ‘rag[ing] unconfin’d’, taking control of the whole of mankind. Passion lead us to death, but greed leads to ‘the gen’ral massacre of gold’. This conjures an image of people falling over themselves to kill and be killed in order to satisfy their greed.

Johnson calls greed a ‘wide-wasting pest!’ with the exclamation and connotations of ‘pest’ presenting it as a disgusting, but almost impossible to avoid affliction. Reason and what is right are abandoned by the ‘hireling ruffian’ and the ‘hireling judge’ who are guided by greed to abandon all principles.

However, Johnson presents this pursuit of wealth as being as fraught as following irrational passion. Greed cannot be satisfied as ‘wealth heap’d on wealth’ suggests that there is always more out there and greed makes us abandon any idea of being content and satisfied with what we have. This accumulation of wealth doesn’t bring ‘truth nor safety buys’, implying that there is no happy ending to the constant chasing of wishes. In fact, Johnson says that ‘the dangers gather as the treasure rises’, which takes us back to the trouble and strife of the first stanza and shows us that our wishes, even if fulfilled, will just create more problems and botheration for us.

Boo! I want to kill myself now.

Structure

The poem is written in rhyming couplets, which reflect the jokey or mocking tone of the poem. Although the subject is pretty bleak, we are meant to just offer a sigh and smile at the elements of truth within the over the top doom and gloom.

Tone

Although the message seems to be doom and gloom, I am not convince it should be read in that manner. It is more mocking, as the easy and repetitive rhyme scheme suggests, occasionally giving way to bursts of anger.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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