Samuel Johnson (1749) When Samuel Johnson wrote his poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes," he considered an idea informing all of his writing, whether poetry, fiction, or prose, that false hope produced fantasies rendering man incapable of dealing with the reality of everyday life. At 368 lines in rhyming couplets, this imitation of Juvenal's Tenth Satire proved Johnson's longest poem. His attention to the Latin form and expression is visible in each line, which he attempted to shape in such a way that they would reflect the meaning closest to that of the original. Dense and challenging, the poem dealt, as Johnson often wrote that poetry should, with generalities enabling any reader to apply points to his or her own life. Not to be confused with abstract ideas, the generalities appear in the form of poetic parables about particular famous individuals in history applied to the common man's existence, as well as through personification of emotions, as did medieval morality plays. He achieved this effect by expressing thoughts about abstract values with concrete verbs and strong, clear metaphors. For example, he opens commenting on the necessity of acute observation to man's understanding of his lot, at the same time commenting on what must stand as the exceptional poet's approach to writing:
Let Observation, with extensive view, Survey mankind, 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.
In these lines Johnson writes of everyday scenes, allowing any reader to form an immediate mental image of his or her own daily activities. He personifies hope, fear, desire, and hate as shadowy figures that stalk man, hoping to trap him in his own destiny. Fate becomes not only a maze through which man must wander, seeking his way out with few clues as to proper direction, but also "clouded," seen as if through a veil that distorts reality. That image allows him to suggest a dreamlike state in which man indulges in fantasies that cripple his ability to cope with the many cruel challenges of life.
The greatest pitfall for humans, the speaker explains in lines 24-27, is the desire for wealth. He labels it "Wide-wasting pest!" in line 23, then elaborates that it promotes crime among humans:
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heaped on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys,
After this caution Johnson launches into lengthy historical descriptions of various once-powerful individuals, noting "How much more safe the vassal than the lord." The speaker explains that the "needy traveler" who moves singing through "the wild heath" enjoys more fortune than a ruler, as "Few know the toiling statesman's fear or care, / The insidious rival and the gaping heir." As did Juvenal, Johnson includes as an example Democritus, representative of a statesman who possesses the power to hear the petitions of others, a power that ultimately breeds his scorn for those who were once friends. And the suppliants who burn "to be great," hoping for Fortune, "mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall" as "Hate dogs their flight, and Insult mocks their end."
The speaker does not remain a mere detached voice but engenders a feeling of brotherhood with readers. As the scholar Howard Weinbrot explains, one way that Johnson involves his reader is through abundant rhetorical questions. He also uses the personal pronoun we at several points to be part of his audience and make clear he includes himself in the group that may suffer from faulty perceptions.
Consideration moves on to Thomas Cardinal Wol-sey, a onetime favorite of King Henry VIII who falls from grace, mainly because the king feared his power and desired his wealth, and then to George Villiers, duke of Buckingham and onetime favorite of Kings James I and Charles I, eventually assassinated. Also described with details regarding their harsh ends are Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, treasurer for Queen Anne, later impeached and sent to the Tower by the Whigs; Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, once a favorite of Charles I but later impeached and executed; and Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, once in favor with Charles II, eventually exiled to Europe. Each finds himself caught up in flattering dreams, which eventually undo him, as they are all ultimately deserted by their fantasies of unending power, through either their own acts or those of others, acts beyond their control.
Johnson personifies Virtue, Truth, Science, Reason, Doubt, Sloth, and Melancholy to address the young man who desires to become a part of the college of Learning, so much so that "The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame," lured into an eventual trap, ironically of his own design. However, the speaker is not without sympathy for those foolish enough to allow fate to do them in:
The festal blazes, the triumphal show, The ravished standard, and the captive foe, The senate's thanks, the gazette's pompous tale, With force resistless o'er the brave prevail. (174-177)
Even courage is not enough to resist the ravages of false pride, suffered by the greatest of men, including Greek and Roman leaders. The speaker includes points from around the world in his cautionary tale, such as Sweden, Moscow, Persia, and Bavaria, where individuals of all backgrounds fall prey to time, which "hovers o'er impatient to destroy, / And shuts up all the passages of joy." Fate is an equal opportunity force, exacting a high price from any who ignore its power. Luxury enslaves, and even favor such as felt by high kings' mistresses dissolves with aging and the loss of beauty. Johnson references Catherine Sedley, mistress of James II, when he writes that "Sedley cursed the form that pleased a king."
A strong example of the use of rhetorical questions occurs in lines 343-348 as the speaker asks,
Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find?
Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant mind? Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate, Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate? Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise, No cries invoke the mercies of the skies?
The speaker answers his own questions with reference to God, bidding man to make his petitions to Heaven, which may hear and "raise for good"; however, mankind must "leave to Heaven the measure and the choice." God may actually be kinder than fate, the speaker suggests, but he also makes clear that simply the stirring of a sense of the sacred and the aspiration of "strong devotion" encourages a healthful mind, suggesting that with faith, man can better accept whatever comes his way. Johnson does emphasize love as part of the answer to man's problem, a common approach for him. As Weinbrot writes, "For Johnson, the source of love far transcends human affection. To love one's neighbour is to love God; to use and not bury one's talent is to use God's gift." Johnson stressed in his essays that pleasures remain imperfect "when they are enjoyed without participation." Thus man "applies to others for assistance." He insisted that "No man is born merely for his own sake." "The Vanity of Human Wishes" strongly supports this conclusion.
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