The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Vanity of Human Wishes
The Vanity of Human Wishes
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Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes imitates, as its subtitle states, Juvenal’s tenth satire. The 368 lines of iambic pentameter in rhymed couplets do not claim to provide an exact translation but rather to apply the poem to eighteenth century England. While Johnson therefore feels free to modernize the allusions, he follows his model closely. The poem opens with the proposition that people ask for the wrong things and points out the folly of the first common request, riches. An interlude follows during which the poet invokes Democritus, known as the “laughing philosopher” because of his amusement at human folly. Here Johnson repeats the poem’s central idea, the absurdity of people’s prayers. The poem then resumes its catalog of vain desires. Many seek political power, but no one can remain supreme for long (lines 73-90). As proof of this general proposition, Johnson, after attacking parliamentary corruption (lines 91-98), offers the example of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the great favorite of Henry VIII. Wolsey enjoyed preeminence in church and state but fell from power and died, abandoned, in a monastery (lines 99-120). Johnson then offers several other, shorter examples of powerful men who have lost their positions, even their lives, in the vain pursuit of political success (lines 129-134). Wisdom, though one of the four pagan virtues, also yields no joy (lines 135-173). The beginning student confronts many obstacles and distractions: doubts, praise, difficulty, novelty, sloth, beauty, disease, melancholy. Nor does learning guarantee happiness. On the contrary, the rewards awaiting the scholar are “Toil, envy, want, the garret [later changed to “patron”], and the jail.” Again Johnson offers concrete examples to illustrate his point: Thomas Lydiat, an Oxford...
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