The Vanity of Human Wishes by Samuel Johnson: Summary and Analysis

The Vanity of Human Wishes is written by English poet Samuel Johnson in 1748 and publishes in 1749. It is a long poem of twenty five stanzas with varying lengths written in heroic couplet. The ambitious speaker investigates all the kinds of human beings and their desires and wishes, which ultimately comes to the point of futility.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

To justify his point of vanity of human wishes, he brings forth many examples of political, financial, intellectual and even sexual power, and finally proves that all the desires and wishes to be superior and powerful has nothing to do. All the things are futile and meaningless and these things don’t bring peace of mind.

To convince his viewpoint, the speaker brings many instances. He says all human wishes are vain and meaningless. In every human wish there is pain and in every desire there is suffering, whether we desire some great or small, the result is after all is same. The ambition, wish, desire after all just give the suffering. Johnson supports this argument with the example of a rich traveler whom both the darkness and the light cause the suffering. If it is the day time, he may be looted and if it is the night time he may be theft. The desire to become rich leads us to the suffering. He is of the opinion that wealth comes and peace goes.

He supports the vanity of human wishes with the example of the gold. All the human beings love gold, but gold is ‘wide wasting pest’. It destroys everyone. The judge destroys the law to collect the gold, people undertake the crimes to collect the same gold. It is because of gold, criminals record increases.

Johnson gives the example of Lord Wolsey to justify the vanity of human wishes. He wanted to acquire power after power so that everyone submit in front of his will. But once he reached to the power everyone hates him. He did not get any followers nor did he get any warmth and affection from people. The desire of absolute power leads him to the public hatred and dislikes.He supports the vanity of human wishes with the example of Swedish king who wanted to conquer the whole world. He has the desire to accumulate all the properties of the world. But having conquered the world he had to end up in the barren land. His desire for power and property leads him to death.

In the concluding part of the poem, Johnson suggests to develop the right frame of the mind. We should not complain against anything. We should control the passion and wills and be loving and mindful to mankind and that is sufficient for our happiness. The only way to get happiness is God.  

Johnson is well known for antiphonal structure. He combines the opposites in the poem. Anti-thesis can be found in his lineation, light and darkness, shows and hides, pleasure and pain, are some of the structural anti thesis in the poem in order to give striking conclusions. Whenever he brings anti-thesis, he points to a moral lesson. Moral sensibility, and antiphonal structure go side by side.

The poem follows the model of Juvenal’s tenth satire. But, vary with the theme when Johnson put focus on Christianity as the only way to get happiness. Juvenal’s poems do not center on the Christianity. This poem can be taken as a satire against all those who want to gather the wealth power and property. Since the end is same, the quest of the things is useless.

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