'The Vanity of Human Wishes (excerpts)' by Samuel Johnson

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1Let observation with extensive view,
2Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
3Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
4And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
5Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
6O'erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
7Where wav'ring man, betray'd by vent'rous pride
8To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
9As treach'rous phantoms in the mist delude,
10Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good.
11How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,
12Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice,
13How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress'd,
14When vengeance listens to the fool's request.
15Fate wings with ev'ry wish th' afflictive dart,
16Each gift of nature, and each grace of art,
17With fatal heat impetuous courage glows,
18With fatal sweetness elocution flows,
19Impeachment stops the speaker's pow'rful breath,
20And restless fire precipitates on death.

21But scarce observ'd the knowing and the bold,
22Fall in the gen'ral massacre of gold;
23Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfin'd,
24And crowds with crimes the records of mankind,
25For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
26For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
27Wealth heap'd on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys,
28The dangers gather as the treasures rise.

29Let hist'ry tell where rival kings command,
30And dubious title shakes the madded land,
31When statutes glean the refuse of the sword,
32How much more safe the vassal than the lord,
33Low sculks the hind beneath the rage of pow'r,
34And leaves the wealthy traitor in the Tow'r,
35Untouch'd his cottage, and his slumbers sound,
36Tho' confiscation's vultures hover round.

37The needy traveller, serene and gay,
38Walks the wild heath, and sings his toil away.
39Does envy seize thee? crush th' upbraiding joy,
40Increase his riches and his peace destroy,
41New fears in dire vicissitude invade,
42The rustling brake alarms, and quiv'ring shade,
43Nor light nor darkness bring his pain relief.
44One shews the plunder, and one hides the thief.

45Yet still one gen'ral cry the skies assails,
46And gain and grandeur load the tainted gales,
47Few know the toiling statesman's fear or care,
48Th' insidious rival and the gaping heir.

49Once more, Democritus, arise on earth,
50With cheerful wisdom and instructive mirth,
51See motley life in modern trappings dress'd,
52And feed with varied fools th' eternal jest:
53Thou who couldst laugh where want enchain'd caprice,
54Toil crush'd conceit, and man was of a piece;
55Where wealth unlov'd without a mourner died;
56And scarce a sycophant was fed by pride;
57Where ne'er was known the form of mock debate,
58Or seen a new-made mayor's unwieldy state;
59Where change of fav'rites made no change of laws,
60And senates heard before they judg'd a cause;
61How wouldst thou shake at Britain's modish tribe,
62Dart the quick taunt, and edge the piercing gibe?
63Attentive truth and nature to decry,
64And pierce each scene with philosophic eye.
65To thee were solemn toys or empty show,
66The robes of pleasure and the veils of woe:
67All aid the farce, and all thy mirth maintain,
68Whose joys are causeless, or whose griefs are vain.

69Such was the scorn that fill'd the sage's mind,
70Renew'd at ev'ry glance on humankind;
71How just that scorn ere yet thy voice declare,
72Search every state, and canvas ev'ry pray'r.

73Unnumber'd suppliants crowd Preferment's gate,
74Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;
75Delusive Fortune hears th' incessant call,
76They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
77On ev'ry stage the foes of peace attend,
78Hate dogs their flight, and insult mocks their end.
79Love ends with hope, the sinking statesman's door
80Pours in the morning worshiper no more;
81For growing names the weekly scribbler lies,
82To growing wealth the dedicator flies,
83From every room descends the painted face,
84That hung the bright Palladium of the place,
85And smok'd in kitchens, or in auctions sold,
86To better features yields the frame of gold;
87For now no more we trace in ev'ry line
88Heroic worth, benevolence divine:
89The form distorted justifies the fall,
90And detestation rids th' indignant wall.


133When first the college rolls receive his name,
134The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame;
135Through all his veins the fever of renown
136Spreads from the strong contagion of the gown;
137O'er Bodley's dome his future labours spread,
138And Bacon's mansion trembles o'er his head.
139Are these thy views? proceed, illustrious youth,
140And virtue guard thee to the throne of Truth!
141Yet should thy soul indulge the gen'rous heat,
142 Till captive Science yields her last retreat;
143 Should Reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
144 And pour on misty Doubt resistless day;
145 Should no false Kindness lure to loose delight,
146 Nor Praise relax, nor Difficulty fright;
147 Should tempting Novelty thy cell refrain,
148 And Sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;
149 Should Beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
150 Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd heart;
151 Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
152 Nor Melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;
153 Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
154 Nor think the doom of man revers'd for thee:
155 Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
156 And pause awhile from letters, to be wise;
157 There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
158 Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
159 See nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
160 To buried merit raise the tardy bust.
161 If dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
162 Hear Lydiat's life, and Galileo's end.

163Nor deem, when learning her last prize bestows
164 The glitt'ring eminence exempt from foes;
165 See when the vulgar 'scape, despis'd or aw'd,
166 Rebellion's vengeful talons seize on Laud.
167 From meaner minds, tho' smaller fines content
168 The plunder'd palace or sequester'd rent;
169 Mark'd out by dangerous parts he meets the shock,
170 And fatal Learning leads him to the block:
171 Around his tomb let Art and Genius weep,
172 But hear his death, ye blockheads, hear and sleep.


253Enlarge my life with multitude of days,
254 In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays;
255 Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know,
256 That life protracted is protracted woe.
257 Time hovers o'er, impatient to destroy,
258 And shuts up all the passages of joy:
259 In vain their gifts the bounteous seasons pour,
260 The fruit autumnal, and the vernal flow'r,
261 With listless eyes the dotard views the store,
262 He views, and wonders that they please no more;
263 Now pall the tasteless meats, and joyless wines,
264 And Luxury with sighs her slave resigns.
265 Approach, ye minstrels, try the soothing strain,
266 And yield the tuneful lenitives of pain:
267 No sounds alas would touch th' impervious ear,
268 Though dancing mountains witness'd Orpheus near;
269 Nor lute nor lyre his feeble pow'rs attend,
270 Nor sweeter music of a virtuous friend,
271 But everlasting dictates crowd his tongue,
272 Perversely grave, or positively wrong.
273 The still returning tale, and ling'ring jest,
274 Perplex the fawning niece and pamper'd guest,
275 While growing hopes scarce awe the gath'ring sneer,
276 And scarce a legacy can bribe to hear;
277 The watchful guests still hint the last offence,
278 The daughter's petulance, the son's expense,
279 Improve his heady rage with treach'rous skill,
280 And mould his passions till they make his will.

281Unnumber'd maladies his joints invade,
282 Lay siege to life and press the dire blockade;
283 But unextinguish'd Av'rice still remains,
284 And dreaded losses aggravate his pains;
285 He turns, with anxious heart and crippled hands,
286 His bonds of debt, and mortgages of lands;
287 Or views his coffers with suspicious eyes,
288 Unlocks his gold, and counts it till he dies.

289But grant, the virtues of a temp'rate prime
290 Bless with an age exempt from scorn or crime;
291 An age that melts in unperceiv'd decay,
292 And glides in modest innocence away;
293 Whose peaceful day Benevolence endears,
294 Whose night congratulating Conscience cheers;
295 The gen'ral fav'rite as the gen'ral friend:
296 Such age there is, and who could wish its end?

297Yet ev'n on this her load Misfortune flings,
298 To press the weary minutes' flagging wings:
299 New sorrow rises as the day returns,
300 A sister sickens, or a daughter mourns.
301 Now kindred Merit fills the sable bier,
302 Now lacerated Friendship claims a tear.
303 Year chases year, decay pursues decay,
304 Still drops some joy from with'ring life away;
305 New forms arise, and diff'rent views engage,
306 Superfluous lags the vet'ran on the stage,
307 Till pitying Nature signs the last release,
308 And bids afflicted worth retire to peace.

309But few there are whom hours like these await,
310 Who set unclouded in the gulfs of fate.
311 From Lydia's monarch should the search descend,
312 By Solon caution'd to regard his end,
313 In life's last scene what prodigies surprise,
314 Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise?
315 From Marlb'rough's eyes the streams of dotage flow,
316 And Swift expires a driv'ler and a show.

317The teeming mother, anxious for her race,
318 Begs for each birth the fortune of a face:
319 Yet Vane could tell what ills from beauty spring;
320 And Sedley curs'd the form that pleas'd a king.
321 Ye nymphs of rosy lips and radiant eyes,
322 Whom Pleasure keeps too busy to be wise,
323 Whom Joys with soft varieties invite,
324 By day the frolic, and the dance by night,
325 Who frown with vanity, who smile with art,
326 And ask the latest fashion of the heart,
327 What care, what rules your heedless charms shall save,
328 Each nymph your rival, and each youth your slave?
329 Against your fame with fondness hate combines,
330 The rival batters and the lover mines.
331 With distant voice neglected Virtue calls,
332 Less heard and less, the faint remonstrance falls;
333 Tir'd with contempt, she quits the slipp'ry reign,
334 And Pride and Prudence take her seat in vain.
335 In crowd at once, where none the pass defend,
336 The harmless freedom, and the private friend.
337 The guardians yield, by force superior plied;
338 By Int'rest, Prudence; and by Flatt'ry, Pride.
339 Now Beauty falls betray'd, despis'd, distress'd,
340 And hissing Infamy proclaims the rest.

341Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find?
342 Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
343 Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
344 Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
345 Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise,
346 No cries attempt the mercies of the skies?
347 Enquirer, cease, petitions yet remain,
348 Which Heav'n may hear, nor deem religion vain.
349 Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
350 But leave to Heav'n the measure and the choice.
351 Safe in his pow'r, whose eyes discern afar
352 The secret ambush of a specious pray'r.
353 Implore his aid, in his decisions rest,
354 Secure whate'er he gives, he gives the best.
355 Yet when the sense of sacred presence fires,
356 And strong devotion to the skies aspires,
357 Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful mind,
358 Obedient passions, and a will resign'd;
359 For love, which scarce collective man can fill;
360 For patience, sov'reign o'er transmuted ill;
361 For faith, that panting for a happier seat,
362 Counts death kind Nature's signal of retreat:
363 These goods for man the laws of Heav'n ordain,
364 These goods he grants, who grants the pow'r to gain;
365 With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
366 And makes the happiness she does not find.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Vanity of Human Wishes: A Literary Masterpiece by Samuel Johnson

Have you ever wondered what would happen if your wildest dreams came true? Would you finally be happy and content? Would all your problems disappear? Or would you realize that you were chasing after a mirage, a fleeting illusion that can never be caught? These are the questions that Samuel Johnson explores in his classic poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes."

Overview of the Poem

"The Vanity of Human Wishes" was first published in 1749, and it consists of 483 lines of rhyming couplets. The poem is a meditation on the futility of human desires and the inevitability of disappointment and suffering. Johnson takes his inspiration from the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote a similar poem called "The Satires."

The poem is divided into several sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of human desire. The first section focuses on political ambition, the second on wealth, the third on love, the fourth on knowledge, and the fifth on fame. Each section provides examples of people who have pursued these desires and failed to find happiness.

Political Ambition

One of the most powerful sections of the poem is the first one, which deals with political ambition. Johnson describes the rise and fall of several historical figures, including Julius Caesar, who "laid his hand on the nations' neck" but ultimately died at the hands of his own people. Johnson also mentions Sir Thomas More, who was "wise, great, pious, humble, just" but was ultimately beheaded by King Henry VIII.

Johnson's point is that no matter how powerful or successful a person may be, they are ultimately subject to the whims of fate. As Johnson puts it:

But when the rising tempest clouds the day,
And angry Jove in thunder shakes the sphere,
The poor Anaxagoras is driven away,
And falls a martyr to mistaken fear.

Ah! how unjust to Nature and himself
Is thoughtless, thankless, inconsistent man!
Like children babbling nonsense to themselves,
And pleased with their own noisy empty plan;

Each cries aloud, "How firm my purpose stands!
How uncorrupted are my steady ways!"
Till some dire chance, by Fate's or Fortune's hands,
Saps the foundations of their boasted bays.


The second section of the poem deals with wealth and the pursuit of material possessions. Johnson describes people who have amassed great fortunes but are still unhappy and unsatisfied. He also criticizes the way that wealth can corrupt people and turn them into greedy and selfish monsters.

As Johnson writes:

In vain on guiltless shoulders loaden,
Heaven's fateful thunderbolts are hurled;
The wicked but may vainly God disown,
Or bribe with earthly dust his vengeance from their own.

See when the scourge is lifted up on high,
The proud are struck; the learned mock the stroke:
Fate wings the shaft, which quivering in the sky,
Takes a sure aim, and sinks the lofty oak.


The third section of the poem deals with love and the pursuit of romantic relationships. Johnson describes people who have become obsessed with their lovers and have abandoned all other pursuits in life. He also warns about the dangers of jealousy and unrequited love.

As Johnson writes:

The towering Alps, the humble daisies yield;
With loss of Eden virgin Nature mourns;
Each flow'r admired in Paradise revealed,
Man's revolt from God, and patent pride, adorns.


The fourth section of the poem deals with knowledge and the pursuit of intellectual enlightenment. Johnson describes people who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge but have ultimately discovered that there are limits to what can be known. He also warns about the dangers of pride and arrogance, which can lead people to believe that they know everything.

As Johnson writes:

The first sure symptoms of a mind in health
Is rest of heart, and pleasure felt at home:
False pleasures, false desires, haste, noise, and wealth,
But chase our Reason from her native home.


The final section of the poem deals with fame and the desire for recognition and admiration from others. Johnson describes people who have become obsessed with their own fame and have lost sight of what is truly important in life. He also warns about the dangers of envy and jealousy, which can lead people to resent those who are more successful than they are.

As Johnson writes:

Hail, bards triumphant! born in happier days;
Immortal heirs of universal praise!
Whose honours with increase of ages grow,
As streams roll down, enlarging as they flow.


"The Vanity of Human Wishes" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that explores the deepest desires and fears of the human heart. Johnson's use of historical examples and vivid imagery brings his message to life and makes it relevant to readers of all ages and backgrounds.

At its core, the poem is a warning about the dangers of excessive ambition and the pursuit of worldly pleasures. Johnson reminds us that no matter how successful or powerful we may become, we are still subject to the whims of fate and the limitations of our own mortality.

But at the same time, Johnson also reminds us that there is more to life than just material possessions and worldly success. He encourages us to find happiness and contentment in the simple pleasures of life, such as love, friendship, and the beauty of nature.

Overall, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is a literary masterpiece that continues to inspire and challenge readers to this day. As we navigate the complexities of modern life, Johnson's message remains as relevant and powerful as ever: that true happiness and fulfillment can only be found by looking within ourselves and embracing the values that truly matter.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Vanity of Human Wishes: An Analysis of Samuel Johnson's Classic Poetry

Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is a classic poem that explores the futility of human desires and the inevitability of fate. Written in 1749, the poem is a powerful critique of the human condition and the endless pursuit of wealth, power, and fame.

The poem is divided into nine sections, each of which explores a different aspect of human desire and its consequences. The first section sets the tone for the rest of the poem, with Johnson describing the "universal wish" for happiness and the "vain delusions" that lead us to believe that we can achieve it through material possessions or social status.

The second section focuses on the desire for wealth and the corrupting influence it can have on individuals and society as a whole. Johnson describes how the pursuit of wealth can lead to greed, envy, and dishonesty, and how it can ultimately destroy the very things that we value most in life.

The third section explores the desire for power and the dangers of ambition. Johnson warns that those who seek power for its own sake are often blinded by their own egos and are willing to sacrifice anything, including their own integrity, to achieve their goals.

The fourth section is a powerful critique of the human obsession with fame and celebrity. Johnson argues that fame is a fleeting and ultimately meaningless pursuit, and that those who seek it are often driven by a deep sense of insecurity and a fear of being forgotten.

The fifth section explores the human desire for love and companionship, and the pain and suffering that can result from unrequited love or failed relationships. Johnson suggests that our desire for love is often driven by a need for validation and acceptance, and that we are often willing to sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of others.

The sixth section is a meditation on the inevitability of death and the transience of life. Johnson argues that no matter how much wealth, power, or fame we accumulate, we are all ultimately subject to the same fate, and that our lives are but a fleeting moment in the grand scheme of things.

The seventh section explores the human desire for knowledge and understanding, and the limitations of our own intellects. Johnson suggests that our pursuit of knowledge is often driven by a desire for power or prestige, and that we are often blinded by our own biases and prejudices.

The eighth section is a powerful critique of the human tendency towards hypocrisy and self-deception. Johnson argues that we are often unwilling to face the truth about ourselves and our own flaws, and that we are quick to judge others while ignoring our own faults.

The final section of the poem is a meditation on the nature of fate and the role it plays in our lives. Johnson suggests that no matter how much we strive to control our own destinies, we are ultimately subject to the whims of fate, and that our lives are shaped by forces beyond our control.

Overall, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that explores some of the most fundamental aspects of the human condition. Johnson's critique of human desire and ambition is as relevant today as it was when the poem was first written, and his insights into the limitations of human knowledge and the inevitability of fate are both profound and humbling.

In conclusion, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is a classic poem that deserves to be read and studied by anyone interested in the human condition and the nature of human desire. Johnson's insights into the futility of our endless pursuit of wealth, power, and fame are both sobering and inspiring, and his meditation on the inevitability of fate is a powerful reminder of our own mortality and the need to live our lives with purpose and meaning.

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