from The Vanity of Human Wishes (by Samuel Johnson) In-Depth Analysis and Evaluation

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The Poem

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44448

Background of the Poet

  • Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer.

Structure and Rhyme Scheme

  • Please remember that this is an excerpt of the actual poem ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’. The syllabus entails only the first two stanzas.
  • 2 stanzas: First stanza is 20 lines, and the second has 8 lines.
  • The first stanza could be described as relatively much longer to denote the endless vanity which humans embellish themselves with.
  • The poet uses a couplet rhyme scheme throughout his poem.

Title

  • We understand that the poem will have a critical aspect and opinion of human wishes — where humans consistently pray for good things or indulge in various aspirations of this worldly life — yet the poet criticises this idea and dismisses it as vanity.

Themes

  • Sympathy towards subjects
  • Religion and spirituality
  • Faith
  • Materialism
  • Human nature
  • Purpose of life

Language Analysis and Critical Appreciation

  • ‘Let observation with extensive view’: The poet is saying observe all things around us with an open eye. Breathe in the air, understand and acknowledge all the phenomena which surround us.
  • ‘Survey mankind, from China to Peru’: Interesting usage of the word ‘Survey’ here: the poet wants us to carefully examine the world from all corners and edges of the world, and he gives us a range in the world of what to examine (names of countries). He also uses caesura here to further explore what he means and he does this rightfully so by providing us with actual concrete examples so therefore we know that he is talking about not just one country or community, rather, he is talking about the world in general and as a whole.
  • ‘…each anxious toil, each eager strife’: Asyndeton such that the poet is able to introduce new examples to give us a clearer view of what he wants us to examine. Additionally there is repetition in his tone and voice here. There is also a somewhat juxtaposition between formerly ‘anxious’ and latterly ‘eager’, and thus wants us to acknowledge how the world is characterised by things that are given the connotation of being both good and bad in society.
  • ‘…busy scenes of crowded life’: So imagine his. The poet wants us to stop for a minute and stop following the herd. The poet wants us to simple stop and acknowledge the ‘busy’ life that encircles and envelopes us. This is important because he is trying to make a point as we will see further down the poem.
  • ‘…hope and fear, desire and hate’: Again juxtaposition with -almost- opposite words used here for a certain impact to show how the world functions at extremes. Alternatively, not to restrict the world as extremes, but to further clarify his voice that all phenomena indeed occur: where there is happiness, there is sadness. Where there is good, theres is bad. Again there is a somewhat usage of asyndeton which can also be further commented on.
  • ‘O’ersperad’: Comment on idiosyncratic voice.
  • ‘…maze of fate’: This is where religion comes in. The poet is trying to say that all of these earthly emotions, feelings and activities that has propelled us to feeling so (e.g. hate, fear, etc) is something that has ‘clouded’ us of ‘fate’, where he does not specify a religion therefore we may look to fate as something spiritually higher than us and something we go to seek refuge from the reality of the world.
  • ‘…wav’ring men, betray’d by vent’rous pride’: Again idiosyncratic language. Additionally, the poet is getting at that men have began to ‘waver’ due to their ‘vent[u]rous’ pride (look up the definitions), and therefore it is because of this pride that has caused men to waver as they fight to be acknowledged and achieve worldly success—however, all the while, they are undermining and not acknowledging fate and the importance of it as identified earlier on.
  • ‘…dreary paths without a guide’: So the guide could be inferred as God, and therefore linked back to faith and it’s importance. The poet is also analysing how troublesome it must be to be alone in this materialistic world and therefore having to push yourself to achieve great things (as men have apparently signed up for), and to do all of this and lay all the burden on themselves rather than seeking refuge and help with a higher power: God.
  • ‘treach’rous phantoms’: Phantoms could be considered or inferred as being the wishes or dreams of people where it gradually begins to materialise or you consistently envision what -could- be, but what isn’t. This is exactly why the poet calls it ‘treach[e]rous’, because it goes against your own reality and therefore allowing you to fantasise about a world that does not exist and could be far from the truth. This is why these dreams ‘delude’ people, since it confuses them between what is actuality and what isn’t: blurring the line of distinctiveness between the two.
  • ‘Shuns fancies ills, or chases airy goods’: Asyndeton where the poet identifies two phenomena that is characterised by a strong belief in faith: abstaining from vices and chasing ethical practices and goodness in the world. The poet is almost listing these ideas/qualities, and therefore it progresses to the reader as an almost transaction regarding whether they should indulge in what is listed by the poet, or go back to their fantasising abstract reality which instead deludes them with untrue ideas and causes them to explore unfaithful vices. To the poet, this choice seems simple. To choose the former.
  • ‘…rarely reason guides the stubborn choice’: Alliteration to emphasise how scarcely, rarely, barely (etc) reason (justification) guides earthly decisions taken by conscious people. These choices are seen as very stubborn by the poet, as he sees people with decisions that are stubborn because they refuse to accept that they are wrong or may not be entirely true. This asserts the ego of the individuals or subjects that the poet is talking about here.
  • ‘nations sink’: Could talk about Trojan and historical incidents which are characterised by what the poet is hinting at. He is trying to say that arguably colossal incidents could be the result of a single person’s idea, or stubbornness, or request.
  • ‘…vengeance listens to the fool’s request’: Comment on the usage ‘fool’. Pretty straightforward line.
  • ‘Each gift of nature, and each grace of art’: Identifying the goodness in this world. Asyndeton to again allow an almost list of ideas of what we should acknowledge and persist in this world. We should all embrace art and give it the acknowledgement and love that it truly deserves. Similarly, nature, being crafted by God, should be acknowledged. It is almost as if nature is an art itself and the poet is characterising it as so.
  • Repetition of ‘With fatal’: Instant speech without thinking is fatal because it is the most raw and this is what is ‘sweet’ in this world—the act of being original and embracing the uniqueness of each individual element in this world.
  • Could be a reference to someone charged with speaking out about something ‘Impeachment stops the speaker’s pow’rful breath’: This is important because we see that once people stop acknowledging or categorising someone’s words as valid then they no longer hold any importance and thus would be futile to continually speak on. Comment on the word ‘powerful’.
  • ‘fire precipitates on death’: Could be a reference to burning bodies to bury/spread their ashes?
  • So this stanza is all about criticising materialism, consumerism, wealth, and all of that.
  • ‘…scarce observ’d the knowing and the bold’: The poet is trying to say that people who have reached a sort of disillusionment regarding worldly wealth is scarce, i.e. is not in excess in the world, further i.e. that many people have fallen into the same diminuendo of following the herd for material success, gains and all of that. The poet calls the knowing ‘bold’, and thus they become bold because they have enough willingness or initiative to derive themselves out of the rampant materialistic ideals that so many people find themselves in. Comment further on ‘bold’.
  • ‘gen’ral massacre of gold’: Very important line. The main important word is ‘massacre’: He relates gold to killing and death. Why? The poet does this because firstly to characterise how people sacrifice life all for the sake of material wealth and gold (quote any war). Alternatively, how people give up their true passions and purpose in life for the sake of acquiring material wealth. Tragic.
  • Again, the general idea spoke above is further explored with the remaining lines and the poet provides examples for the ease of the reader to acknowledge/understand the point he is trying to get at.
  • ‘…dangers gather as the treasures rise’: The more richer we become, the more dangerous we become. This could be relevant to certain countries that have gained more authority on the basis of material wealth. Alternatively, could denote how money robs a man of purpose. Additionally, the more money we earn, the more we naturally want. This eventually evolves as toxic for ourselves, where, instead, we should be focusing on what Johnson sees as imperative in this life: purpose and faith.
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2 thoughts on “from The Vanity of Human Wishes (by Samuel Johnson) In-Depth Analysis and Evaluation

  1. Hi, I’m Lynn and I’m having A Levels this year and I am also a literature student! Been reading your contents on this blog (not just your essays on analysing poems but your personal ones too) and it’s nice to feel like I have something to relate to and learn from. How old are you? I’m 18 but your writings are way better than me! Love from Asia x

    Like

    1. Hi Lynn! I am 18 years old, and it is nice to see some of you reaching out to me. I hope my blog has been of use to you and continues to be of use. Best of luck for your A’Level examinations. I have faith you’ll do brilliantly: and be sure to tell me how it pans out in the end! Sending love from Asia too!

      Liked by 1 person

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