Johnson’s Bridge Between Eras

Johnson thought that poetry was a way to link ideas and sentiments of the past to modern topics. He accomplished this in The Vanity of Human Wishes by linking the vices: desire, lack of faith, and the inability to accept disappointment, of significant historical figures ("rival kings") throughout time.

In the beginning of his poem, Johnson presents the vices of man during his time, but is preparing to link these perils to history through important historical figures he calls, "rival kings". In lines 3-8 he begins to express the perils of desire, faith and fate, and inevitable disappointment "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’respread with snares the clouded maze of fate,/ Where wav’ring man, betrayed by vent’rous pride,/ To tread the dreary paths without a guide," (3-8). Johnson is saying that if one watches humankind during the present, it is clear that hope, fear, desire, and hate are all "snares" or traps that are spread throughout "fate" or life. The point to this is in lines 7-8, where man is being betrayed by desire ("vent’rous pride"), leaving him without guidance and vulnerable to the traps of life. Johnson explains that desire is a peril and will give specific examples of this throughout history using "rival kings" or the great conquerors and rulers.

Wolsey is Johnson’s first example of a rival king that links the vices of men in the mid-eighteenth century to those of the 15th century. Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, was dismissed and imprisoned. In lines 99-104 Johnson describes Wolsey as a very dignified man and honorable "Through him the rays of regal bounty shine,/ Turned by his nod the stream of honor flows," (99-104). Then Johnson provides reason for Wolsey’s fall from dignity "Still to new heights his restless wishes tow’r,/ Claim leads claim, and pow’r advances pow’r;" (105-106). Wolsey becomes ambitious and wants more and more power, which eventually leads to his unpopularity and downfall "His suppliants scorn him, and his followers fly;/ At once is lost the pride of awful state,/ The golden canopy, the glitt’ring plate,/ The regal palace, the luxurious board," (113-115). It is clear from the excessive nature of this imagery, that Wolsey loses all that he had because he desired more than the wonderful things he had already had "golden", "glitt’ring", "regal", and "luxurious". Had he been content with his belonging he would not have been dismissed. Desire was a vice during the 15th century and Johnson makes the clear link in the beginning of the poem that desire was one of vices that affected 18th century man as well; being "snares" dispersed throughout fate.

At the end of this stanza, after Wolsey was dismissed, another vice that spanned several hundreds of years becomes evident . Johnson introduces the idea that many of the influential leaders lacked faith. In lines 119-120 it becomes clear that kings do not have much faith, and that contributes to the inevitable downfall of a king "Grief aids disease, remembered folly stings,/ And his last sighs reproach the faith of kings." (119-120). In the last line Wolsey is sighing because he now understands kings have such little faith in the world and fate, and realizes their doom. Johnson links this idea of faith to line 5 and 6 "Then say how hope and fear, desire, and hate,/ O’respread with snares the clouded maze of fate,". Johnson shows the "fear" or lack of faith is both present in the mid-18th century and the 15th century by linking the two vices.

The next "rival king" that connects two different time periods is Charles XII of Sweden who’s military career ended after a particular battle in which he was defeated by the Russians (1709). Johnson again shows the perils of desire in lines 202-204, " ‘Think nothing gained,’ he cries, ‘till nought remain,/ On Moscow’s walls till Gothic standards fly,/ And all beneath the polar sky.’" (202-204). It is clear that Charles XII desired to conquer Moscow saying that nothing was gained until Moscow was his. One cans see in lines 211-212 and 219-220 that this desire and thirst for more than what he had, caused him to not conquer Moscow, lose his army, and his own life, "The vanquished hero leaves his broken bands,/ And shows his miseries in distant lands;" (211-212). In these lines it is apparent that Charles XII has lost his army and his defeat is known in many lands. Charles’ death is very clear in lines 219-220, "His fall was destined to a barren strand,/ A petty fortress, and a dubious hand;" (219-220). He dies in a small unimportant fortress, killed by one of his own men. This shows exactly how a king with too much desire will suffer greatly, just as Johnson predicted 18th century man would if he was too ambitious "Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,/ O’spread with snares the clouded maze of fate," where again one can see how Johnson alludes to the idea that desire is a "snare" in his description of modern 18th century man which links the 14th century to the mid-18th century.

Johnson continues this link between the past and his present with the "rival kings" in lines 225- 228, this time through the example of Xerxes (?519-465 BC) and his desire to conquer the Greeks. In line 227, "Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey," (227), Xerxes’ desire to conquer is very evident. Then in lines 235-239 once again Johnson shows the effects of desire, "The daring Greeks deride the martial show,/ And heap their valleys with the gaudy foe;/ Th’ insulted sea with humbler thoughts he gains,/ A single skiff to speed his flight remains,/ Th’ encumbered oar scarce leaves the dreaded coast" (235-239). The imagery of these lines show the severe defeat that Xerxes dealt with, "And heap their valleys with the gaudy foe", because Xerxes was full of desire, the Greeks killed a multitude of Persians, enough to fill their valleys. Line 227 "Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey," can definitely be linked to line 7 "Where wavering man, betrayed by vent’rous pride," in that Xerxes over confidence and pride are the vices which betray him. Once again Johnson links the vice of desire from about the 500 B.C to the mid-eighteenth century. As further punishment for his desire, Xerxes must flee and barely escapes with his life, reemphasizing that disappointment is inevitable.

The inability to accept the inevitable disappointment is another vice that Johnson uses to link the past to the 18th-century and is most prevalent in lines 315-318 "In life’s last scene what prodigies surprise,/ Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise?/ From Marlborough’s eyes the streams of dotage flow,/ And Swift expires a drivelers and a show." (315-318). In these lines Johnson is saying that one cannot be seen as great until they are dead, however he suggest that even people who led great lives will not be great because just before they die, something will happen that will deflate their greatness. This is "life’s last scene" in which the brave will become afraid and the wise will resort to folly. The two examples that Johnson provides really show the inevitability of disappointment. His first example, the first Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722) was the hero of the Spanish Succession Wars but lived paralyzed for six years after two strokes. Johnson creates the image of Marlborough being a fighter and a strong individual at the end of the war. Marlborough was a great war hero and would have lived a great life. Instead the reader is left with the image of an old man who is incapable of movement, looking longingly at the people who can walk. This last image clearly represent the idea of disappointment. Line 3 "Remark the anxious toils, each eager strife," links the inevitability of disappointment to the example of the first Duke of Marlborough. The anxious toils and eager strife of the Duke’s actions were performed for the sake of personal gain however all that leads to is setting one’s self to disappointment. Johnson shows the link between the mid-18th century and the mid-17th century by showing that not realizing that disappointment is inevitable is to "tread the dreary paths without a guide,"(8).

Another example of how Johnson uses poetry to link time periods together is through the inevitable disappointment that has to do with Anne Vane and Catherine Sedley. In lines 319-322 the disappointment of physical beauty becomes apparent "The teeming mother, anxious for her race,/ Begs for each birth the fortune of a face:/ Yet Vane could tell what ills form beauty spring;/ And Sedley cursed the form that pleased a king." (319-322). In these lines a mother is hoping for her child to be beautiful. There is a wonderful image of the mother so happy to have a beautiful daughter. However, the disappointing images one is left with are thoughs of Anne Vane the mistress of the Prince of Whales and Catherine Sedley the mistress of James the II. Johnson links these ideas to line 5 "Then say how hope, fear, desire and hate,/ O’respread with snares the clouded maze of fate," where hope is a "snare" and will ultimately lead to disappointment.

Despite all the disappointments and the perils and downfalls of desire, Johnson, at the end of his poem provides an answer to all these problems, Christianity. Johnson’s answer is not necessarily Christianity itself, but the idea that everyone must have faith in God’s will and Heaven. He shows this through lines 352-356 "But leave to Heav’n the measure and the choice,/ Safe in his power, whose eyes discern afar/ The secret ambush of a specious prayer./ Implore his aid, in his decisions rest,/ Secure whate’er he gives, he gives the best." (352-356). Here Johnson simply describes what it is like to have faith. He paints an image of an all knowing being who can fix anything and who if is trusted with a person’s faith will take care of that person and will provide comfort for him or her.

Johnson does a great job of using imagery of "rival kings", important historical figures and Christianity to convey the perils of desire, inevitable disappointment and the necessity of faith. These ideas not only show Johnson’s view of mankind and life, but they represent what Johnson believed poetry did. Johnson gathered different examples of "rival kings" from all different time periods, from ancient Greece to the mid 17 hundreds, spanning over 2,000 years of history to link his present ideas to specific moments of the past. Johnson succeeded in linking his ideas of desire and disappointment to the same ideas in the past using imagery. Not only does Johnson link ideas from the past to the 18th century, he also provides answers to the problems he proposes in his poetry.