The Vanity of Poetry and Pursuit
"If the world could be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account, or why it may nor be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination."
-Samuel Johnson, from Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Samuel Johnson was known for his wit and skill, which were both elaborately presented in his writings. Johnson expressed his literary, political, and social opinions in many ways. Johnson presents his literary views in The Rambler, Rasselas, and "The Vanity of Human Wishes". Johnson denied that the poet, the imaginative writer, had privileges denied to the rest of humanity. Pervasive throughout "The Vanity of Human Wishes" images of failure and vision are used to illustrate the theme of illusion and futility. This theme parallels Johnson’s own view on the pointlessness of the poet’s goal to experience everything. These ideas are presented in Johnson’s writings.

The poet in Rasselas signifies the conception of the poet in eighteenth-century England. In the last paragraph of chapter 10, this perception is perfectly summarized: "His labor is not yet at an end: he must know many languages and many sciences; and, that his style may be worthy of many thoughts, must, by incessant practice, familiarize to himself every delicacy of speech and grace of harmony." (2749). Further, in chapter 11, Johnson shows that such total experience is virtually impossible: "Enough! Thou hast convinced me, that no human being can ever be a poet." (2749).

Indeed, within this satire of the life of the poet, Johnson recognizes that to pursue such aspiration of a poet in this world is a futile effort. At the same time, the poem clearly fulfills Johnson’s own view of "satire" as defined in his Dictionary by criticizing the "wickedness or folly" of vain wishing (Harp, 219). The obvious images of observation on page 2692 reflect upon the superficial vision of human unfulfillment:

Let Observation, with extensive view,

Survey mankind, from China to Peru;

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’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,

Where wav’ring man, betrayed by vent’rous pride,

To tread the dreary paths without a guide, (1-8)

In the first two lines "Observation" transcends the limits of time and space, which directly relates to the view that the poet must surpass human limits in order to become a true poet. Below "Observation", "wav’ring man" exists within a chaotic and confusing world, trying to survey his surroundings. Deep inside, he is unsure ("wav’ring") yet still daring ("vent’rous") and therefore ultimately more vulnerable to the shortcomings of mankind. This "Observation", which watches the life below it, sets up the omniscient viewpoint through which the reader watches as humanity fails whilst pursuing greatness through both wealth and fame. This viewpoint establishes clarity through vision.

This vision is both "extensive" and precise. It surveys all of Mankind from "China to Peru". Again, such a survey is humanly impossible, or was at Johnson’s time. But even as this vision scans all of humanity in a general sense, it also aims to focus in on specific events, "each anxious toil, each eager strife". This method of alternating movement between the general and the specific continues throughout the poem and all through the continual observation of the futility in the human pursuit of wishes.

Both examples of futility, poetry and wishing, are illustrated in the body of the poem. The middle third of the poem (49-342) consists primarily on the generalized comments on the vanity of wishing for political, intellectual, or military distinction, long life, or beauty, illustrated by specific historical examples. Johnson implies through this technique that every broad generalization he makes on vanity is based on countless examples that he could have cited if he so chose. Johnson portrays historical figures, mainly from England and Europe (Cardinal Wolsey, Charles XII of Sweden, Persian King Xerxes I) alternating them with human types (the traveler, the rich man, the scholar, the beauty), often in juxtaposition with their opposites. This shows that all are subject to the same disappointment of their desires. For example, Xerxes attempt to achieve military greatness, but fails because he tried to control things impossible of human control, and thus his efforts, were futile.

Similarly, the scholar finds just such a fate: "There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail, Toil, envy, want, and jail." (159-160) In lines 136-147, Johnson describes at length the scholar’s ambition to be intellectually renowned and famous. But in line 155 Johnson warns the scholar not to think that this fame will exemplify him from the downfalls and tragedies of humankind. In line160 the reader sees that the scholar’s ambition leaves him victim to devastation. Given the elevated view of these examples of failure, the theme is placed directly below the reader’s eyes. Along with the main theme, it is evident that the pursuit of the impossible and the illusion of wishes, is a vain attempt.

To emphasize the dangers of having one’s wishes fulfilled, Johnson draws attention to the relation between fate and ambush. In every example given in the poem, an individual wishes, testing fate, and is ambushed by some type of downfall. Every virtue that human beings pray for is presented as potentially dangerous to it’s recipient, equipped with it’s own "fatal dart" (151). Lines 15 through 20 demonstrates how hazardous wishes can be:

Fate wings with every wish th’ afflictive dart,

Each gift of nature, and each grace of art,

With fatal heat impetuous courage glows,

With fatal sweetness elocution flows,

Impeachment stops the speaker’s pow’rful breath,

And restless fire precipitates on death.

Line 15 implies that with everything good comes something bad, so that in wishing for a virtue, one must be prepared for it’s consequences and risks. This skeptical view of reality once again sets limits to observation and thinking. "Courage" improves the soldier’s chance of military success, but also the likelihood of dying on the battlefield. "Eloquence" improves the politician’s chances of achieving high office, but also the odds that he will fall abruptly from power. For Johnson, however, the "heat" of "impetuous courage" and the "sweetness" of "elocution" are "fatal" not merely because they sometime kill their possessors, but because such gifts come from fate, which is unable to be controlled by human beings.

Clearly, such illusion would most certainly bring melancholic consequences to vain wishing. Death, ruin, defeat and ambush are the consequences of wishes in Johnson’s mind. This further suggests that "Vanity of Human Wishes" is Johnson’s vehicle through which to mock the poet’s unrealistic ideals.

To establish a satiric standpoint towards the model of poetry and attempting the impossible, Johnson invokes the figure of Democritus (49). Democritus, the "Ancient Greek philosopher who laughed at the follies of humanity." (2693), is yet another clear message given to establish Johnson’s opinion on vain pursuit. In a satire written against the vanity of human wishes, Democritus is an appropriate image to bring up. His wit and "philosophic eye" (64) are ideal mediums for exposing the emptiness of life’s vanity.

Emptiness is key to understanding view on poetry in an unpoetic world. These recurrent images of the eminent failure that shadows pursuit are clearly placed in front of the reader’s eyes through an unblocked vantage of these searches. The various examples of vain wishing, whether for wealth, fame, or greatness leave no opportunity for misinterpretation. Similarly, the parallel to eighteenth-century English writing could not be missed. This same ineffectiveness also lay in pursuing that which is, or at least was, impossible; to observe and experience everything the world has to offer in attempt to become a true poet in an extremely futile effort. The disillusionment of each situation is indeed painful (Damrosch, 2690). Johnson’s perspective was woven into each of his writings, but none so clearly as in "Vanity of Human Wishes".


 Work Cited

Ed. Harp, Richard L. Dr. Johnson’s Critical Vocabulary: A Selection From His

Dictionary. New York: University Press of America, Inc., 1986 Page 219


Ed. Naugle, Helen. A Concordance to the Poems of Samuel Johnson. London: Cornell

University Press, 1973


Ed. Hill, George Birkbeck. Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901.

Vol. 1


Ed. Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York:

Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc., 1999. Vol. 1C Pages 2689-2787