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From the vanity of human wishes

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poem analysis

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From the vanity of human wishes

  1. 1. from The Vanity of Human Wishes By: Matias Giambruni, Felicitas Donato and Trinidad Torrendell Samuel Johnson
  2. 2. Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)
  3. 3. Life…. Samuel Johnson is a hugely important literary figure. Not only has he written some fine poetry, been the subject of one of the first comprehensive biographies, but he is the father of the dictionary. He made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Johnson was a devout Anglican and committed Tory, and is described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history". This poem was composed while working on the dictionary, possibly to give his mind a bit of a break from tedium. The poem focuses on the general condition of human folly that is the subject of both works. Both poems preach the value of abandoning our self-centred wishes and desires and instead place our trust in the hands of the divine. Johnson explores this in his final stanza – ‘But leave Heav’n the measure and the choice’ – although we could probably reach that conclusion from his negative portrayal of what human vanity leads to in these two opening stanzas.
  4. 4. 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'er Spread with snares the clouded maze of fate, Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride To tread the dreary paths without a guide, As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude, Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good. How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice, Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice, How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d, When vengeance listens to the fool’s request. Fate wings with ev’ry 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. But scarce observ’d the knowing and the bold, Fall in the gen’ral massacre of gold; Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfin’d, And crowds with crimes the records of mankind, For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws, For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws; Wealth heap’d on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys, The dangers gather as the treasures rise. VOCABULARY: vanity: worthless or useless or thinking only about yourself toil: difficult work strife: worries or concerns snares: traps used for hunting wav’ring: (wavering) shaking with fear ven’rous : (venereus) exciting, passionate suppliant: somebody who is pleading for something, a beggar impetuous: thoughtless actions precipitates: brings on
  5. 5. About the poem... This first stanza opens with a general judgement on all humanity. Man is filled with trouble and strife, which Johnson puts down to the pitfalls associated with our determination to follow the twin passions of desire and hate, and pursue our hopes or avoid our fears. Life is presented as being tough, but made even tougher thanks to our reckless emotions leading us astray. The second stanza moves on from discussing how our wishes and emotions lead us astray and now presents the corruption that money or greed has upon humanity. Johnson tells us that greed is unstoppable or unchallenged by the world, each man will abandon principle or reason in order to get their hands on gold. However, the stanza ends with a reflection upon this leading only to more trouble and worries.
  6. 6. Theme and Tone Theme: Johnson explores how humans by nature pursue their own interests and allow themselves to be guided – or rather misguided – by passionate emotions. DEATH / DREAMS / HOPES AND PLANS / RELIGION / POWER / PRIDE Tone: The message seems to be doom and gloom, it is more mocking, as the easy and repetitive rhyme scheme suggests, occasionally giving way to bursts of anger.
  7. 7. Language Techniques In the poem Johnson tells us all our hopes, dreams and wishes are worthless. We know from the title that this is being presented as a general criticism/satire about mankind, but if we were in any doubt he tells us that his ideas would be reflected ‘Survey mankind, from China to Peru’. Johnson uses these two countries to represent the opposite ends of the Earth and this captures the entirety of mankind within his survey. He then proceeds presenting us with an image of humans dealing with worries, troubles and having to struggle in life. You could probably comment on a pessimistic semantic field that links the passionate emotions consistently to death and suffering. Next we have a neat piece of imagery, And there are two polars: the polar opposite spikes of emotion, ‘desire and hate’, and the polar opposite motivations or perspective, ‘hope and fear’, This pair of polar opposites can be linked directly to the idea of human wishes.
  8. 8. ● Furthermore Johnson suggests that we are buggered and there is nothing we can do about it. Courage is something we all aspire to demonstrate, but can become ‘with fatal heat impetuous’. ● Johnson sums this up at the end of the stanza saying that ‘restless fire precipitates on death’, saying that uncontrollable and passionate emotions actually bring about early death. ● Also passion lead us to death, but greed leads to ‘the gen’ral massacre of gold’. This conjures an image of people falling over themselves to kill and be killed in order to satisfy their greed.
  9. 9. ● However, Johnson presents this pursuit of wealth as being as fraught as following irrational passion. Greed cannot be satisfied and he suggests that there is always more out there and greed makes us abandon any idea of being content and satisfied with what we have. This accumulation of wealth doesn’t bring ‘truth nor safety buys’, implying that there is no happy ending to the constant chasing of wishes. ● Also in the first stanza, Johnson shows us that our wishes, even if fulfilled, will just create more problems and botheration for us.
  10. 10. Essay Question: ● What roles do Christianity and Christian values play in this poem and what attitude does the speaker take towards them?

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