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.
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.
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
impetuous: thoughtless actions
precipitates: brings on
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
Theme and Tone
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
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.
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.
● 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.
● 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.
● What roles do Christianity and Christian values play in this
poem and what attitude does the speaker take towards