Maturity and recognition > The Vanity of Human Wishes
In 1749 Johnson published The Vanity of Human Wishes, his most impressive poem as well as the first work published
with his name. It is a panoramic survey of the futility of human pursuit of greatness and happiness. Like London, the
poem is an imitation of one of Juvenal's satires, but it emphasizes the moral over the social and political themes of Juvenal.
Some of the definitions Johnson later entered under “vanity” in his Dictionary suggest the range of meaning
of his title, including “emptiness,” “uncertainty,” “fruitless desire, fruitless endeavour,”
“empty pleasure; vain pursuit; idle show; unsubstantial enjoyment; petty object of pride,” and “arrogance.”
He portrays historical figures, mainly from England and continental Europe (Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Charles XII of Sweden,
the Persian king Xerxes I), alternating them with human types (the traveler, the rich man, the beauty, the scholar), often
in juxtaposition with their opposites, to show that all are subject to the same disappointment of their desires. The Vanity
of Human Wishes is imbued with the Old Testament message of Ecclesiastes that “all is vanity” and replaces
Juvenal's Stoic virtues with the Christian virtue of “patience.” The religion of the poem is universalized, deliberately
referring to “heav'n” rather than a more specific sectarian conception of the deity, though the New Testament
virtues of faith and charity (“love”) play an important role in the conclusion, with “patience” substituting
for hope. The poem surpasses any of Johnson's other poems in its richness of imagery and powerful conciseness.
"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, / Overspread with fear the clouded
maze of fate,/"
Here in the beginning of The Vanity of Human Wishes, Johnson sows his poetic skill in rhyme, eloquence, and subject
matter. The poem is described by contemporary Betrand H. Bronson as "difficult as well as weighty"(5). But his identification
of one of the main themes of the poem being reflections on the wisdom of pagan and Christian civilization is helpful.
He also see's the poem as being concerned with the meaning of experience and emotional responses to such experience. That
Johnson found his life surrounded by strict Christian orthodoxy and this had disagreements with his own rationale and agenda
is also involved in the conveyances of this work.
The Vanity of Human Wishes was written by Samuel Johnson in 1754. He speaks of certain figures in this poem
and their aspirations to be and do great things, but he asserts that if they have aspirations to do these great things then
they must think they are deserving of greatness, hence the title: the vanity of human wishes, is also a central theme.
Here Johnson reflects that man has lost touch with his pagan identity when he seeks the empowerment that various aritocrats,
monarchs, politicians, etc. have made their life goals. He critiques this Christian ideal as if it is part of a damaging
methodology that mankind has adopted in an attempt to rid himself of his pagan background, and needs. He seems to say
that man has lost his real spirituality and thus the human landscape of his day is littered with vain searchers, who will
find no real fufillment in their dominantion of others.
Moreover, this long poem is about man confronted with his responsibilities
has man, it is an astute reflectionon aspiration and its inherent role in man's nature. Must we aspire? Isn't
it vanity that drives man more than some noble, perhaps transcendent good? These are of some of the questions Johnson
seems to ask.