Poem of the Day ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’

This is how grown-ups sound when they are intelligent, clever, and well aware of both the human comedy and the human tragedy that measure our distance from the eternal truths.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Detail of a portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, 1775. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Let observation with extensive view, / Survey mankind, from China to Peru.” We’ve neglected Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) in our Poem of the Day feature here at The New York Sun: a brief comic squib last year, “Lines Written in Ridicule,” but otherwise nothing. 

The problem, of course, is that Johnson tended to write long — too long for our pages. “London” (1738), his first major publication, runs 263 lines as it works up a genuine English form out of the Latin moods and techniques that Juvenal (c. 100 A.D.) used in his third satire. And “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), his best work, is 368 lines long, its heroic couplets playing with some of the ironies of Juvenal’s tenth satire. Both achieve their effects with what came to be seen as the Neoclassical voice that developed out of the 18th-century Augustans. 

The dignified calm that overlays harsh social criticism, the detached irony that overlays sentimental attachments, the wisdom that overlays a sense of humor: At its worst, that Neoclassical voice was supercilious, aloof, and annoying. At its best, however, it was the voice of adulthood. At its best, it was Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson. This is how grown-ups sound when they are intelligent, clever, and well aware of both the human comedy and the human tragedy that measure our distance from the eternal truths.

Just listen to the excerpt from “The Vanity of Human Wishes” we’ve chosen for Poem of the Day on the anniversary of Johnson’s birth on September 18, 1709. “Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife, / And watch the busy scenes of crowded life,” Johnson writes, and observe “How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice, / Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice.”

The Vanity of Human Wishes (an excerpt)
by Samuel Johnson

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, 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. . . .

Once more, Democritus, arise on earth, 
With cheerful wisdom and instructive mirth, 
See motley life in modern trappings dress’d, 
And feed with varied fools th’ eternal jest: 
Thou who couldst laugh where want enchain’d caprice, 
Toil crush’d conceit, and man was of a piece; 
Where wealth unlov’d without a mourner died; 
And scarce a sycophant was fed by pride; 
Where ne’er was known the form of mock debate, 
Or seen a new-made mayor’s unwieldy state; 
Where change of fav’rites made no change of laws, 
And senates heard before they judg’d a cause; 
How wouldst thou shake at Britain’s modish tribe, 
Dart the quick taunt, and edge the piercing gibe? 
Attentive truth and nature to decry, 
And pierce each scene with philosophic eye. 
To thee were solemn toys or empty show, 
The robes of pleasure and the veils of woe: 
All aid the farce, and all thy mirth maintain, 
Whose joys are causeless, or whose griefs are vain.

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

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