vanity of human wishes Essay

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The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Vanity of Human Wishes

The Vanity of Human Wishes
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The Poem
Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes imitates, as its subtitle states, Juvenal’s tenth satire. The 368 lines of iambic pentameter in rhymed couplets do not claim to provide an exact translation but rather to apply the poem to eighteenth century England. While Johnson therefore feels free to modernize the allusions, he follows his model closely. The poem opens with the proposition that people ask for the wrong things and points out the folly of the first common request, riches. An interlude follows during which the poet invokes
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This avian imagery is more explicit earlier in the poem when he describes “Rebellion’s vengeful talons [that seize] on Laud” (line 168).
Johnson constructs his argument through synecdoche, offering a few examples to stand for the infinite number of wishes one might make. So, too, the few people cited suggest the many others the reader can imagine.
Preferring the general to the specific, Johnson finds synecdoche a convenient device for description. He does not paint a beautiful face but offers “rosy lips and radiant eyes” (line 323). The gifts of nature are suggested by “The fruits autumnal, and the vernal flower” (line 262).
Personification abounds from the first line, in which Observation surveys humankind, to the last: “Wisdom calms the mind/ And makes the happiness she does not find” (lines 367-368). Hope, fear, desire, and hate spread their snares. Preferment has a gate, History speaks, “Pride and Prudence take her [Virtue’s] seat in vain” (line 336). Like synecdoche, this device keeps the poem at the level of general truth that the author seeks. As he would write a decade later in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), “The business of the poet…is to examine, not the individual but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances.” Much of the poem’s power derives from the strong verbs that
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