Johnson was in one of his periodic depressions when he wrote the powerful and melancholy "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (follow for text of poem) in 1749. Written in heroic couplets — Johnson was one of the few poets who was able to employ Pope's form without becoming an imitator — it is a difficult poem, rich and complex; one which requires the sort of close and careful reading which we give to works by Donne, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Yeats or Eliot. Johnson's friend David Garrick commented that reading it was like reading Greek, but it is well worth the effort necessary to come to terms with it: "If lines 189-220 of 'The Vanity of Human Wishes' are not poetry," T. S. Eliot commented, "I do not know what is." What is the poem's central theme? What is Johnson implying about the human condition, about pride, about ambition, about human relationships? Why does he give us portraits of the wealthy man, the statesman, the soldier, the scholar, the beauty, the virtuous man, and so on? What does he have to say about human greatness, about hope, about fear, about man's relationship with God? What use does he make of the historical figures whom he invokes throughout the poem?
In what ways is this a personal poem — why, for example, did Johnson substitute, in 1755, the word "patron" for the original "garret" in the lines "Yet think what ills the scholar's life assail,/Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail"? What does he imply about the pursuit of happiness, about success? With its emphasis on mortality and mutability, how is "The Vanity of Human Wishes" like (or unlike)? What solutions does he offer us, in the end, to the problems he has raised in the course of the poem? Is the end of the poem a cheerful or a gloomy one?
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000