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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Vanity of Human Wishes, The

< The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)

VANITY OF HUMAN WISHES, The. Ostensibly a formal satire in heroic couplets (368 lines) published by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1749, more than a decade after the appearance of his other notable satire, ‘London.’ As that had followed in a way the third satire of Juvenal, so this followed the tenth. In the interval between the two Johnson's style had grown more rotund and he himself had ripened into a dignified moral essayist soon to give expression to his views of life in The Rambler. Indeed, it might be held that ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ is more of a weighty essay in verse than it is of a keen satire. This point need not be pressed, however, nor need we emphasize Macaulay's well-known comparison with the Tenth Juvenal. What mainly matters is that Johnson, although probably more of a rhetorician than of a poet, gave the readers in this essay, or satire, one of the best pieces of sententious poetry in the language. The famous portraits of Wolsey and of Charles XII of Sweden fail to impress but few readers, and there are other passages and single lines equally memorable — e.g., “Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail,” and ‘Superfluous lags the veteran on the stage’ — the first truer of Johnson's own career than the second. Tested by any standards of poetry in which an appeal to the intellect is given due weight, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ is worthy of the fame of its author; but it must be admitted that it does not touch the heart so deeply as the simple stanzas Johnson wrote on the death of his friend, the old quack-doctor, Robert Levet.