Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

I decided to skip blogging about the next section in the NAEL, that is William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode, because I decided I had little to add to the commentary published there. So today I’m moving to Dr Samuel Johnson, possibly my favourite person in the whole of 18th century – depressive, witty, kind to people and animals, and so sensitive that he would go personally to buy oysters for his cat so that his servant wouldn’t feel degraded by being sent to buy cat food. This last detail even makes me forgive his notorious remark about women preaching being like dogs walking on their hind legs, because when we paraphrase it by removing women out of it, you can still use it in a lot of cases when people are showered with excessive praise.

“The Vanity of Human Wishes” is, as they called it in the 18th century, an “imitation”, or a kind of a loose paraphrase of Juvenal’s Satire 10. The intro to the poem warns that it is tough and it’s correct. The poem, written in the favourite verse of the 18th c., heroic couplets, starts with a look on the globe, from China to Peru, and comments about the widespread human foolishness, which makes people avoid imaginary evil or pursue imaginary good, the foolishness which sometimes destroys whole nations. Then we get some standard remarks about how the greed for gold is the worst. Another example of human foolishness is kings invading other countries for imaginary gains, and the low foot-soldiers may be actually better off in this case, because they are not going to end up in the Tower. Then somewhat suddenly Johnson changes his course of thoughts by portraying a poor traveller who wanders through the forest, “serene and gay”, amusing himself with singing. If we want to destroy his peace of mind, we have to make him richer and then he’ll be seeing danger lurking in every thicket. Johnson calls to the spirit of Democritus, who was known as “the laughing philosopher”, because he found man’s follies very amusing, to come back and look at the world now. Johnson somewhat idealizes the times of Democritus, claiming they were the period when “Want enchained Caprice”, and imagines Democritus would find much more to laugh about in his degenerate times. People jostle for preferment, fame and money, but their pursuit inevitably ends with a downfall. The portraits that used to hang on the walls (like the image of Athena which used to protect Troy), when their models fall into obscurity, are burnt or sold in auctions, and their golden frames used for other, more current celebrities.


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