Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (ctd.)

The next episode in Johnson’s series of rants is that against the men who want to gain fame through winning wars. Even though successful military leaders are celebrated, their victories come at a significant human and financial cost, and at the end everything they get is wreaths on their tombstones. He writes about Charles XII of Sweden, and his brilliant military career which ended with a humiliating exile in Constantinople and then death at “a petty fortress [caused by] a dubious hand”. (Charles XII died during a relatively unimportant siege, and the rumours attributed his death to his own aide-de-camp.) The next example of a king brought down low is Xerxes, who ordered to lash the sea and had to run away in a single boat after being vanquished by the Greeks. Finally he writes about “the bold Bavarian”, the Elector Charles Albert, who started the War of the Austrian Succession, but was beaten by the armies of the Austrian empire sent by “the queen, the beauty” i.e. the Empress Maria Theresa. I think he might be overrating Maria Theresa’s beauty, but then, it’s not like he could see her on TV. I guess he simply cast Maria Theresa in his imagination as this beautiful, Fairy Queen-like figure, similarly to how Hollywood always casts beautiful people in biopics, even those of people who in real life were not particularly recognized for their beauty. Anyway, the vanquished Charles Albert “steals to death from anguish and from shame.” (The real Charles Albert died of gout.)


Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (ctd.)

Johnson continues his grumbling. Won’t Britain, the land of the free, reward the good politicians and punish the bad? Alas, democracy (such as it was in the 18th century) is now in ruins, with people manipulated by libels printed in journals and ale distributed during the election campaigns. (You had to be a fairly wealthy man to vote in Britain in these times, so I’m not sure Johnson’s diagnosis is correct. Although also rich people like free beer, I suppose.) Then Johnson gives us a list of British politicians, famous both for their careers and their downfalls or violent deaths. He writes at length about the power and eventual ruin of Cardinal Wolsey. Then, more briefly, he mentions Duke of Buckingham (the first one, he of the diamond studs in The Three Musketeers, and the father to the 2nd Duke, Dryden’s Zimri), Robert Harley Earl of Oxford, Thomas Wentworth, and Edward Hyde Earl of Clarendon. Where did they go wrong? They just became too powerful for their own good. But if you want to be a scholar and go to Oxford, and study so hard that the legend about how Roger Bacon’s study is going to collapse if a man greater than him appears in Oxford is about to come true, still you cannot be too self-satisfied. Even if you are so lucky that you are not prevented by various ills which beset young scholars: melancholy, illness, sloth, love etc., still you may expect to be valued only after you are dead, because nations are “slowly wise and meanly just”, says Johnson, quoting Galileo and Thomas Lydiat, a mathematician who died in poverty because of his royalist views, as examples. The Parlamentarians are clearly Johnson’s pet hates, since he then writes about William Laud, the controversial archbishop who was executed in 1645, as an example of a man who died because he was too wise: “fatal Learning leads him to the block”. Lydiat and Laud were persecuted rather because of their politics than their wisdom, but I guess Johnson’s line of thinking is that their support to the King is a sign of their supreme wisdom, as contrasted with the stupidity of the rebels.

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.

John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 14 – 16 (the end)

Polly and Lucy come, obviously distraught. Macheath advises them to find themselves new husbands in the West Indies (thus setting up the way for the sequel Polly [1729], which, however, was banned from being performed by censors). Polly, Lucy and Macheath sing a trio about how sad they are: the ladies wish they would be hanged together with Macheath and Macheath is sad because his “courage is out”, i.e. the bottle is empty. They say their adieus and when the jailer brings four more wives of Macheath, with a child each, Macheath is quite ready to be hanged. At this point Gay breaks the action for some metacommentary: the Player remonstrates with the Beggar, the author of the play, that it cannot end, like the Beggar wants, with Macheath being hanged and the rest of characters probably either hanged or transported. But the Player tells him that “an opera must end happily”. This was indeed the case long after The Beggar’s Opera: over 30 years later Christopher Willibald Gluck, generally hailed as the great reformer of opera, the one who made the music fit the lyrics etc., couldn’t break the convention when composing his Orpheus and Eurydice) and had to tack on a happy end, with Amor popping up and saying “yeah, we told you not to look back and you did, but you sang so nicely, we’re giving you your wife back anyway”. So the Beggar changes the ending to “comply with the taste of the town”, reiterating the moral of the story, that is that the rich are as wicked as the poor, but only the poor are punished.

In the final scene, Macheath realises he must make a choice. He presents the ladies with partners for dance, and he chooses Polly for his dance partner – and as he tells her, also for life, because they were really married, but he tells her to keep it a secret. He sings a song about how he is like a Turk in his harem and has to choose one woman for his bed. Everybody sings the refrain “the wretch of today may be happy tomorrow”. The end!

John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 12 – 14


Polly sends Filch to observe Macheath’s trial. She hears some music and Lucy explains that it is the prisoners whose trials were put off until next Sessions celebrating. Polly says she usually loves music, but now she is too melancholy to listen to it. The two women, temporarily reconciled by the common misfortune, retire. In the next scene, Macheath in a condemned hold, sings a series of songs about how sorry he feels for himself and for his wives, how he finds comfort in drink, and ends with a defiant song sang to the tune of “Greensleeves” about how it is only poor people who end up punished, and if everybody, regardless of their status, were punished with the same severity of the law, it would lead to depopulation. The scene is rather brilliant and I imagine, quite demanding musically, because the song is a medley of quotations from various songs, some of them as short as one line. I cannot recommend anything better than watching Roger Daltrey perform this. Out of the many clips available on YT, this version is, I think, my favourite, as it strikes just the right balance between being historical and being modern. I don’t like my Beggar’s Opera to get too modern – if I wanted a modern version, I’d listen to Die Dreigroschenoper (which I love, by the way).

Macheath’s colleagues come to express their sympathy. Macheath informs them that as a jail-breaker, he is to be hanged. He is surprised that Jemmy Twitcher peached on him, but he attributes it to the general corruption of the world which has seeped down into the honest world of thieves. (So was it Jemmy or Mrs Trapes? Was Macheath misinformed? Or did Jemmy just stand as a witness during the trial?) He asks them to promise him that they are going to send Peachum and Lockit to the gallows before they end up there. The jailer announces Lucy and Polly.

John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 10 and 11

Lucy returns with a bottle of liquor, insisting on Polly’s drinking it. Brandy is like men, she says, women like to take it, but pretend not to, and so they do it only in private Polly still demurs, even when she has a glass pressed into her hand. Fortunately for her, at this moment she seed Macheath brought in chains and drops the glass. Both she and Lucy throw themselves at Macheath, singing a duet imploring him to look at either of her. (A small snippet of this scene starts at 2:58)

Macheath says this affair will soon end with his death, so he really doesn’t need to choose one over the other, but Peachum points out his declaration may prevent litigation between the two widows. Macheath sings a song about how one wife is more than enough. Lucy and Polly then implore in speech and song their respective fathers not to deliver the evidence against Macheath. This is the moment depicted in the famous Hogarth painting.
William Hogarth 016

A choice morsel of gossip c. 1728: the actress playing Polly, Lavinia Fenton, may be acting pleading to her stage father, but she is really staring at Duke of Bolton, the man in blue sitting on the right. The Duke, unhappily married and Lavinia’s senior by 23 years, fell in love with her during the show. ICYMI, the sculpted satyr laughs and points down at the Duke. Lavinia’s meteoric career as an actress ended with her eloping with the Duke and becoming his longtime mistress and eventually wife when the Duke’s first wife died.

But both fathers are unrelenting: Lockit points out in a song that if they don’t hang Macheath, they may hang themselves, and Peachum advises Polly to look for a new husband. Macheath sings a defiant song about how his death was only to be expected, and at least his death will please both of his wives. Then he leaves with Peachum and Lockit. And here’s the whole scene with Laurence Olivier.

John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 8 and 9

Lucy apologizes profusely to Polly for the way she behaved last time, attributing it to “the spleen”. She sings a song about a pouty wife whose husband has to do what she wants and give her a dram of “a quieting draught”. Polly apologizes equally profusely, saying she was too distraught by her misfortunes. Lucy asks her to have a glass of liquor, advertising it as something the best ladies in the land could drink, but Polly refuses, saying liquor gives her headache. They talk a bit about which of them Macheath prefers and they pretend to agree that he cheats on them both. They sing a duet about a curse attending a woman’s love, the more she loves, the more the object of her love shuns her. Polly claims she still thinks he prefers Lucy, because the last time she was dragged from prison by her papa, Macheath didn’t show much concern. She sings a short song about the men who are like coquettes and love to be admired. Lucy again encourages her to have a glass of something which will cheer her up. It starts around 7:10 mark.

There are no stage directions here, but supposedly Lucy leaves at this point to get the bottle, and Polly reveals in a monologue that she doesn’t trust her an inch. Still, she doesn’t suspect what Lucy is capable of, because she thinks she is only going to ply her with liquor to get some of her secrets. Still, she resolves not to drink one drop.