Samuel Johnson – “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (the end)

People generally wish for a long life, but what’s the use of that? Johnson paints a sad picture of an ageing miser, whose family pretends to be amused by the same old anecdotes just to be sure they are going to be in his will. Even the people who can enjoy a happy old age thanks to the virtuous life they led when they were in their prime still suffer from grief when they lose their loved ones, and feel increasingly superfluous and out of touch with the contemporary world. Anyway, few people can hope for a happy old age, even the most illustrious ones, viz. Marlborough and Swift. Swift’s dementia in his last years is well-known, as for Marlborough (the famous general), I guess Johnson is referring to the series of strokes he suffered from in the last years of his life. And mothers usually pray for beauty for their daughters, but beauty makes them forgetful of virtue and prudence, bringing them infamy. Johnson quotes the examples of two royal mistresses, Catherine Sedley and Anne Vane, although I’m not sure his examples are particularly well chosen and they seem to be picked just because they were still in the living memory, while safely dead. Catherine Sedley, the mistress to James II, considered herself plain, although it could be just the result of the fact that in her times the ideal beauty was blonde and voluptuous, while Sedley was apparently more of a Winona Ryder, not Claudia Schiffer. She also seems to have a relatively long and happy life, going the usual route of royal exes by marrying a mid-level nobleman who got a nice new title as a bonus. I could not find that much information about Anne Vane, apart from the fact that she really got around and died rather young. I guess Johnson was disapproving of their lifestyle altogether. So, all in all, if all the things people wish for in life are worthless, what should we wish for? Love, patience and faith, is Johnson’s answer.


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.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady” (the end)

Pope delivers the traditional praise of a woman who never answers her husband back, submits to his will, and if she rules him, it’s through subtle manipulation. She is above all ravages of fate and time. But “[w]oman’s at best a contradiction still” and just “a softer man”, he claims, echoing the old Aristotelian notion. He goes through the well-worn stuff how Heaven mixed all contradictory qualities, like modesty with pride etc. to create the woman. The poem ends with a birthday dedication to Martha Blount: this mixture of best qualities Phoebus promised her when she was born (“I forget the year”, he adds gallantly), Phoebus didn’t grant all the prayers of her parents: he gave her beauty but didn’t give her money. (Martha’s parents were Catholic gentry, but couldn’t afford to pay her dowry – at least not the amount that was expected for a girl of her social position. I read somewhere yesterday, but can’t find the page now, that somebody – was it John Caryll? – offered to pay Martha’s dowry if that was the only thing that stopped Pope from marrying her, but Pope declined. Pope was rich anyway and could afford a dowry-less wife if he wanted, so I don’t know if that story is true. He probably didn’t want to have a wife who would have to be to him more like a nurse.) Pope manages to put a good spin on it, claiming that dowries are only good for buying a woman a tyrant husband. (Martha was at this point forty-five, so long out of the marriage market in her era.) Instead, Martha got something much better: good sense, good humour, and a poet.

I must say this poem is not quite successful in my opinion, not only because it fails to meet the feminist standards of 2018, but also because, like in many longer poems by Pope, one has a feeling it is composed rather of fragments than constituting one organic whole. These fragments are rather awkwardly cobbled together and at places the seams do show.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady” (ctd.)

What about Chloe? She is without reproach but only because she is never passionate or worried about anything. Virtue is too painful for her and she is content with merely being decent. Finally, Pope mentions the Queen, whom he didn’t like. He treads carefully, saying how numerous writers and painter portray her “with truth and goodness, as with crown and ball”, i.e. they are just the attributes conventionally given to her because she is the queen. But what if we strip her of her clothes signifying her regal status? We can make Marquess of Queensberry (a famous beauty, whom Pope did like) pose naked, so when we paint Helen, we have to make do with models of humble origins. Similarly, Pope says, when I want to depict true virtue, I’d rather use Parson Hale or Mahmoud (King  George’s Turkish servant) as a model.

Then Pope move on to more general statements, claiming that men have different passions, but women only two: love of pleasure and love of power. They exercise their power mainly through their beauty, they never have enough admirers, and when their beauty is gone, they become sad hags playing cards (the passage about how terrible the old age of former beauty queens is, is quite long). The poet is happy that the addressee of his poem never aspired to dazzle with her beauty, but raised the thought and touched the heart. This quiet kind of charm prevails, like after the sun set, the moon “serene in virgin modesty” pleases us more.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady” (ctd.)

Sin or Philomede sleeps around, usually with footmen and the like. She is like a glutton who criticises your wine and meat, but is happy to eat plain pudding at home. Flavia is a witty atheist, too smart for her own good. Simo’s wife owns her faults “but never mends”, because she think being as honest as to admit to them is good enough. Another nameless lady spends her life on gossips and prayer. Another “laughs at hell” and exclaims “”Oh! how charming if there’s no such place” indicating perhaps that her atheism is provisional and motivated only by her fear of eternal punishment. Another is both an alcoholic and an opium addict. Then we get a longer description of Atossa (who, the Helpful Footnote thinks, might be “Duchess of Buckinghamshire”, i.e. Catherine Sheffield, nee Darnley) who has a fierce temper and managed to scare away both her friends and foes. All this feels very impressionistic and one has a feeling Pope writes about real women known to him and to the addressee of the poem, not “types” – hence why some get just two lines, some, like Atossa, extended descriptions. Pope must have felt that way, too, because then he writes about how “pictures like these… ask no firm hand and no unerring line”. They are merely his fleeting impressions, appropriate for the subject, because who can paint chamelons only in black and white?