Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson.jpg

Simply, The Age of Johnson

Samuel Johnson is an esteemed English writer who became a prominent literary figure in England in the 18th century. Johnson is known for writing profound poetry, fiction, moralizing essays, and political pieces.

The Life of Johnson
Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England on September 18, 1709. It is claimed that Samuel Johnson grew up in poverty and that he and his family fought financial battles for the majority of Johnson’s childhood and young adult life. Johnson showed signs of early intelligence and began his education at the mere age of three. Johnson excelled in school and was promoted to the upper school at age nine.

At the age of about sixteen, Johnson’s father was deeply in debt. To earn money, Johnson began to stitch books for his father, and it is presumable that Johnson spent much time in his father’s bookshop reading and building his literary knowledge. The family remained in poverty until the cousin of Johnson’s mother, Elizabeth Harriotts, died in February 1728 and left enough money to send Johnson to college. Later in 1728, at age nineteen, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford. A shortage of funds forced Johnson to leave Oxford without a degree and move back home to Lichfield.

Johnson attempted to obtain several jobs but failed to be hired because he did not have a degree. Oxford did eventually award him with the degree of Master of Arts. Johnson was also awarded an honorary doctorate in 1765 by Trinity College Dublin and in 1775 by Oxford.

Johnson was known as a charitable, sensible, and caring man. He did not linger on insubstantial complaints, and appreciated the world around him. He was an honest man, and never thought twice about helping those in need. He took in strays from the outside, gave them a place to stay, and supported them throughout his adulthood. It is known that Johnson gave two thirds of his income to charity, and never turned down a man or woman in need of help. Johnson’s good demeanor did not stop there. He was an active critic of others work, but when critiquing it, he would say only good things about the authors and poets. He admired the poets that wrote like him, such as Swift.

One of Johnson’s most famous works is A Dictionary of the English Language. There was dissatisfaction with the dictionaries of the period, so in June 1746 a group of London booksellers hired Johnson to write a dictionary. Johnson took nearly nine years to complete the work, although he had claimed he could finish it in three. Remarkably, Johnson completed the work single-handedly, with only clerical assistance to copy out the illustrative quotations that he had marked in books. Johnson produced several revised editions during his life.

Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 173 years later, Johnson’s was viewed as the primary English dictionary. According to Walter Jackson Bate, the Dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who labored under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time”.

The most successful of Johnson’s minor works and one worth noting is Rasselas. Johnson wrote Rasselas during a time when he desperately needed extra money. Johnson knew that in order to get his hands on the money he needed, he would need to write another composition, therefore Rasselas came to be. It is the story of a young prince who sets off to see the world only to uncover the harsh reality that the world is all vanity. This work can link to his other work, “The Vanity of Human Wishes” in which vanity is a major theme.

About “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

  • Pride and greed lead to the downfall of man
  • Vain meaning “futile,” “pointless,” “profitless”
  • Johnson discusses the pursuits of wealth, power, ambition, military glory, living a long life, beauty

An Analysis of “The Vanity of Human Wishes”
“The Vanity of Human Wishes” by Samuel Johnson is a representation of Augustan literature, which was a literary extension of the Enlightenment period. Writing from the Augustan age looked to inspiration from classical models of literature such as the Roman writers Ovid, Virgil, and Horace, and Greek poet Homer. The Augustan period is also characterized by satire. Satire extends past mocking and works to exaggerate and illuminate social ills in an effort to correct them. Johnson draws on personal experience as well as a variety of historical sources to illustrate “the helpless vulnerability of the individual before the social context.”
“The Vanity of Human Wishes” opens with the phrase “Let Observation, with extensive View/ Survey Mankind, from China to Peru”. These lines encompass the entire human condition, from humble to dignified. This poem focuses on the larger public sphere, conveys a sense of universal constants, and uses satire in an attempt to reform the public as a whole. In the Augustan period, existed Juvenlian and Horatian satire. “The Vanity of Human Wishes” is a Juvenalian satire, which is somber and has a more serious tone as opposed to Horatian that utilizes comedy. Johnson’s poem uses diction such as “anxious”, “toil”, “strife”, “fear”, and “hate”, all within the first five lines, that reflect this serious tone. In the “Vanity of Human Wishes” Johnson releases his anger and contempt at human behavior through Juvenalian satire. Johnson is angry at human behavior because he believes the existence of pride and vanity in individuals is excessive. Johnson uses the word “vain” in a dual way and depicts both the social ill of vanity and shows that when something is “vain” it is futile and pointless. Johnson uses the word “vain” to demonstrate that pursuits of wealth and excess of pride are useless. Throughout this poem, Johnson argues that pride and greed are ultimately negative and unwanted qualities that only lead to failure or unhappiness. For example, Johnson states, “Wealth heaped on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys, / The dangers gather as the treasures rise.” Johnson is warning the reader of the dangers of desire and that wanting too much wealth or power only leads to trouble or dissatisfaction. Ultimately, “The Vanity of Human Wishes” seeks to correct human error that Johnson witnesses in society and reflects distinct characteristics of the Augustan Age.

It is clear that Samuel Johnson’s main point in “The Vanity of Human Wishes” is to satirize human ambition and failure, and to say that Christian values are one of life’s greatest necessities. His harsh tone is clearly demonstrated throughout this literary work, and by incorporating qualities of the Juvenalian satire, Johnson takes this biting tone one step further. A large bulk of his poem centers on listing what he believes to be vain, and advising people to stray away from these surface pursuits. For example, he tells the students who are searching for glory in Oxford, “Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,/ Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee:/ Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,/ And pause a while from letters, to be wise” (155 – 158). What he means by this is that searching for academic glory in a college like Oxford is vain and trivial, and should not be the goal of any student. He continues with his argument by criticizing beauty, wealth, and war. He states, “Unnumbered suppliants crowd Preferment’s gate,/ Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;/ Delusive Fortune hears th’ incessant call,/ They mount, they shine, evaporate and fall” (73-76), marking his idea that pursuits of wealth are unnecessary and only lead to failure. His next critique occurs when he warns the soldiers that war is economically nonsensical, claiming, “Yet Reason frowns on War’s unequal game,/ Where wasted nations raise a single name,/ And mortgaged states their grandsires’ wreaths regret/ From age to age in everlasting debt” (185-188) Here, he is not only critiquing the soldiers, but also Britain’s political and foreign policy, which he believes to be utterly irrational and wrong. His last major critique focuses on beauty when he so harshly criticizes those who long for this superficial entity. He says, “That life protracted is protracted woe./ Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,/ And shuts up all the passages of joy” (258-260), warning women not to get caught up in the vain pursuits of beauty because beauty is ultimately transient and not worth the immense effort. Although Johnson makes other critiques throughout the poem, these examples are the most strongly focused. He makes his point clear that individuals are entirely too wrapped up in trivial pursuits and are thus overlooking the more important aspects of life. His criticisms span across all people and across all times, and he makes this idea evident in the opening of the poem when he states,

Let Observation with extensive view,
Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride,
To tread the dreary paths without a guide;
As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good. (1-10)

This aspect of the poem is extremely significant because Johnson shows the reader that he is not merely addressing one person, but critiquing humanity as a whole. As Howard D. Weinbrot points out in his novel, “Aspects of Samuel Johnson: Essays on his Arts, Mind, Afterlife, and Politics,” Johnson’s poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” is so successful because of the “vigorous involvement between narrator and reader” (105). This statement holds great truth; Johnson successfully conveys his critical ideas because he strategically establishes a personal relationship with the reader. Johnson’s critiques, however, are not his only goals in this poem. His main point is to demonstrate the notion that although humans are extremely flawed, their lives can be fixed if they live according to Christianity. At the end of the poem, he clearly conveys this idea by stating, “petitions yet remain, Which Heav’n may hear, nor deem religion vain./ Still raise for good the supplicating voice,/ But leave to Heav’n the measure and the choice,/ Safe in his power, whose eyes discern afar/ The secret ambush of a specious prayer./ Implore his aid, in his decisions rest,/ Secure whate’er he gives, he gives the best” (349-356). In this passage, Johnson’s tone transitions from pessimistic to positive, leaving readers with the idea that people should not worry too much and should simply trust in God because God can see life’s bigger picture. By leaving readers with this comforting idea, Johnson exposes his immense belief in the power of Christianity and his strong faith in God. Overall, although Johnson’s poem is flooded with criticism, his final message that God is steadfast and always present establishes an optimistic ending to the poem and a hopeful outlook for readers.

“The Vanity of Human Wishes” was written by Johnson as a Juvenalian satire. The Augustan period, typically known as the “Age of Reason” or “Age of Satire” was when authors had the chance to write about change in politics, religion,culture and many other aspects with real opinion and truth. Johnson’s poem combines real life issues with shameful satire, that only enhances the severity of the issues at hand. In “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, Johnson makes a point of using observation of real life experience to accurately portray just how corrupt and greedy man kind is. The poem feeds on the idea of man kind being its own downfall due to greed and arrogance. Johnson uses specific satirical structure, and language in order to truly convey his point. Observation is seen in the opening of the poem, “Let Observation, with extensive view,/ Survey mankind, from China to Peru;”(1-2). This illustrates that Johnson is using the Augustan characteristic of empiricism throughout the poem, drawing on observation of different social statuses, and life scenarios, such as monarchs, military, the poor, and many more. The fact that this poem is written as a satire is what makes it a true Augustan piece of writing. The satirical elements, that point out the mistakes and misfortunes of man hoping that by pointing out these errors, man will change their ways. Satire is all about calling out things that are obviously wrong but can be changed and fixed. Specific points of the poem directly comment on how much greed effects a person, and how it leads to an inevitable circle of wanting more and more until we can no longer take it and we destroy ourselves. “Wealth heaped on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys,/ The dangers gather as the treasures rise”(27-28), this line is particularly important to the poem as a whole in relevance to the Augustan because it illustrates how wealth is the main problem in society. The need to be wealthy is what will be the end for mankind. Johnson expands on this theory with clever, and witty passages that explain just how dangerous it is to be a greedy individual, and just how flawed society is for thinking with only wealth and power in mind. Another prime example of Johnson’s Juvenal satire is “Claim leads to claim, and pow’r advances pow’r;/ Till conquest unresisted ceased to please”(106-107). The wording here is useful when examining how Johnson uses language to make his point clear. It also demonstrates the struggle that is seen throughout society, and how Johnson is reacting to it with reason and logic. Reason and logic are two Augustan characteristics that make the pieces written in this period stand out. Satire is based off of reason, and seen throughout “The Vanity of Human Wishes” is reason at its finest. Johnson has thought about how man is affected by his environment, and this is displayed in the use of complex emotion. Johnson also visits time, and seasons when talking about life moving forward. “Year chases year, decay pursues decay”(305), Johnson discusses how each year only adds to the self destruction. By communicating this point Johnson clearly demonstrates his point of mankind revolving around and being obsessed with wealth and greed. The Juvenalian satirical elements that are seen in this poem make “The Vanity of Human Wishes” a true piece of Augustan literature.

A Quote from Samuel Johnson about Jonathan Swift:
He talks of how Swift is original, and from his originality is greatness
“perhaps no writer can easily be found that has borrowed so little, or that, in all his excellencies and all his defects, has so well maintained his claim to be considered original.”

Damrosch, David. “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fourth ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Longman, 1999. 2677-686. Print.


Howard D. Weinbrot:
“Aspects of Samuel Johnson: Essays on his Arts, Mind, Afterlife, and Politics”

Boswell, James, C. P. Chadsey, and Gordon Ross. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1946. Online.