This book is licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license. See the license for more details, but that basically means you can share this book as long as you credit the author (but see below), don't make money from it, and do make it available to everyone else under the same terms.
This content was accessible as of December 29, 2012, and it was downloaded then by Andy Schmitz in an effort to preserve the availability of this book.
Normally, the author and publisher would be credited here. However, the publisher has asked for the customary Creative Commons attribution to the original publisher, authors, title, and book URI to be removed. Additionally, per the publisher's request, their name has been removed in some passages. More information is available on this project's attribution page.
For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. To download a .zip file containing this book to use offline, simply click here.
PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.
Primarily known during his lifetime as a lexicographer and a journalist, Samuel Johnson was also a poet and a leading figure in late 18th-century literary circles. The son of a bookseller, Johnson lacked the funds to complete his degree at Oxford. However, he read voraciously at home and began his college career at Oxford by impressing his teachers and fellow students with his knowledge. After establishing himself as a journalist, Johnson was hired to compile a dictionary which became one of the most well-known of English dictionaries.
Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” employs many of the characteristics of neoclassical poetry: it is patterned after the classical Latin works of Juvenal; it uses the formal, highly structured closed heroic couplet; it exalts reason; it uses personificationgiving human characteristics to inanimate objects or abstract qualities [giving human characteristics to inanimate objects or abstract qualities].
The first stanza presents the main idea of the poem: that life is like a maze which each individual stumbles through without a guide. The poem is then developed like an essay: each “vain wish” serves as a topic sentence developing the thesis. Each topic sentence is, in turn, developed with specific examples. This poem is often difficult for modern readers because many of the examples are allusions to people, places, and events familiar to the 18th century audience but not to a current audience. However, the main ideas—the vain wishes—are equally relevant.
The copy of the poem from Representative Poetry Online provides notes which explain many of the unfamiliar references.