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The Vanity of Human Wishes

The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, imitated by Samuel Johnson. Published in 1749.


  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 wavering man, betray'd by venturous pride,
  To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
  As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude,
  Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good;                     10
  How rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice,
  Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice;
  How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress'd,
  When Vengeance listens to the fool's request;
  Fate wings with every wish the afflictive dart,
  Each gift of Nature, and each grace of Art,
  With fatal heat impetuous courage glows,
  With fatal sweetness elocution flows,
  Impeachment stops the speaker's powerful breath,
  And restless fire precipitates on death!                     20

   But, scarce observed, the knowing and the bold
  Fall in the general massacre of gold;
  Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfined,
  And crowds with crimes the records of mankind
  For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
  For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
  Wealth heap'd on wealth, nor truth, nor safety buys,
  The dangers gather as the treasures rise.

   Let history tell, where rival kings command,
  And dubious title shakes the madded land,                    30
  When statutes glean the refuse of the sword,
  How much more safe the vassal than the lord:
  Low skulks the hind beneath the reach of power,
  And leaves the wealthy traitor in the Tower;
  Untouch'd his cottage, and his slumbers sound,
  Though Confiscation's vultures hover round.

   The needy traveller, serene and gay,
  Walks the wild heath, and sings his toil away.
  Does envy seize thee? Crush the upbraiding joy,
  Increase his riches, and his peace destroy--                 40
  Now fears in dire vicissitude invade,
  The rustling brake alarms, and quivering shade;
  Nor light nor darkness brings his pain relief,
  One shows the plunder, and one hides the thief.
  Yet still one general cry the sky assails,
  And gain and grandeur load the tainted gales;
  Few know the toiling statesman's fear or care,
  The insidious rival, and the gaping heir.

   Once more, Democritus! arise on earth,
  With cheerful wisdom and instructive mirth;                  50
  See motley life in modern trappings dress'd,
  And feed with varied fools the eternal jest:
  Thou who could'st laugh where want enchain'd caprice,
  Toil crush'd conceit, and man was of a piece:
  Where wealth, unloved, without a mourner died;
  And scarce a sycophant was fed by pride;
  Where ne'er was known the form of mock debate,
  Or seen a new-made mayor's unwieldy state;
  Where change of favourites made no change of laws,
  And senates heard before they judged a cause;                60
  How wouldst thou shake at Britain's modish tribe,
  Dart the quick taunt, and edge the piercing gibe!
  Attentive, truth and nature to descry,
  And pierce each scene with philosophic eye,
  To thee were solemn toys or empty show
  The robes of pleasure, and the veils of woe:
  All aid the farce, and all thy mirth maintain,
  Whose joys are causeless, or whose griefs are vain.

   Such was the scorn that fill'd the sage's mind,
  Renew'd at every glance on human kind.                       70
  How just that scorn, e'er yet thy voice declare,
  Search every state, and canvass every prayer.

   Unnumber'd suppliants crowd Preferment's gate,
  Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;
  Delusive Fortune hears the incessant call,
  They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
  On every stage the foes of peace attend,
  Hate dogs their flight, and insult mocks their end.
  Love ends with hope, the sinking statesman's door
  Pours in the morning worshipper no more;                     80
  For growing names the weekly scribbler lies,
  To growing wealth the dedicator flies;
  From every room descends the painted face,
  That hung the bright Palladium of the place;
  And smoked in kitchens, or in auctions sold,
  To better features yields the frame of gold;
  For now no more we trace in every line
  Heroic worth, benevolence divine:
  The form distorted justifies the fall,
  And detestation rids the indignant wall.                     90

   But will not Britain hear the last appeal,
  Sign her foes' doom, or guard her favourites' zeal?
  Through Freedom's sons no more remonstrance rings,
  Degrading nobles, and controlling kings;
  Our supple tribes repress their patriot throats,
  And ask no questions, but the price of votes;
  With weekly libels and septennial ale,
  Their wish is full to riot and to rail.

   In full-blown dignity see Wolsey stand,
  Law in his voice, and fortune in his hand!                  100
  To him the church, the realm, their powers consign,
  Through him the rays of regal bounty shine;
  Turn'd by his nod, the stream of honour flows,
  His smile alone security bestows:
  Still to new heights his restless wishes tower;
  Claim leads to claim, and power advances power;
  Till conquest unresisted ceased to please,
  And rights submitted, left him none to seize.
  At length his sovereign frowns--the train of state
  Mark the keen glance, and watch the sign to hate;           110
  Where'er he turns, he meets a stranger's eye,
  His suppliants scorn him, and his followers fly;
  Now drops at once the pride of awful state,
  The golden canopy, the glittering plate,
  The regal palace, the luxurious board,
  The liveried army, and the menial lord.
  With age, with cares, with maladies oppress'd,
  He seeks the refuge of monastic rest.
  Grief aids disease, remember'd folly stings,
  And his last sighs reproach the faith of kings.             120

   Speak thou, whose thoughts at humble peace repine,
  Shall Wolsey's wealth, with Wolsey's end, be thine?
  Or liv'st thou now, with safer pride content,
  The wisest justice on the banks of Trent?
  For why did Wolsey, near the steeps of Fate,
  On weak foundations raise the enormous weight?
  Why but to sink beneath Misfortune's blow,
  With louder ruin, to the gulphs below!
  What gave great Villiers to the assassin's knife,
  And fix'd disease on Harley's closing life?                  130
  What murder'd Wentworth, and what exiled Hyde,
  By kings protected, and to kings allied?
  What but their wish indulged, in courts to shine,
  And power too great to keep, or to resign!

   When first the college rolls receive his name,
  The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame;
  Resistless burns the fever of renown,
  Caught from the strong contagion of the gown:
  O'er Bodley's dome his future labours spread,
  And Bacon's[1] mansion trembles o'er his head.              140
  Are these thy views? Proceed, illustrious youth,
  And Virtue guard thee to the throne of Truth!
  Yet, should thy soul indulge the generous heat,
  Till captive Science yields her last retreat;
  Should Reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
  And pour on misty Doubt resistless day;
  Should no false kindness lure to loose delight,
  Nor praise relax, nor difficulty fright;
  Should tempting Novelty thy cell refrain,
  And Sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;                  150
  Should Beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
  Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd heart;
  Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
  Nor Melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;
  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 learning, to be wise;
  There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
  Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.                 160
  See nations, slowly wise, and meanly just,
  To buried merit raise the tardy bust.
  If dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
  Hear Lydiat's[2] life, and Galileo's end.

   Nor deem, when Learning her last prize bestows,
  The glittering eminence exempt from foes;
  See, when the vulgar 'scapes, despised or awed,
  Rebellion's vengeful talons seize on Laud.
  From meaner minds though smaller fines content,
  The plunder'd palace, or sequester'd rent,                  170
  Mark'd out by dangerous parts he meets the shock,
  And fatal Learning leads him to the block:
  Around his tomb let Art and Genius weep,
  But hear his death, ye blockheads! hear and sleep.

   The festal blazes, the triumphal show,
  The ravish'd standard, and the captive foe,
  The senate's thanks, the Gazette's pompous tale,
  With force resistless o'er the brave prevail.
  Such bribes the rapid Greek o'er Asia whirl'd;
  For such the steady Romans shook the world;                 180
  For such in distant lands the Britons shine,
  And stain with blood the Danube or the Rhine;
  This power has praise, that virtue scarce can warm,
  Till Fame supplies the universal charm.
  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;
  Wreaths which at last the dear-bought right convey
  To rust on medals, or on stones decay.                      190

   On what foundation stands the warrior's pride,
  How just his hopes, let Swedish Charles decide;
  A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
  No dangers fright him, and no labours tire;
  O'er love, o'er fear, extends his wide domain,
  Unconquer'd lord of pleasure and of pain;
  No joys to him pacific sceptres yield,
  War sounds the trump, he rushes to the field;
  Behold surrounding kings their powers combine,
  And one capitulate, and one resign;                         200
  Peace courts his hand, but spreads her charms in vain:
  'Think nothing gain'd,' he cries, 'till nought remain,
  On Moscow's walls till Gothic standards fly,
  And all be mine beneath the polar sky.'
  The march begins in military state,
  And nations on his eye suspended wait;
  Stern Famine guards the solitary coast,
  And Winter barricades the realms of Frost;
  He comes, nor want nor cold his course delay;
  Hide, blushing Glory! hide Pultowa's day:                   210
  The vanquish'd hero leaves his broken bands,
  And shows his miseries in distant lands;
  Condemn'd a needy supplicant to wait,
  While ladies interpose, and slaves debate.
  But did not Chance at length her error mend?
  Did no subverted empire mark his end?
  Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound,
  Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
  His fall was destined to a barren strand,
  A petty fortress, and a dubious hand;                       220
  He left the name at which the world grew pale,
  To point a moral, or adorn a tale.

   All times their scenes of pompous woe afford,
  From Persia's tyrant to Bavaria's lord.
  In gay hostility, and barbarous pride,
  With half mankind embattled at his side,
  Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey,
  And starves exhausted regions in his way;
  Attendant Flattery counts his myriads o'er,
  Till counted myriads soothe his pride no more;              230
  Fresh praise is tried, till madness fires his mind,
  The waves he lashes, and enchains the wind;
  New powers are claim'd, new powers are still bestow'd,
  Till rude resistance lops the spreading god;
  The daring Greeks deride the martial show,
  And heap their valleys with the gaudy foe;
  The insulted sea with humbler thoughts he gains,
  A single skiff to speed his flight remains;
  The encumber'd oar scarce leaves the dreaded coast
  Through purple billows and a floating host.                 240
   The bold Bavarian,[3] in a luckless hour,
  Tries the dread summits of C├Žsarean power,
  With unexpected legions bursts away,
  And sees defenceless realms receive his sway:
  Short sway! fair Austria spreads her mournful charms,
  The Queen, the Beauty, sets the world in arms;
  From hill to hill the beacon's rousing blaze
  Spreads wide the hope of plunder and of praise;
  The fierce Croatian, and the wild Hussar,
  With all the sons of ravage, crowd the war;                 250
  The baffled prince, in Honour's flattering bloom,
  Of hasty greatness finds the fatal doom,
  His foes' derision, and his subjects' blame,
  And steals to death from anguish and from shame.

   Enlarge my life with multitude of days,--
  In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays,
  Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know
  That life protracted is protracted woe.
  Time hovers o'er, impatient to destroy,
  And shuts up all the passages of joy:                       260
  In vain their gifts the bounteous seasons pour,
  The fruit autumnal, and the vernal flower;
  With listless eyes the dotard views the store--
  He views, and wonders that they please no more.
  Now pall the tasteless meats and joyless wines,
  And Luxury with sighs her slave resigns.
  Approach, ye minstrels! try the soothing strain,
  Diffuse the tuneful lenitives of pain:
  No sounds, alas! would touch the impervious ear,
  Though dancing mountains witness'd Orpheus near:            270
  Nor lute nor lyre his feeble powers attend,
  Nor sweeter music of a virtuous friend;
  But everlasting dictates crowd his tongue,
  Perversely grave, or positively wrong;
  The still returning tale, and lingering jest,
  Perplex the fawning niece and pamper'd guest;
  While growing hopes scarce awe the gathering sneer,
  And scarce a legacy can bribe to hear;
  The watchful guests still hint the last offence,
  The daughter's petulance, the son's expense,                280
  Improve his heady rage with treacherous skill,
  And mould his passions till they make his will.

   Unnumber'd maladies his joints invade,
  Lay siege to life, and press the dire blockade;
  But unextinguish'd Avarice still remains,
  And dreaded losses aggravate his pains;
  He turns, with anxious heart and crippled hands,
  His bonds of debt, and mortgages of lands;
  Or views his coffers with suspicious eyes,
  Unlocks his gold, and counts it till he dies.               290

   But grant, the virtues of a temperate prime
  Bless with an age exempt from scorn or crime--
  An age that melts with unperceived decay,
  And glides in modest innocence away,
  Whose peaceful day Benevolence endears,
  Whose night congratulating Conscience cheers;
  The general favourite as the general friend:
  Such age there is, and who shall wish its end?

   Yet e'en on this her load Misfortune flings,
  To press the weary minutes' flagging wings;                 300
  New sorrow rises as the day returns,
  A sister sickens, or a daughter mourns.
  Now kindred Merit fills the sable bier,
  Now lacerated Friendship claims a tear;
  Year chases year, decay pursues decay,
  Still drops some joy from withering life away;
  New forms arise, and different views engage,
  Superfluous lags the veteran on the stage,
  Till pitying Nature signs the last release,
  And bids afflicted worth retire to peace.                   310

   But few there are whom hours like these await,
  Who set unclouded in the gulphs of Fate.
  From Lydia's monarch[4] should the search descend,
  By Solon caution'd to regard his end,
  In life's last scene what prodigies surprise,
  Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise!
  From Marlborough's eyes the streams of dotage flow,
  And Swift expires a driveller and a show.

   The teeming mother, anxious for her race,
  Begs for each birth the fortune of a face:                  320
  Yet Vane[5] could tell what ills from beauty spring;
  And Sedley[6] cursed the form that pleased a king.
  Ye nymphs of rosy lips and radiant eyes,
  Whom pleasure keeps too busy to be wise,
  Whom joys with soft varieties invite,
  By day the frolic, and the dance by night,
  Who frown with vanity, who smile with art,
  And ask the latest fashion of the heart;
  What care, what rules your heedless charms shall save,
  Each nymph your rival, and each youth your slave?
  The rival batters, and the lover mines.
  With distant voice neglected Virtue calls,
  Less heard and less, the faint remonstrance falls;
  Tired with contempt, she quits the slippery reign,
  And Pride and Prudence take her seat in vain;
  In crowd at once, where none the pass defend,
  The harmless freedom and the private friend.
  The guardians yield, by force superior plied--
  To Interest, Prudence; and to Flattery, Pride.              340
  Here Beauty falls betray'd, despised, distress'd,
  And hissing Infamy proclaims the rest.

   Where, then, shall Hope and Fear their objects find?
  Must dull suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
  Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
  Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
  Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise,
  No cries invoke the mercies of the skies?
  Inquirer, cease! petitions yet remain,
  Which Heaven may hear, nor deem Religion vain.              350
  Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
  But leave to Heaven 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.
  Yet when the sense of sacred presence fires,
  And strong devotion to the skies aspires,
  Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful mind,
  Obedient passions, and a will resign'd;                     360
  For love, which scarce collective man can fill;
  For patience, sovereign o'er transmuted ill;
  For faith, that, panting for a happier seat,
  Counts death kind Nature's signal of retreat:
  These goods for man the laws of Heaven ordain,
  These goods He grants, who grants the power to gain;
  With these celestial Wisdom calms the mind,
  And makes the happiness she does not find.





[Footnote 1: 'Bacon:' Friar, whose study was to fall when a wiser man than he entered it]

[Footnote 2: 'Lydiat:' a learned divine, who spent many of his days in prison for debt; he lived in Charles the First's time.]

[Footnote 3: 'Bavarian:' Charles Albert, who aspired to the empire of Austria against Maria Theresa--but was baffled.]

[Footnote 4: 'Lydia's monarch:' Croesus.]

[Footnote 5: Vane: 'Lady Vane, a celebrated courtezan; her memoirs are in 'Peregrine Pickle.']

[Footnote 6: 'Sedley:' mistress of James II.]


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Samuel Johnson

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