Explication of lines 345-370
The work of Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of the Human Wishes is one of the most complex works of poetry in 18th century literature. Based on the tenth satire of Juvenal, it is the work that Johnson developed at one of his most somber and melancholy periods of his life. The poem is a complete contrast of the previous and more uplifting work of Rasselas. With the more profoundly divergent moral implications involved, scholars are sure that Johnson was sensitive to the difference of depicting the defeat of man’s loftiest endeavors (Voitle, 37).
Although he denies that man can win happiness, Johnson still leaves man some freedom to act in Rasselas; however, in the poem, he leaves man with almost no freedom. Rather, Johnson puts forth the idea of being the “vassal,” or the “skulking hind,” that is a product of mere chance. The theme of the poem is the defeat of the spirit of man in “the clouded mazes of fate (line 6)” (Voitle, 41). Those that Johnson reflects upon, such as Galileo, Laud, Harley, and Swift are not presented for their merit, but rather for their fatal pursuit that moves beyond a pleasant existence. See lines 130, 164, 168, and 318.
Johnson felt that human failure was due to the external factors of man, and it appears to be a necessity in the poem rather than an accident. Men of the time seemed to allow the force of materialism, power, and control to steer them toward a false sense of self reason. For example, in lines 347 and 348, Samuel Johnson depicts man as helpless and sedated by his ignorance, while swimming down the fated current of life. These lines capture and reiterate the theme of the poem continuously. We also have to remember that Johnson was in deep sorrow when he wrote the work. His wife’s health was poor and her temper was even worse. Furthermore, the family confronted financial strain and Johnson’s aging brought on his own illness (Voitle, 43).
Thus, it is not
surprising that within the poem, we see Johnson’s mankind struggling between
Religion, God, and Nature in the last section. When we look at the lines in the
previous paragraph, “Must helpless Man, in Ignorance
Swim darkling down the Current of his Fate” (lines 347-348), which seem like the most important lines of the section, Johnson moves man through the frantic mindlessness of the security of Religion. Metaphorically as man moves down the river, instead of consulting construct of Religion, man should reach for God himself and converse/and or understand nature:
Must no Dislike alarm, no Wishes rise,
No Cries attempt the Mercies of the Skies?
Enquirer, cease, Petition yet remain,
Which Heav’n may hear, nor deem Religion vain. [lines 349-352]
The following lines of 353 and 354 reaffirm the external elements that move mankind through existence. Johnson is saying the voice we find is only determined by the Wrath of God. If we believe we can be free men under a God that will choose at his own will the course of our destiny, then we are not free. The poem’s tone indicates that Johnson is saying to stay the course and raise questions, abut not try to change the course of man. However, the tone and the content can be interpreted as purposely condescending. In not raising direct concerns in the content, it is up to the reasonable man to infer that changes are needed in order for man to flourish.
From line 353 to line 369, the poem begins to shift into another direction. The poem begins to discuss the disillusion and false perceptions of man. The mentioning of “his Pow’r” and “specious Pray’r,” in lines 355 and 356 allows Johnson to present the complacence of man, in the entrapping sense of the word. This echoes the previous statement of the defeated man that is a pawn to some celestial or omnipotent being. I feel that Johnson felt, at the time, that man was ready to exchange the meaning of freedom for security, and choice for structure:
For Love, which scarce collective Man can fill;
For Patience sov’reign o’er transmuted Ill;
For Faith, that panting for a happier Seat,
Thinks Death kind Nature’s Signal of Retreat: [lines 363-366]
There was a need for social structure and reform for the time, but men seemed more concerned with sweeping the dirt under the rug so to speak.
Samuel Johnson said it best when he wrote an annotation on The Vanity of Human Wishes: “Some have endeavoured to engage us in the contemplation of the evils of life for a very wise and good end. They have proposed, by laying before us the uncertainty of prosperity, the vanity of pleasure, and the inquietudes of power, the difficult attainment of most earthly blessings, and the short duration of them all, to divert our thoughts from the glittering follies and tempting delusions that surround us” (Voitle, 45). The last two lines of the poem are important because we can get the feeling that Johnson is engaging us to accept the freedom and responsibility of having a free mind. Our happiness, and most importantly, our lives are not determined by fate, but rather as Johnson iterates in the underlying tone, because mankind, unconsciously so, follows the popular projects of earthly desire. True happiness, it seems, can only be achieved when men calm their restless, selfish, and fruitless desires by subordinating their wishes to a higher authority.
Voitle, Robert. Samuel Johnson, the moralist. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961.
Lynch, Jack. The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, Imitated by Samuel Johnson, 1749, Edited by Jack Lynch.
Rutgers University. 11 Oct. 2005 <http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/vanity.html>