Today’s Old Testament reading, the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes, has given me an excuse to go back and read an important poem that it inspired. I last read Samuel Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes” before I discovered Christianity—back in the 1980s—and today find it to be a much different poem. It now seems more hopeful.
First of all, here’s today’s reading (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23):
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Johnson’s poem is too long to summarize in its entirety, but I’ll share some of the highlights. It begins by noting how “Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate” trap humans in their snares. Even the “Knowing and the Bold,” for instance, fall prey to “the gen’ral Massacre of Gold”:
But scarce observed the Knowing and the Bold,
Fall in the gen’ral 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 heaped on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys,
The Dangers gather as the Treasures rise.
Do we beseech the heavens to grant us fame and celebrity? Well, that just sets us up for worries, hatred, and insult:
Few know the toiling Statesman’s Fear or Care,
Th’ insidious Rival and the gaping Heir…
Unnumber’d 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.
On ev’ry Stage the Foes of Peace attend,
Hate dogs their Flight, and Insult mocks their End.
Citing various historical examples, Johnson goes on to show the disappointment that comes from a range of successes, from scholarly achievement to military conquest. Then he shifts to a longing closer to home: our desire to live a long life. This also proves to be vanity. “Life protracted,” Johnson soberly tells us, “is protracted Woe” because we lose our ability to enjoy sensual pleasures, we suffer aches and pains, and we sometimes succumb to dementia:
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:
In vain their Gifts the bounteous Seasons pour,
The Fruit autumnal, and the Vernal Flow’r,
With listless Eyes the Dotard views the Store,
He views, and wonders that they please no more…
Unnumber’d Maladies each Joint invade,
Lay Siege to Life and press the dire Blockade…
From Marlb’rough’s Eyes the Streams of Dotage flow,
And Swift expires a Driv’ler and a Show.
The images of a demented general, the Duke of Malborough, and of Jonathan Swift are especially unsettling. Johnson had a love-hate relationship with Swift, in part because of Swift’s madness following a stroke. Johnson feared that he himself might some day be wheeled out to be shown to curious visitors, as Swift was by his servants.
Even if we have a good old age, however, Johnson warns that all is still vanity. That’s because a long life just sets us up to witness our loved ones die:
Yet ev’n on this [peaceful old age] her Load Misfortune flings,
To press the weary Minutes flagging Wings:
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 with’ring Life away;
The list continues. Do you long to be beautiful? Well, first you have rivals and then you have regrets. And so on.
To this point, both Ecclesiastes and Johnson’s poem are awfully grim. Fortunately, we can turn to prayer, advice that means more to me than when I first read the poem. Johnson concludes the poem by asserting that, if we send petitions to Heaven, it will not be in vain. Or at least, it won’t be in vain if we leave it up to God to figure out how to answer.
Johnson tells us that we must not dictate how we wish our prayers to be answered but “leave to Heav’n the Measure and the Choice.” With a strong sense of God’s presence, Johnson says, pray for a healthful mind, for obedience, for acceptance of God’s will (“a Will resigned”) , for love, for patience, and for faith. If we do so, we will come to see death as “kind Nature’s Signal of Retreat,” our minds will be calmed, and we will find happiness:
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…
Implore his Aid, in his Decisions rest,
Secure whate’er he gives, he gives the best.
Yet with the Sense of sacred Presence prest,
When strong Devotion fills thy glowing Breast,
Pour forth thy Fervors for a healthful Mind,
Obedient Passions, and a Will resigned;
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:
These Goods for Man the Laws of Heav’n ordain,
These Goods he grants, who grants the Pow’r to gain;
With these celestial Wisdom calms the Mind,
And makes the Happiness she does not find.