Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Introduction

By Samuel Johnson

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The Vanity of Human Wishes Introduction

"The Vanity of Human Wishes" is a poem about, well, the vanity of human wishes. Great, so we're done here? Well… not quite. You see, this is not the most optimistic poem. In it, the speaker lays out why all our hopes and dreams are likely to come to nothing. We want lots of money? Good luck to us. Lots of power? Too much power will only get us into trouble. We want to look beautiful? Our beauty will destroy us.

Not only that, but the poem dwells on our weakness as human beings. We can't help being too proud or arrogant or greedy. We're far from perfect, in other words. It's inherent to our human nature to be weak. And it's this weakness that gets us into trouble.

Written in 1749, while Johnson was working on his far-more-famous Dictionary of the English Language, this poem is inspired by the "Tenth Satire," which was written by the Latin poet Juvenal. It's a "satire" because it holds a very unflattering mirror up to humankind. It's a poem that shows us all that's wrong with us, and all that's wrong with our values. We're guessing that Johnson was loads of fun at parties.

What is The Vanity of Human Wishes About and Why Should I Care?

We all want to lead happy lives, don't we? But we can only do that if we're wise and clever enough to avoid making other people's mistakes. But hey, who has the time to sit there and study human nature and figure out what's the best way to lead our lives? That Xbox isn't going to play itself, right?

Thank goodness, then, for "The Vanity of Human Wishes." That's because we can use the poem as a kind of shortcut: it sums up all of those bad things we need to avoid in order not to end up miserable. So, let's thank Samuel Johnson for doing all the hard work for us, so that we don't have to. All together now: "Thank you, Samuel." We're sure he appreciates it—wherever he is.

The Vanity of Human Wishes Resources


"Vanity" Intro
Here's a neat little intro to Johnson's poem, from the University of Virginia.

Victorian Web on Johnson
This is a nice summary of Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," with lots of thought-provoking questions mixed in there.

"The Tenth Satire" of Juvenal
Dig this translation of the Latin poem—Juvenal's "Tenth Satire"—that inspired "The Vanity of Human Wishes."


Samuel Johnson: The Dictionary Man
Learn more about Samuel Johnson's making of the English Dictionary.

Black Adder the Third
Here's a clip from the hilarious British comedy show "Black Adder." It features the character of Samuel Johnson visiting Prince George at his palace. Funniness ensues.


"Vanity" Reading
Hear Johnson's poem read in a fancy British accent.

"To Sir John Lade, on His Coming of Age"
Johnson's short poem (written to the young and wealthy aristocrat John Lade) is read here by John Richetti.


Portrait of Samuel Johnson
Check out the writer, looking serious. Or maybe he just has a headache.

Samuel Johnson's Handwriting
This is cool: a few lines written in Johnson's hand from the manuscript of "The Vanity of Human Wishes." That's some handwriting he's got there.

Articles and Interviews

"Samuel Johnson, anti-American"
Here's a Boston Globe article on Johnson's relationship to America.

"Samuel Johnson and the Virtue of Capitalism"
Does "The Vanity of Human Wishes" support or negate the view that Johnson was a capitalist? The author of this Wall Street Journal article thinks that Johnson was one, anyway.


"Vanity" in 1876
Here's an 1876 edition of Johnson's poem, with notes by E.J. Payne.

Samuel Johnson: A Biography
Okay, so it's not the best title, but this is a thorough biography of the ups and downs of Johnson's busy life.

Movies & TV

"Omnibus: Life of Samuel Johnson" (1957)
Blast to the past with this 1957 TV episode about Samuel Johnson.

"Black Adder The Third" (1987)
Dr. Samuel Johnson makes an appearance in this famous British comedy. Check out some of Johnson's lines in the IMDB link.

Samuel Johnson: Dictionary Man (2006)
This BBC documentary is about Johnson's making of the English Dictionary.

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