Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Allusions

By Samuel Johnson

Allusions

Literary and Philosophical References

  • Juvenal, "The Tenth Satire" (Title): "The Tenth Satire" is a poem by the Latin poet Juvenal. It's part of a series of satirical poems that were written in the late first century CE-early second century CE. Juvenal's "Tenth Satire" in particular focuses on man's desire for all the wrong things: wealth, power, and beauty, among other things. Sound familiar? It should. Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is inspired by Juvenal's satire.

Historical References

  • Democritus (49): He was an ancient Greek philosopher who advocated that we should live life with humility and moderation. 
  • Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (99, 122, 125): Wolsey was the Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church between 1514 and 1530. He was also the right-hand man of King Henry VIII, but fell out of favour with him when he failed to get Henry permission from the Pope to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. 
  • George Villiers (129): Villiers was the first Duke of Buckingham, and was a close ally of King James I of England. He was assassinated at the beginning of the reign of King Charles I. 
  • Robert Harley (130): Harley was the first Earl of Oxford. In 1715 he was imprisoned in the Tower of London by King George I. 
  • Thomas Wentworth (131): Wentworth was the First Earl of Strafford. He was a close advisor to King Charles I, but eventually fell out of favor and was executed in 1641. 
  • Edward Hyde (131): He was the First Earl of Clarendon, who was impeached and went into exile in France once King Charles I turned his back on him. 
  • Thomas Lydiat (164): Lydiat was a clergyman and mathematician who ended his last years living in poverty. 
  • Galileo (164): Galileo was a scientist and mathematician who played a major role in the scientific revolution. 
  • William Laud (168): Laud was the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1633 and 1645. He was executed in 1645 because of his attacks on religious dissidents. 
  • Alexander (the "rapid Greek") (179): Alexander the Great became king of the Greek kingdom of Macedon in 336 BC. He is famous for his conquest of large parts of Asia and North Africa. 
  • Marlborough (317): This refers to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, who was a soldier and an important political figure under Queen Anne of Great Britain. 
  • Charles XII (192): Charles XII was the king of Sweden between 1697 and 1718. He tried to conquer parts of Russia, including Moscow, but failed, and was eventually exiled to the Ottoman Empire. 
  • Xerxes (227): He's the Persian King who was defeated by the Greeks when he tried to invade Greece in 480 BC. 
  • Charles VII (also known as Charles Albert, "Bavaria's lord") (224): Charles was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in 1742. He led a campaign to win over the throne of Austria, but was defeated. 
  • Maria Theresa ("The Queen, the Beauty") (246): Maria Theresa became the ruler of Austria in 1740. Her claim to the throne was challenged by Charles VII, but she defeated him. 
  • Croesus ("Lydia's monarch") (313): The king of Lydia (an ancient kingdom), he ruled between 560 and 547 BC. 
  • Solon (314): He was a poet and a statesman from Athens. The story goes that he visited king Croesus of Lydia, and told the king that he shouldn't count himself happy until he had lived to the end of his life. In other words, we never know what fate has in store for us. 
  • Anne Vane (321): She was a lady-in-waiting who was the lover of George II's son Frederick. 
  • Catherine Sedley (322): She was the lover of King James II. Her father wasn't happy about her relationship with the king.

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