Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Wealth and Gold

By Samuel Johnson

Wealth and Gold

As another poet once said: mo' money, mo' problems. Apparently, back in the eighteenth century the speaker of Johnson's poem thought so too. There's a lot of imagery focusing on wealth and gold in "The Vanity of Human Wishes." Generally, this imagery suggests the way in which money not only corrupts people but also creates a lot of problems for them. In this way the imagery is counter-intuitive: we may think that money solves our problems, but actually it creates problems.

  • Lines 21-26: These lines represent gold as corrupting. Not only does gold corrupt people, it destroys them. We're massacred by gold. We do bad things for gold.
  • Lines 27-28: Here the speaker suggests that wealth doesn't protect us, it harms us. We may think that, if we're rich, we'll have safety and security, but in fact the richer we are the more troubles we have. 
  • Lines 112-114: The speaker refers to Cardinal Wolsey in these lines, and the imagery suggests how fleeting wealth is. Wolsey was rich, he had "golden" canopies and "glitt'ring" plates, but he lost them all. 
  • Lines 287-290: Money brings us anxiety and worries. We may end up in debt, for instance. And even if we have money, we can't help worrying about losing it. It doesn't bring us peace; it makes us anxious. 
  • Lines 73-74: These lines affirm an idea that appears again and again in the poem: wealth corrupts us. We kiss up to people who have money because we too want to be rich and great like them. 
  • Lines 81-82: Here, again, the speaker is telling us how bad money is. We run to anyone who has it and dedicate ourselves to them, all in the hope of growing rich ourselves. 
  • Lines 121-122: Ultimately, the speaker suggests that money brings us to a bad end. Cardinal Wolsey ends up dead, despite all of his money.

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