Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 1

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 1

Lines 1-10

Let observation, with extensive view,
Survey mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O'erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wav'ring man, betray'd by vent'rous pride,
To tread the dreary paths without a guide;
As treacherous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good. 

  • In the first lines of the poem, the speaker takes a wide view. He tells us that he will use "observation" to survey mankind from "China to Peru." In other words, we're looking at all of human nature here. We better get comfortable.
  • And what the speaker of the poem sees doesn't make him happy. He notes that mankind is ruled by "hope and fear, desire and hate," and that these emotions often lead people astray. The speaker also says that man is often led by pride, which misguides him like a "treacherous" phantom, or ghost, in the mist. 
  • In addition to this simile, comparing pride to a ghost, we can also see the use of metaphor here, when the speaker describes fate as a "clouded maze" that we have to navigate.

Lines 11-20

How rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice;
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress'd,
When vengeance listens to the fool's request;
Fate wings with ev'ry wish th' afflictive dart,
Each gift of Nature, and each grace of Art,
With fatal heat impetuous courage glows,
With fatal sweetness elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the speaker's powerful breath,
And restless fire precipitates on death! 

  • The speaker of the poem says that reason rarely guides people, or sways them to act in considered ways. Entire nations are destroyed because of the schemes and decisions of fools who are guided by a desire for vengeance, not by reason. 
  • What's more, fate has a way of turning every wish, every gift of nature, and even the gift of art into something bad (this speaker isn't the most optimistic guy around, clearly). Even qualities like courage and elocution (clear speech) are corrupted and used toward bad ends. 
  • In these lines we can see the use of a couple of literary devices. There's our old pal metaphor again, when the speaker refers to the pains of fate as a flying dart ("wing[ing] with ev'ry wish th' afflictive dart"). 
  • There's also consonance, particularly in the lines "How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress'd,/ When vengeance listens to the fool's request," which repeat the S sound throughout. Check out "Sound Check" for more on that.

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