Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 13

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 13

Lines 135-142

When first the college rolls receive his name,
The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame;
Through all his veins the fever of renown,
Spreads from the strong contagion of the gown;
O'er Bodley's dome his future labours spread,
And Bacon's mansion trembles o'er his head.
Are these thy views? Proceed, illustrious youth,
And Virtue guard thee to the throne of Truth!

  • In this stanza, the speaker turns away from discussing political figures to consider the fate of those who devote their lives to learning. Think scholars and students have it easier than political big-wigs? Think again. 
  • When the young academic is first enrolled in college, he leaves his easy life in search of scholarly fame. He's eager for renown, in other words. 
  • In the line "Spreads from the strong contagion of the gown" we can see alliteration at play with the repetition of S sounds. Check out "Sound Check" for more on that. 
  • The scholar's work fills the Bodleian Library at Oxford University ("Bodley's dome"). 
  • When the speaker says "Bacon's mansion trembles o'er his [the scholar's] head," he is referring to an old superstition that the bridge—on which the image of the famous medieval philosopher Roger Bacon is engraved—will collapse when a scholar greater than Bacon makes his way under it. 
  • The speaker encourages the young scholar to pursue his studies, and hopes that virtue and goodness will lead him to truth.

Lines 143-156

Yet should thy soul indulge the gen'rous heat,
Till captive Science yields her last retreat;
Should Reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
And pour on misty Doubt resistless day;
Should no false kindness lure to loose delight,
Nor Praise relax, nor Difficulty fright;
Should tempting Novelty thy cell refrain,
And Sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;
Should Beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd heart;
Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor Melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;
Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man revers'd for thee:

  • The speaker addresses the young scholar directly here. He says that, if the young scholar is taken up by a passion for knowledge, they have to be careful. He describes a long list of temptations and obstacles that the scholar faces in the pursuit of knowledge. 
  • Scholars can be tempted into bad delights. Praise can lead us to relax their efforts. Difficulty might frighten them. They have to resist new things and not let laziness slow them down. A beautiful lady might conquer their heart, and disease might invade their body. Depression (or "Melancholy") might haunt them, like a phantom. 
  • The speaker's words suggest that only hope can be free of grief or danger. Scholars' lives, on the other hand, are haunted by grief and danger. Scholars have to understand that they're not going to escape the doom that's destined for mankind. (Anyone else think this guy missed his calling as a motivational speaker?)

Lines 157-164

Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause a while from letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
See nations, slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried merit raise the tardy bust.
If dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat's life, and Galileo's end.

  • The speaker continues to address scholars directly. Only when they understand that their own lives, as scholars, are going to be full of misfortune can they look at the world and become fully wise. 
  • They will see all the problems that assail a scholar's life. These problems include hard work (too much of it), envy, failure, patrons (whom scholars have to depend on for money), and jail. Wait, what? Jail? 
  • Nations will only honor the scholar and his work (writing in the mid-1700s, Johnson probably was not including women here) when they become wise and (a little) just. They will put up a bust (a statue) to honor the scholar only after he's dead and buried. 
  • If scholarly dreams make scholars feel good about themselves and about the future, they need only remember Lydiat's life and Galileo's death. (To learn more about Lydiat and Galileo, check out "Shout-Outs.")

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...