Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 16

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 16

Lines 191-200

On what foundation stands the warrior's pride,
How just his hopes, let Swedish Charles decide;
A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
No dangers fright him, and no labours tire;
O'er love, o'er fear, extends his wide domain,
Unconquer'd lord of pleasure and of pain;
No joys to him pacific sceptres yield,
War sounds the trump, he rushes to the field;
Behold surrounding kings their powers combine,
And one capitulate, and one resign;

  • The speaker says that we need only look at the example of the Swedish King Charles XII to see what a flimsy foundation the pride and hopes of the war hero rest on. 
  • So what about him? Well, Charles had a pretty impressive body, "a soul of fire" (or a passionate soul). He wasn't scared of anything and he never grew tired.
  • Charles is the lord of love and fear and pleasure and pain (of everything, basically). He doesn't get any joy out of peaceful "sceptres" (the staff, or stick, that kings carry). The minute the war trumpets sound, he's running out to fight in the battlefield. 
  • The enemy kings combine their power against him. But then they all give in—Charles is too strong for them.
  • He sounds like a righteous dude.

Lines 201-222

Peace courts his hand, but spreads her charms in vain:
"Think nothing gain'd," he cries, "till nought remain,
On Moscow's walls till Gothic standards fly,
And all be mine beneath the polar sky."
The march begins in military state,
And nations on his eye suspended wait;
Stern Famine guards the solitary coast,
And Winter barricades the realms of Frost;
He comes, nor want nor cold his course delay;
Hide, blushing Glory, hide Pultowa's day:
The vanquish'd hero leaves his broken bands,
And shows his miseries in distant lands;
Condemn'd a needy supplicant to wait,
While ladies interpose, and slaves debate.
But did not Chance at length her error mend?
Did no subverted empire mark his end?
Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound,
Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
His fall was destin'd to a barren strand,
A petty fortress, and a dubious hand;
He left the name at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral, or adorn a tale.

  • After Charles wins all of these wars, there is peace in the land. But Charles isn't satisfied with peace. He basically says "Nothing is gained until my military flags fly over Moscow, and I am king of everything beneath the northern sky." 
  • Again he marches off to war, as nations watch him. His army has to deal with famine and the cold of winter, but he doesn't stop his military march.
  • Yeah, that's a bad idea: Charles's army and all his glory are destroyed at Pultowa (or "Poltova,"), where Charles's army is defeated in 1709. Charles leaves his broken army and ends up miserable in distant lands, a defeated hero. He waits as ladies and slaves negotiate on his behalf. 
  • The speaker asks a series of rhetorical questions here, suggesting ways in which Charles could have had a more dignified end to his life. But no, Charles wasn't assassinated by rival kings or killed by hostile crowds. He was condemned to live out the rest of his life in exile, on a barren shore, in a pathetic little fortress. 
  • His name, which at one time made people the world over grow pale with fright, is now only good for pointing out the moral that too much ambition just isn't good for us.

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