Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 17

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 17

Lines 223-233

All times their scenes of pompous woes afford,
From Persia's tyrant to Bavaria's lord.
In gay hostility, and barb'rous pride,
With half mankind embattled at his side,
Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey,
And starves exhausted regions in his way;
Attendant Flatt'ry counts his myriads o'er,
Till counted myriads soothe his pride no more;
Fresh praise is tried till madness fires his mind,
The waves he lashes, and enchains the wind;
New pow'rs are claim'd, new pow'rs are still bestow'd,

  • The speaker begins by re-iterating that having too much pride and arrogance is just not a good idea. And he demonstrates his point by referring to more historical examples: "Persia's tyrant" (Xerxes) and "Bavaria's lord"
  • (Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII). (To learn more about these historical figures, check out our "Shout-Outs.") 
  • The speaker first focuses on Xerxes, whom he describes as hostile and barbaric. He has a huge army, and he moves toward his prey (Greece, which he seeks to conquer), starving entire regions as he makes his progress forward. 
  • His huge number of followers constantly flatter him, until flattery isn't enough to soothe his pride anymore. 
  • He wants more and more praise, until he goes crazy. He strikes out at waves and puts the wind in chains (yup, he's pretty much lost the plot at this point). 
  • Even still, he wants more power, and more power is given to him.

Lines 234-240

Till rude resistance lops the spreading god;
The daring Greeks deride the martial show,
And heap their valleys with the gaudy foe;
Th' insulted sea with humbler thoughts he gains,
A single skiff to speed his flight remains;
Th' encumber'd oar scarce leaves the dreaded coast
Through purple billows and a floating host. 

  • This goes on until Xerxes' plans to conquer Greece are resisted by the Greeks, who defeat Xerxes and stop him from advancing into their territory. They ridicule his show of strength and power. The bodies of his dead soldiers are heaped up in Greek valleys. 
  • In the end, Xerxes is humbled and forced to return to the sea. There's only a single ship of all his fleet left for him to escape on—ouch. 
  • The speaker refers to Xerxes making his escape on the ship: "Through purple billows and a floating host." Are the "purple billows" a reference to the fire and smoke that has engulfed the rest of his fleet? And what about the "floating host"? Are these the bodies of his dead army? It isn't totally clear. 
  • What is clear is that Xerxes is fleeing with his over-ambitious tail tucked firmly between his legs.

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