Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 19

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 19

Lines 255-264

Enlarge my life with multitude of days,
In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays;
Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know
That life protracted is protracted woe.
Time hovers o'er, impatient to destroy,
And shuts up all the passages of joy:
In vain their gifts the bounteous seasons pour,
The fruit autumnal, and the vernal flow'r;
With listless eyes the dotard views the store,
He views, and wonders that they please no more;

  • Many of us pray for long lives—whether we're healthy or sick we want to live for a long time. 
  • But the person who prays for long life hides from himself the fact that a longer life means more misery. 
  • The phrase "Life protracted is protracted woe" is an example of chiasmus, a literary figure in which words or phrases are repeated in reverse order. 
  • The speaker says that time is the problem: it destroys everything and takes away any possibility of happiness. 
  • Time makes all the beauties of nature—and its different seasons—seem empty. As time passes and we grow old we look at the beauties of nature and wonder why these beautiful things don't please us any more. Man, are we ever getting depressed over here.

Lines 265-282

Now pall the tasteless meats and joyless wines,
And Luxury with sighs her slave resigns.
Approach, ye minstrels, try the soothing strain,
Diffuse the tuneful lenitives of pain:
No sounds alas would touch th' impervious ear,
Though dancing mountains witness'd Orpheus near:
Nor lute nor lyre his feeble pow'rs attend,
Nor sweeter music of a virtuous friend;
But everlasting dictates crowd his tongue,
Perversely grave, or positively wrong.
The still returning tale, and ling'ring jest,
Perplex the fawning niece and pamper'd guest;
While growing hopes scarce awe the gath'ring sneer,
And scarce a legacy can bribe to hear;
The watchful guests still hint the last offence,
The daughter's petulance, the son's expense,
Improve his heady rage with treacherous skill,
And mould his passions till they make his will.

  • Even food and wine become tasteless and bland, and luxurious things no longer satisfy us.
  • The speaker asks "minstrels" (musicians) to approach and play music in order to dispel the pain that time brings. But this is hopeless. Beautiful sounds can't reach the old person, even if Orpheus himself—the famous ancient Greek musician—was playing music. Neither the sound of a lute nor a lyre will reach an aged person, or the music of a good friend.
  • Instead, the old man is constantly issuing statements that are either wrong or serious, and telling stories and jokes which baffle his niece, who comes to fawn on him and his pampered guest. 
  • But even the growing hopes of this foolish person can't "awe," or stop, people, sneering at him. 
  • His guests hint at all his problems—and no, it's not just his downer attitude. His daughter's bad temper and all the money his son is wasting. He grows madder and madder, and his passions overcome his willpower.

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