Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 24

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 24

Lines 319-328

The teeming mother, anxious for her race,
Begs for each birth the fortune of a face:
Yet Vane could tell what ills from beauty spring;
And Sedley cursed the form that pleased a king.
Ye nymphs of rosy lips and radiant eyes,
Whom Pleasure keeps too busy to be wise,
Whom Joys with soft varieties invite,
By day the frolic, and the dance by night,
Who frown with vanity, who smile with art,
And ask the latest fashion of the heart,

  • In this stanza, the speaker turns to examining feminine beauty as a source of pride and happiness. Could we be taking a turn to happy town at last?
  • He begins by stating that a mother always wishes for her child to be beautiful. The speaker refers to "Lady Vane" here. Anne Vane was a lady-in-waiting who became a mistress to King George II's son, Frederick. She was supposedly very beautiful, and here the speaker suggests that her beauty only brought her trouble. So yeah, no detours to Happyville for us.
  • Sir Charles Sedley's daughter, Catherine Sedley, was the mistress of King James II. Charles Sedley cursed his daughter's beauty, because it led to her match with King James, whom he didn't like. (Hit up our "Shout-Out" section for more.)
  • Here the speaker addresses beautiful ladies directly. We'll paraphrase: "You pretty young things with rosy lips and radiant eyes, who are too busy having fun to learn to be wise. You who pursue pleasure, and who spend your days frolicking and your nights dancing."
  • These ladies are vain, and they smile in order to manipulate, and are interested in the latest romantic fashions.
  • How dare they?

Lines 329-41

What care, what rules your heedless charms shall save,
Each nymph your rival, and each youth your slave?
The rival batters, and the lover mines.
With distant voice neglected Virtue calls,
Less heard and less, the faint remonstrance falls;
Tir'd with contempt, she quits the slipp'ry reign,
And Pride and Prudence take her seat in vain.
In crowd at once, where none the pass defend,
The harmless freedom and the private friend.
The guardians yield, by force superior plied;
By Int'rest, Prudence; and by Flattery, Pride.
Here Beauty falls betray'd, despised, distress'd,
And hissing Infamy proclaims the rest.

  • The speaker continues addressing pretty young ladies directly: "Your charms (which are 'heedless' or reckless) disregard rules or caution. Each pretty young nymph is your enemy and every young man is your slave."
  • Again, we're paraphrasing the speaker's words to pretty young things: "Rival young ladies 'batter,' or attack you, and your lover 'mines,' or takes advantage of you." 
  • These beautiful women don't hear the voice of virtue and goodness, and they throw pride and prudence to the wind. The pretty young nymph begins behaving badly. Her caution is neglected in favour of her self-interest, and her pride gives in to flattery. 
  • Soon she finds herself involved in scandals, and the subject of gossip.

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