Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 3

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 3

Lines 29-36

Let hist'ry tell, where rival kings command,
And dubious title shakes the madded land,
When statutes glean the refuse of the sword,
How much more safe the vassal than the lord:
Low sculks the hind beneath the reach of pow'r,
And leaves the wealthy traitor in the Tow'r;
Untouch'd his cottage, and his slumbers sound,
Though confiscation's vultures hover round

  • Here the speaker says that we need only look at history to see how it's much better to be a "vassal" (a lowly person) or a "hind" (a peasant) than a "lord." Why? Because if we're a lord, or one of the "rival kings," we'll be at each other's throat fighting for power. 
  • The speaker's use of the phrase "statutes glean the refuse of the sword" is ambiguous. A "statute" is a written law and to "glean" is to gather something, usually information or ideas. The speaker's words suggest that laws are twisted according to who wins power through force (the "sword"). 
  • A lowly person is beneath the reach of power. However, a rich traitor is likely to end up in the "Tow'r" (that's the London Tower—a famous prison). So it's better to be a lowly person because, if we're little guys we can sleep soundly at night, our little cottage will be safe, though even then there's still a danger that the little we have will be confiscated, or taken away. Feeling cheered up, yet?

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