Study Guide

The Vanity of Human Wishes Stanza 8

By Samuel Johnson

Stanza 8

Lines 73-76

Unnumber'd suppliants crowd Preferment's gate,
Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears the incessant call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.

  • A lot of people are eager to advance themselves, wanting to be "preferred." They're thirsty for wealth and power. But fortune, or fate, is misleading. People rise, they shine, and then they fall. 
  • Here again the speaker uses the literary device of metaphor, figuratively depicting "Preferment" as a "gate" at which people crowd.

Lines 77-82

On ev'ry stage the foes of peace attend,
Hate dogs their flight, and insult mocks their end.
Love ends with hope, the sinking statesman's door
Pours in the morning worshipper no more;
For growing names the weekly scribbler lies,
To growing wealth the dedicator flies;

  • The speaker continues by describing why it's so bad to desire wealth and power. Troublemakers, or enemies of "peace," hound those who want wealth and power. Hate—personified here— follows them wherever they go.
  • When they lose everything, they're made fun of and insulted. Not only that, but ambitious people lose both love and hope. 
  • When the big politician begins to lose his power, the people who used to kiss up to him stop coming around. 
  • Writers lie on account of those whose names are becoming important, or they dedicate themselves and their work to people who are wealthy.

Lines 83-90

From every room descends the painted face,
That hung the bright Palladium of the place;
And smok'd in kitchens, or in auctions sold,
To better features yields the frame of gold;
For now no more we trace in ev'ry line
Heroic worth, benevolence divine:
The form distorted justifies the fall,
And detestation rids th' indignant wall. 

  • Portraits of important people with painted faces (and insincere hearts) can be found in every room. They hang like a "bright Palladium" from walls. "Palladium," an image of the Greek goddess Athena, is a symbol of protection. The gold frame of these portraits makes the features of these important people look better. 
  • The image of the "painted face" can also be understood as a kind of metaphor. The speaker is talking about paintings, but on a metaphorical level these paintings also represent the superficial values of these powerful or wealthy people. 
  • These painted faces don't reflect "heroic worth" or "benevolence." These distorted features (which indicate distorted hearts) explain the powerful person's downfall. People's hatred rids the wall of these fake portraits.

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