15 March 2023

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (22)

The statue of James Boswell in the Market Square, Lichfield, by the Irish artist Percy Fitzgerald (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

The Johnson Society, which is based in Lichfield, has over 600 members across the UK and worldwide. The Johnson Society is hosting its Annual General Meeting and Lecture later this month [22 March 2023] at 7:30 in the Guildhall, Lichfield, when Michael Hawkes speaks on: ‘Lichfield’s Statues: To Be or Not to Be? That is the Question.’

Speaking about sculptures and statues, Johnson once said, according to his biographer James Boswell:

Painting consumes labour not disproportionate to its effect; but a fellow will hack half a year at a block of marble to make something in stone that hardly resembles a man. The value of statuary is owing to its difficulty. You would not value the finest head cut upon a carrot.

Johnson, for his part, once said of Boswell:

I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility: for you know he lives among savages in Scotland, and among rakes in London.

Both Walter Scott and TS Eliot considered ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ to be Johnson’s greatest poem. Samuel Beckett was a devoted admirer of Johnson and at one point filled three notebooks with material for a play about him, which he named Human Wishes after Johnson’s poem. However, Beckett abandoned the play after he completed the First Act.

Johnson wrote ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated’ in 1749 while he was completing A Dictionary of the English Language. It was the first published work to include Johnson’s name on the title page.

As the subtitle suggests, this poem is an imitation of ‘Satire X’ by the Latin poet Juvenal. The poem focuses on human futility and humanity’s quest after greatness like Juvenal, but Johnson concludes that Christian values are important to living properly.

‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ is a poem of 368 lines, written in closed heroic couplets. Johnson loosely adapts Juvenal’s original satire to demonstrate ‘the complete inability of the world and of worldly life to offer genuine or permanent satisfaction.’

The opening lines (1-10) announce the universal scope of the poem, as well as its central theme that ‘the antidote to vain human wishes is non-vain spiritual wishes’:

Let Observation with extensive View, Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where Wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate, / O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate’ … a gargoyle on Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

15 March 2023

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