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The Vanity of Human Wishes

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The key image of The Vanity of Human Wishes is the image of the portrait in the golden frame. It comes in the section which concerns itself with the vain wish for political success (ll. 73–120). The section includes a description of the rise and fall of a generalised ‘statesman’; and then a brief narrative of the career of Wolsey; the historical narrative closely echoing the pattern of the general, fictitious one.


  • Political Career
  • General Fate
  • Political Success
  • Painted Face
  • Great Poem

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  1. Andrew Marvell, Second Advice to a Painter (1666) l. 165.

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  2. See MacDonald Emslie, ‘Johnson’s Satires and the Proper Wit of Poetry’, Cambridge Journal, vol. 7 (1953–4) p. 348.

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  3. C. B. Tinker (ed.), Dr Johnson and Fanny Burney (New York, 1911) p. 61.

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  4. Life, vol. II, pp. 261–2. For an analysis of Johnson’s humour, see W. B. C. Watkins, Perilous Balance (Princeton, N.J., 1939); and Bate, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson, pp. 115–28.

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  5. Arieh Sachs, Passionate Intelligence: Imagination and Reason in the Work of Samuel Johnson (Baltimore, Md., 1967) p. 79.

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© 1984 T. F. Wharton

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Wharton, T.F. (1984). The Vanity of Human Wishes. In: Samuel Johnson and the Theme of Hope. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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