Samuel Johnson, following in the footsteps of other great English critics, was a great poet. Johnson?s poetry was different from any other writer in the late eighteenth century. He used poetry as a tool for an escape from the reality of life. Johnson would also use poetry as a tool for expression of emotion and praise for accomplishment. When Johnson wrote a poem of praise or to express emotion he would still convey his message beyond reality. He would emphasize an event so immensely that it would seem unrealistic. If being real, or reality, is something sensable, then The Vanity of Human Wishes is the poem in which Johnson best display?s these tools of writing for the purpose of escape. With all of his undertakings, from politics to writing critiques, Johnson used writing poetry as his release from reality and the hardships in his life.
In 1780 Samuel Johnson wrote ?A Short Song of Congratulation.? It is a poem of praise to the actions of the nephew of a friend of Johnson. In the poem Johnson depicts the the young man defying the authority of his wealthy family and squandering a substantial inheritance. He is writing about more than the escape of a friend?s nephew, he is writing about his escape from a less than flawless childhood. In the poem Johnson relays to his subject, ?If the guardian or the mother / Tell the woes of willful waste, / Scorn their counsel and their pother, / You can hang or drown at last? (25-28). Johnson is using the life and actions of another to relay the struggles he went through as a child to become successful. Johnson?s subject had to separate himself from his prominent family in order to be his own man, or ?hang or drown at last,? which symbolizes a freedom to live of die as he wishes. When Johnson uses the word ?guardian? in line 25 he is referring to his own childhood but not to his parents. He groups his hardships, such as his nerve disease and appearance from a different disease, as guardians that he had to overcome. Johnson not only uses ?A Short Song of Congratulation? as praise to another, but also as an escape from his own reality through another persons actions and similar triumphs.
Johnson wrote more poems for praise to acquaintances, and one in particular was also a display of grave emotion. He wrote ?On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet? in 1782 to honor a very dear friend of his, and, even if momentarily escape the reality of his death. The praise Johnson gives to Levet gives way to exaggerated, in this case unrealistic, accolades. Johnson writes, ?Officious, innocent, sincere, / Of ev?ry friendless name the friend? (7-8), saying that Levet befriended every homeless, poor, or friendless person, which is an unrealistic accomplishment, but perfect for the praise of a beloved friend. Throughout the poem from lines 7 through 32, Johnson praises the life and charity of Levet and the choices he made while he was alive, but in the final stanza he writes, ?Death broke at once the vital chain, / And freed his soul the nearest way? (35-36). Johnson is trying to rationalize the death of a friend who spent his life helping others. In doing so he writes in the poem that his death is a release from a life spent in service. Johnson twists the reality of Levet?s life of chosen service to something that Levet would need release from in order to escape the reality of his death as a loss. This is a different view of death than in Vanity of Human Wishes, a poem written earlier and discussed later. ?On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet? was Johnson?s way of praising the life of a good friend, and also a recollection of his Levet?s life to escape the reality of his death.
The most famous of Johnson?s poems, The Vanity of Human Wishes, covers a deeper meaning of reality and his applications of reality, specifically religious reality. Johnson believes that that which we think is real and the reality of things real are not sufficient basis to build a life. This is easier to understand if you read the last four lines before starting at the beginning. Those lines state, ?These goods for man the laws of Heav?n ordain, / These goods he grants, who grants the power to gain; / With these celestial wisdom calms the mind, / And makes the happiness she does not find? (365-368). When he writes ?these goods? beginning lines 365 and 366, Johnson refers to the goods man can only obtain by believing in that which is beyond physical reality. When a person can grasp that concept, they can then ?make? a new spiritual reality that brings true happiness. In his book Donald Greene displays how Johnson emphasizes bitter reality in order to help his readers escape reality with him. He writes, ?It is true that the first 342 of the 368 lines of the poem recount in depressing detail the failure to insure happiness of such values as wealth, fame, political ambition, etc…. To be sure the contemplation of these lines is not pleasant. But for critics to maunder on about Johnson?s ?tragic view of life?….is utterly beside the point? (Updated 36-37). Greene captured Johnson?s idea of more than a happy ending, but a grasp of that which is beyond reality.
A place beyond reality is where Johnson goes to escape and would like to take his readers. In order to take his readers there, he asks, ?Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find?? (343). After describing so vividly the lack of reward from earthly possessions and placing a void in the readers head, Johnson attempts to help the reader fill that void with answers from beyond that which they know is real. Johnson realizes there are two answers to his question, and quickly inundates with reason the stoic answer. Johnson says that one cannot choose this alternative of ignorance by writing, ?Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant mind? / Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate, / Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate? / Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise, / No cries attempt the mercies of the skies?? (344-348). The ?skies? represent that which is beyond reality. If you are not seeking it and instead keep a stagnant mind, but know it is there, you will be at the mercy of that which does not follow the rules of reality.
Johnson is convinced that you must fill your mind with that which is theoretical in order to achieve happiness with that that is justifiable. ?Inquirer, cease, petitions yet remain, / Which Heav?n may hear, nor deem religion vein. / Still raise for good the supplicating voice, / But leave to Heav?n the measure and the choice,…? (349-352), are difficulty translated lines that reiterate Johnson?s view. The lines say that may not know their fate and could beg all they want for answers, but it is a constant faith in the reality that exists beyond human reality that is necessary for happiness. And if you keep a constant faith in the entity beyond our reality you are rewarded with death. Along with ?On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet,? in The Vanity of Human Wishes Johnson views death as an escape from reality. In ?Death? the passing of a friend was his escape from the reality of the life Levet had led. In Vanity death is a reward for those who have already gone beyond reality through faith. This is best explained by Johnson as he writes, ?For patience sov?reign o?er transmuted ill; / For faith, that panting for a happier seat, / Counts death kind Nature?s signal of retreat? (362-364). The keywords are patience with the faith you must have and retreat, which is the sign of victory, in this case keeping the faith in that which was previously beyond reality. In the last line ?Nature? is everything that could avert you from the faith you have, if nature retreats and you die then it is possible you can begin to understand that which you thought was beyond reality, and it becomes reality. Johnson wrote Vanity in an attempt to escape reality and to bring himself closer to understanding the reality that comes with death before he dies. This does not mean he was pessimistic about life like many critics seem to believe. If their is any doubt about that one must only read the last four lines again, ?These goods for man the laws of Heav?n ordain, / These goods he grants, who grants the power to gain; / With these celestial wisdom calms the mind, / And makes the happiness she does not find? (365-368). As Greene wrote he is ?distinctly asserting that happiness is within the reach of anyone who wants it and seeks it the right way? (38). To Johnson, the right way would be faith in making the unrealistic become realistic.
In Vanity of Human Wishes, Johnson?s most famous poem, he discusses in depth his views of what we know as reality, and the reality we need to know and understand. The reality we know is that of possessions and material wealth and power. What we need to know, or at least have faith in is beyond reality. That is another reason Johnson wrote this poem, so he could escape reality by strengthening his own faith in order to expose his readers to the belief in an entity beyond our reality. His writing continued to be an escape from reality. In shorter poems he utilized different techniques for a momentary escape from reality. In ?A Short Song of Congratulation? he used the exploits of an acquaintance to help him escape the reality of his childhood hardships. He continued in ?On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet? to escape reality in his writing. Here he twisted the meaning of death to help him escape the reality of his friend?s death. It is difficult to follow Johnson?s manipulation of reality, because he does it so many ways. It is easier to understand why he did it. Everyone would love to escape reality sometime, do we have to write? Or can we just read Johnson? Could Johnson read his own work to escape, or did he have to write to leave reality?
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