The Vanity Of Wealth

Samuel Johnson


Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was an 18th-century English writer who is known for his plays, essays, biographies, and more.

He has been regarded as one of the most distinguished writers in English history.

Within ‘The Vanity of Wealth’ the poet explores themes of money, the purpose of life, love, and friendship. He speaks clearly on all these topics, passing judgment on those who turn to money as a means of giving their life meaning. The mood is consistently encouraging, supportive, and thoughtful, crafted through the poet’s analytical and clear tone. 

The Vanity Of Wealth by Samuel Johnson


Summary of The Vanity of Wealth

The Vanity Of Wealth’ by Samuel Johnson is a simple, yet impactful, poem that addresses what is important and unimportant in one’s life. 

The poem is addressed to a specific listener who the speaker is trying to get through to in regards to what they value. Up until this point, money has been the controlling factor in their life and the speaker wants to change that. He emphasizes the inability of money to buy love and the impossibility to make a profit from selling friendship. The speaker encourages the listener to get out and enjoy life while they can because eventually, they will be too old to. 


Structure of The Vanity of Wealth

The Vanity Of Wealth’ by Samuel Johnson is a twenty-eight line poem that’s contained within one stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Johnson also chose to structure this piece in iambic tetrameter. This means that the majority of the lines contain four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. 


Poetic Techniques in The Vanity of Wealth

Johnson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Vanity of Wealth’. These include anaphora, alliteration, and caesura. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “Still” at the beginning of lines three and four. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “Still,” “sighs,” and “shadow” in lines four and five, or “be, by blessing beauty, – bless’d” in line twenty. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. The eleventh line is a great example. It reads: “No! – all that’s worth a wish – a thought”. 


Analysis of The Vanity of Wealth

Lines 1-8 

No more thus brooding o’er yon heap,

With avarice painful vigils keep:

Still unenjoy’d the present store,

Still endless sighs are breathed for more.

O! quit the shadow, catch the prize,

Which not all India’s treasure buys!

To purchase with heaven has gold the power? 

Can gold remove the mortal hour?

In the first lines of ‘The Vanity of Wealth’ the speaker begins by telling an unknown listener, or group of listeners who represent a certain kind of person, not to “brood…o’ver yon heap”. This is a reference to a metaphorical, or very real, stockpile of money or “gold”. 

The speaker asks the reader several questions, these are rhetorical in nature and meant to force one to contend with their own greed. He asks if “gold” can “remove the mortal hour?” Meaning, can gold stop death from coming for you. The answer is, of course, no. Therefore one should make use of what they have and stop keeping a “painful vigil” over it. 


Lines 9-16

In life can love be bought with gold? 

Are friendship’s pleasures to be sold? 

No! – all that’s worth a wish – a thought,

Fair virtue gives unbribed, unbought,

Cease then on trash thy hopes to bind,

Let noble views engage thy mind.

With science tread the wondrous way,

Or learn the Musesmoral lay;

He asks a few more questions in the next lines of ‘The Vanity Of Wealth,’ all of which may be answered in the negative. Gold cannot buy love, nor can one sell “friendship’s pleasures” and get a profit. These phrases are included in order to remind the reader what is truly meaningful in life and what money can and cannot get you. 

The speaker would like ‘you’ the listener, to turn to “Fair virtue”. It is with this kind of moral compass that you can best navigate the world. Someone who is virtuous will give “unbribed”. One should not stake their life or hopes on “trash”. Instead, let “noble views” come out and “engage thy mind”. 

Someone who is interested in changing their life might turn to science, or to the “Muses’ moral lay”. Here, “lay” refers to a short lyric poem that’s meant to be sung. It connects to the ancient Greek myth of the “Muses” a group of nine women that represent endeavour in the arts. 


Lines 17-28

In social hours indulge thy soul,

Where mirth and temperance mix the bowl;

To virtuous love resign thy breast,

And be, by blessing beauty, – bless’d. 

Thus taste the feast by Nature spread,

Ere youth and all its joys are fled;

Come taste with me the balm of life,

Secure from pomp, and wealth, and strife.

I boast whate’er for man was meant,

In health, and Stella, and content; 

And scorn! (oh! let that scorn be thine!)

Mere things of clay, that dig the mine.

When “you” are among friends in a “social hour” you should indulge yourself with mirth and give yourself over to love. That is what is truly valuable and worth spending anything on. By blessing the beauty of the world, paying heed to it, and respecting it, one will in return be blessed. Before one gets old and unable to, one should “taste the feast” that nature has set out for humankind.

 The speaker changes narrative perspectives at this point in ‘The Vanity Of Wealth’ and uses the first-person pronoun “me” in the twenty-third line. This makes it seem even more likely that an intended listener is a specific person. The speaker declares in the last lines of the poem that this is the way he’s trying to live. He is turning to nature and living as the world intended without tying his hopes and dreams to money. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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