Magazine May 4, 2009, Issue

Juvenal Delinquent

Detail of a portrait of Samuel Johnson (Tate Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

I   have just recently finished writing a book about pessimism. Spare me the jokes, please. “A book about pessimism? Oh, that’ll never sell . . .” etc. By way of background research into some of the leading lights (darks?) of pessimism, I read Dr. Johnson’s magnificent long 1749 poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” all the way through with attention. That led me on a journey back through time, from which I have only just returned. Here is my trip report.

Johnson’s poem is in Mona Wilson’s 1951 Harvard University Press selection of his writings. Ms. Wilson annotates nothing, though,

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