The Vanities Of Life

A poem by John Clare

[The reader has been made acquainted with the circumstances under which this poem was written. It was included by Mr. J. H. Dixon in his "Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England" (edited by Robert Bell), with the following prefatory note:--

"The poem was, probably, as Clare supposes, written about the commencement of the 18th century, and the unknown author appears to have been deeply imbued with the spirit of the popular devotional writers of the preceding century, as Herbert, Quarles, &c., but seems to have modelled his smoother and more elegant versification after that of the poetic school of his own times."

Montgomery's criticism on publishing it in the "Sheffield Iris" was as follows:--

"Long as the poem appears to the eye, it will abundantly repay the trouble of perusal, being full of condensed and admirable thought, as well as diversified with exuberant imagery, and embellished with peculiar felicity of language. The moral points in the closing couplets of the stanzas are often powerfully enforced."]

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

What are life's joys and gains?
What pleasures crowd its ways,
That man should take such pains
To seek them all his days?
Sift this untoward strife
On which the mind is bent:
See if this chaff of life
Is worth the trouble spent.

Is pomp thy heart's desire?
Is power thy climbing aim?
Is love thy folly's fire?
Is wealth thy restless game?
Pomp, power, love, wealth, and all
Time's touchstone shall destroy,
And, like base coin, prove all
Vain substitutes for joy.

Dost think that pride exalts
Thyself in other's eyes,
And hides thy folly's faults,
Which reason will despise?
Dost strut, and turn, and stride,
Like a walking weathercock?
The shadow by thy side
Will be thy ape, and mock.

Dost think that power's disguise
Can make thee mighty seem?
It may in folly's eyes,
But not in worth's esteem,
When all that thou canst ask,
And all that she can give,
Is but a paltry mask
Which tyrants wear and live.

Go, let thy fancies range
And ramble where they may;
View power in every change,
And what is the display?
--The county magistrate,
The lowest shade in power,
To rulers of the state,
The meteors of an hour:--

View all, and mark the end
Of every proud extreme,
Where flattery turns a friend,
And counterfeits esteem;
Where worth is aped in show,
That doth her name purloin,
Like toys of golden glow
Oft sold for copper coin.

Ambition's haughty nod
With fancies may deceive,
Nay, tell thee thou'rt a god,
And wilt thou such believe?
Go, bid the seas be dry;
Go, hold earth like a ball,
Or throw her fancies by,
For God can do it all.

Dost thou possess the dower
Of laws to spare or kill?
Call it not heavenly power
When but a tyrant's will,
Think what thy God would do,
And know thyself a fool,
Nor, tyrant-like, pursue
Where He alone can rule.

Dost think, when wealth is won,
Thy heart has its desire?
Hold ice up to the sun,
And wax before the fire;
Nor triumph o'er the reign
Which they so soon resign:
Of this world weigh the gain,
Insurance safe is thine.

Dost think life's peace secure
In houses and in land?
Go, read the fairy lure,
And twist a cord in sand;
Lodge stones upon the sky,
Hold water in a sieve,
Nor give such tales the lie,
And still thine own believe.

Whoso with riches deals,
And thinks peace bought and sold,
Will find them slipping eels,
That slide the firmest hold:
Though sweet as sleep with health
Thy lulling luck may be,
Pride may o'erstride thy wealth,
And check prosperity.

Dost think that beauty's power
Life sweetest pleasure gives?
Go, pluck the summer flower,
And see how long it lives:
Behold, the rays glide on
Along the summer plain
Ere thou canst say they're gone:
Know such is beauty's reign.

Look on the brightest eye,
Nor teach it to be proud;
View next the clearest sky,
And thou shalt find a cloud;
Nor call each face ye meet
An angel's, 'cause it's fair,
But look beneath your feet,
And think of what ye are.

Who thinks that love doth live
In beauty's tempting show,
Shall find his hopes ungive,
And melt in reason's thaw.
Who thinks that pleasure lies
In every fairy bower,
Shall oft, to his surprise,
Find poison in the flower.

Dost lawless pleasures grasp?
Judge not they'll bring thee joy:
Their flowers but hide the asp,
Whose poison will destroy.
Who trusts a harlot's smile,
And by her wiles is led,
Plays, with a sword the while
Hung dropping o'er his head.

Dost doubt my warning song?
Then doubt the sun gives light,
Doubt truth to teach thee wrong,
Think wrong alone is right;
And live as lives the knave,
Intrigue's deceiving guest;
Be tyrant, or be slave,
As suits thy ends the best.

Or pause amid thy toils
For visions won and lost,
And count the fancied spoils,
If e'er they quit the cost:
And if they still possess
Thy mind, as worthy things,
Pick straws with Bedlam Bess,
And call them diamond rings.

Thy folly's past advice,
Thy heart's already won,
Thy fall's above all price,
So go, and be undone;
For all who thus prefer
The seeming great for small
Shall make wine vinegar,
And sweetest honey gall.

Would'st heed the truths I sing,
To profit wherewithal,
Clip folly's wanton wing,
And keep her within call.
I've little else to give,
But thou canst easy try;
The lesson how to live
Is but to learn to die.

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