Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
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CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
 
Vanity of Vanities
By Michael Wigglesworth (1631–1705)
 
VAIN, frail, short-liv’d, and miserable man,
Learn what thou art when thy estate is best:
A restless wave o’ the troubled ocean,
A dream, a lifeless picture finely dress’d.
 
A wind, a flower, a vapor and a bubble,        5
A wheel that stands not still, a trembling reed,
A trolling stone, dry dust, light chaff and stubble,
A shadow of something but truly nought indeed.
 
Learn what deceitful toys, and empty things,
This world, and all its best enjoyments be:        10
Out of the earth no true contentment springs,
But all things here are vexing vanity.
 
For what is beauty, but a fading flower?
Or what is pleasure, but the devil’s bait,
Whereby he catcheth whom he would devour,        15
And multitudes of souls doth ruinate.
 
And what are friends, but mortal men, as we,
Whom death from us may quickly separate:
Or else their hearts may quite estranged be,
And all their love be turned into hate.        20
 
And what are riches to be doted on?
Uncertain, fickle, and ensnaring things;
They draw men’s souls into perdition,
And when most needed, take them to their wings.
 
Ah foolish man! that sets his heart upon        25
Such empty shadows, such wild fowl as these,
That being gotten will be quickly gone,
And whilst they stay increase but his disease.
 
As in a dropsy, drinking draughts begets,
The more he drinks, the more he still requires;        30
So on this world, whoso affection sets,
His wealth’s increase, increaseth his desires.
 
Oh happy man, whose portion is above,
Where floods, where flames, where foes cannot bereave him
Most wretched man that fixed hath his love        35
Upon this world, that surely will deceive him.
 
For what is honor? What is sovereignty,
Whereto men’s hearts so restlessly aspire?
Whom have they crowned with felicity?
When did they ever satisfy desire?        40
 
The ear of man with hearing is not fill’d;
To see new lights still coveteth the eye:
The craving stomach, though it may be still’d
Yet craves again without a new supply.
 
All earthly things man’s cravings answer not,        45
Whose little heart would all the world contain,
(If all the world should fall to one man’s lot,)
And notwithstanding empty still remain.
 
The eastern conqueror was said to weep,
When he the Indian ocean did view,        50
To see his conquest bounded by the deep,
And no more worlds remaining to subdue.
 
Who would that man in his enjoyment bless,
Or envy him, or covet his estate,
Whose gettings do augment his greediness,        55
And make his wishes more intemperate.
 
Such is the wonted and the common guise
Of those on earth that bear the greatest sway;
If with a few the case be otherwise,
They seek a kingdom that abides for aye.        60
 
Moreover they, of all the sons of men,
That rule, and are in highest places set,
Are most inclin’d to scorn their bretheren;
And God himself (without great grace) forget.
 
For as the sun doth blind the gazer’s eyes,        65
That for a time they nought discern aright:
So honor doth befool and blind the wise,
And their own lustre ’reaves them of their sight.
 
Great are their dangers, manifold their cares,
Through which, whilst others sleep, they scarcely nap,        70
And yet are oft surprised unawares,
And fall unwilling into envy’s trap.
 
The mean mechanic finds his kindly rest,
All void of fear sleepeth the country clown:
When greatest princes often are distress’d        75
And cannot sleep upon their beds of down.
 
Could strength or valor men immortalize,
Could wealth or honor keep them from decay,
There were some cause the same to idolize,
And give the lie to that which I do say.        80
 
But neither can such things themselves endure,
Without the hazard of a change, one hour,
Nor such as trust in them can they secure,
From dismal days, or death’s prevailing power.
 
If beauty could the beautiful defend        85
From death’s dominion, then fair Absalom
Had not been brought to such a shameful end:
But fair and foul unto the grave must come.
 
If wealth or sceptres could immortal make
Then wealthy Crœsus, wherefore art thou dead?        90
If warlike force, which makes the world to quake,
Then why is Julius Cæsar perished?
 
Where are the Scipios’ thunder bolts of war?
Renowned Pompey, Cæsar’s enemy?
Stout Hannibal, Rome’s terror known so far?        95
Great Alexander, what’s become of thee?
 
If gifts and bribes death’s favor might but win,
If power, if force, or threat’nings might it fray,
All these, and more had still surviving been:
But all are gone, for death will have no nay.        100
 
Such is this world with all her pomp and glory;
Such are the men whom worldly eyes admire,
Cut down by time, and now become a story,
That we might after better things aspire.
 
Go boast thyself of what thy heart enjoys,        105
Vain man! Triumph in all thy worldly bliss:
Thy best enjoyments are but trash and toys,
Delight thyself in that which worthless is.
 
    Omnia prætereunt præter amare Deum.
 
 
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