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Samuel Johnson: Reason frowns on War’s unequal game


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Samuel Johnson: I to nobler themes aspire

Samuel Johnson: War is heaviest of national evils, a calamity in which every species of misery is involved

Samuel Johnson: War is the extremity of evil


Samuel Johnson
From The Vanity of Human Wishes
The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, imitated

But, scarce observed, the knowing and the bold
Fall in the general massacre of gold;
Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfined,
And crowds with crimes the records of mankind
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heap’d on wealth, nor truth, nor safety buys,
The dangers gather as the treasures rise.

Let history tell, where rival kings command,
And dubious title shakes the madded land,
When statutes glean the refuse of the sword,
How much more safe the vassal than the lord:
Low skulks the hind beneath the reach of power,
And leaves the wealthy traitor in the Tower;
Untouch’d his cottage, and his slumbers sound,
Though Confiscation’s vultures hover round.

The needy traveller, serene and gay,
Walks the wild heath, and sings his toil away.
Does envy seize thee? Crush the upbraiding joy,
Increase his riches, and his peace destroy –
Now fears in dire vicissitude invade,
The rustling brake alarms, and quivering shade;
Nor light nor darkness brings his pain relief,
One shows the plunder, and one hides the thief.
Yet still one general cry the sky assails,
And gain and grandeur load the tainted gales;
Few know the toiling statesman’s fear or care,
The insidious rival, and the gaping heir.


The festal blazes, the triumphal show,
The ravish’d standard, and the captive foe,
The senate’s thanks, the Gazette’s pompous tale,
With force resistless o’er the brave prevail.
Such bribes the rapid Greek o’er Asia whirl’d;
For such the steady Romans shook the world;
For such in distant lands the Britons shine,
And stain with blood the Danube or the Rhine;
This power has praise, that virtue scarce can warm,
Till Fame supplies the universal charm.
Yet Reason frowns on War’s unequal game,
Where wasted nations raise a single name,
And mortgaged ‘states their grandsires’ wreaths regret,
From age to age in everlasting debt;
Wreaths which at last the dear-bought right convey
To rust on medals, or on stones decay.

On what foundation stands the warrior’s pride,
How just his hopes, let Swedish Charles decide;
A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
No dangers fright him, and no labours tire;
O’er love, o’er fear, extends his wide domain,
Unconquer’d lord of pleasure and of pain;
No joys to him pacific sceptres yield,
War sounds the trump, he rushes to the field;
Behold surrounding kings their powers combine,
And one capitulate, and one resign;
Peace courts his hand, but spreads her charms in vain:
‘Think nothing gain’d,’ he cries, ’till nought remain,
On Moscow’s walls till Gothic standards fly,
And all be mine beneath the polar sky.’
The march begins in military state,
And nations on his eye suspended wait;
Stern Famine guards the solitary coast,
And Winter barricades the realms of Frost;
He comes, nor want nor cold his course delay;
Hide, blushing Glory! hide Pultowa’s day:
The vanquish’d hero leaves his broken bands,
And shows his miseries in distant lands;
Condemn’d a needy supplicant to wait,
While ladies interpose, and slaves debate.
But did not Chance at length her error mend?
Did no subverted empire mark his end?
Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound,
Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
His fall was destined to a barren strand,
A petty fortress, and a dubious hand;
He left the name at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral, or adorn a tale.

All times their scenes of pompous woe afford,
From Persia’s tyrant to Bavaria’s lord.
In gay hostility, and barbarous pride,
With half mankind embattled at his side,
Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey,
And starves exhausted regions in his way;
Attendant Flattery counts his myriads o’er,
Till counted myriads soothe his pride no more;
Fresh praise is tried, till madness fires his mind,
The waves he lashes, and enchains the wind;
New powers are claim’d, new powers are still bestow’d,
Till rude resistance lops the spreading god;
The daring Greeks deride the martial show,
And heap their valleys with the gaudy foe;
The insulted sea with humbler thoughts he gains,
A single skiff to speed his flight remains;
The encumber’d oar scarce leaves the dreaded coast
Through purple billows and a floating host.
The bold Bavarian, in a luckless hour,
Tries the dread summits of Casarean power,
With unexpected legions bursts away,
And sees defenceless realms receive his sway:
Short sway! fair Austria spreads her mournful charms,
The Queen, the Beauty, sets the world in arms;
From hill to hill the beacon’s rousing blaze
Spreads wide the hope of plunder and of praise;
The fierce Croatian, and the wild Hussar,
With all the sons of ravage, crowd the war;
The baffled prince, in Honour’s flattering bloom,
Of hasty greatness finds the fatal doom,
His foes’ derision, and his subjects’ blame,
And steals to death from anguish and from shame.

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