William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanitas Vanitatum

Poem by William Makepeace Thackeray

How spake of old the Royal Seer?
(His text is one I love to treat on.)
This life of ours he said is sheer
Mataiotes Mataioteton.

O Student of this gilded Book,
Declare, while musing on its pages,
If truer words were ever spoke
By ancient, or by modern sages!

The various authors' names but note,*
French, Spanish, English, Russians, Germans:
And in the volume polyglot,
Sure you may read a hundred sermons!

What histories of life are here,
More wild than all romancers' stories;
What wondrous transformations queer,
What homilies on human glories!

What theme for sorrow or for scorn!
What chronicle of Fate's surprises—
Of adverse fortune nobly borne,
Of chances, changes, ruins, rises!

Of thrones upset, and sceptres broke,
How strange a record here is written!
Of honors, dealt as if in joke;
Of brave desert unkindly smitten.

How low men were, and how they rise!
How high they were, and how they tumble!
O vanity of vanities!
O laughable, pathetic jumble!

Here between honest Janin's joke
And his Turk Excellency's firman,
I write my name upon the book:
I write my name—and end my sermon.


O Vanity of vanities!
How wayward the decrees of Fate are;
How very weak the very wise,
How very small the very great are!

What mean these stale moralities,
Sir Preacher, from your desk you mumble?
Why rail against the great and wise,
And tire us with your ceaseless grumble?

Pray choose us out another text,
O man morose and narrow-minded!
Come turn the page—I read the next,
And then the next, and still I find it.

Read here how Wealth aside was thrust,
And Folly set in place exalted;
How Princes footed in the dust,
While lackeys in the saddle vaulted.

Though thrice a thousand years are past,
Since David's son, the sad and splendid,
The weary King Ecclesiast,
Upon his awful tablets penned it,—

Methinks the text is never stale,
And life is every day renewing
Fresh comments on the old old tale
Of Folly, Fortune, Glory, Ruin.

Hark to the Preacher, preaching still
He lifts his voice and cries his sermon,
Here at St. Peter's of Cornhill,
As yonder on the Mount of Hermon;

For you and me to heart to take
(O dear beloved brother readers)
To-day as when the good King spake
Beneath the solemn Syrian cedars.