“Vanitas Vanitatum”-A poem by John Webster


ALL the flowers of the spring
Meet to perfume our burying;
These have but their growing prime,
And man does flourish but his time:
Survey our progress from our birth;
We are set, we grow, we turn to earth.
Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest breath and clearest eye,
Like perfumes, go out and die;
And consequently this is done
As shadows wait upon the sun.
Vain ambition of kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.

Vanity of vanities , from the Latin Bible reflects the Jacobean pre-occupation with transience of life- a preoccupation that pervades the literature of Shakespeare’s contemporaries,of whom John Webster is one , better known for his tragedies. Most of the poem is direct in its references to the impermanence of life:

“survey our progress from our birth
we are set,we grow,we turn to earth…

all bewitching appetites etc…

But there is some interesting imagery .I for one love the last lines containing some very fine imagery:

vain ambition of kings
who seek by trophies and dead things
to leave a living name behind

The king vainly seeks to perpetuate his memory by conquering kingdoms .He collects trophies and dead things to leave his living name behind.An interesting juxtaposition of seeking to leave a living name with a collection of dead things,himself as dead as the ones in whose death he is instrumental. The king soon turns a dead thing himself but seeks to leave a living name behind.

A vain ambition in the sense of a useless ambition to achieve immortality by the instrument of other people’s deaths.

A juxtaposition of living name(abstract) with dead thing.(concrete)

An extension of the image in the first line, where living flowers perfume our burying. Perfuming our burying is an evocative image .As we are buried our deeds are buried with us and only praises are sung in our obituary references and sweet smelling flowers are laid on our bodies before their burial.

“And weave but nets to catch the wind” is another lovely image.The kings vainly try to gain immortality by making their name “living” after their deaths.This they do by a collection of trophies and other dead things they have secured in their lifetimes.Their names are just wind and cannot be captured to live eternally, a futile exercise like catching wind in a fish net. All their lives they have woven these nets for catching fame that will outlive them and make them immortal,a futile exercise.. A beautiful metaphor.