English 11 Notes for English Notes

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On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

- Arthur Guiterman

Message of the poem: We shouldn’t be proud of our achievements because every achievement is temporary. Time is the most valuable wealth and all our earthly greatness / achievements are useless in comparison with time. Time is the leader which can make a sage the King and the King a sage. So, we shouldn’t be proud of earthly greatness as we have.

Summary of the poem “On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness”:

The main theme of this poem is that it’s useless to be proud of our earthly greatness and achievements. These things aren’t permanent. The only permanent thing is ‘Time’. Everything else including our earthly greatness and achievements has to bow before time.
This poem describes what happens to powerful people and animals after they die. It shows how greatness anything is, anyway it continues only for a short time. The poet has presented certain examples, which all prove the same thing. Mastodon tusks are turned to billiard balls, bears are turned into rugs, the sword of the great king becomes rusted and the great rulers are turned into statues and busts (half or broken or ruined statue). In the final line, the poet indicates that his own greatness will also be short-lived.

1. Bring out the “vanity” involved in the last couplet.

Vanity is pride / narcissism / egotism / arrogance in appearance or achievements. The poet is saying that it’s vain or useless to think that we are powerful because we leave nothing behind our death. Similarly, in the last couplet, we find it only to be vanities of the poet because he is putting himself on the same level of great rulers like Charlemagne and Caesar.

2. What is ironical about the poem?

The irony is a figure of speech in which words are used to show the opposite of what they appear to mean. In other words, the irony is the gap between what the reality is and what it appears to be. This poem is ironical in the sense that it is not about greatness but it is about weakness. Mastodons are not mighty or powerful, bear is not potent but, in fact, their power is short-lived. In this way, this poem is ironical.

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