'Vanity of All Worldly Things, The' by Anne Bradstreet

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As he said vanity, so vain say I,
Oh! Vanity, O vain all under sky;
Where is the man can say, "Lo, I have found
On brittle earth a consolation sound"?
What isn't in honor to be set on high?
No, they like beasts and sons of men shall die,
And whilst they live, how oft doth turn their fate;
He's now a captive that was king of late.
What isn't in wealth great treasures to obtain?
No, that's but labor, anxious care, and pain.
He heaps up riches, and he heaps up sorrow,
It's his today, but who's his heir tomorrow?
What then? Content in pleasures canst thou find?
More vain than all, that's but to grasp the wind.
The sensual senses for a time they pleasure,
Meanwhile the conscience rage, who shall appease?
What isn't in beauty? No that's but a snare,
They're foul enough today, that once were fair.
What is't in flow'ring youth, or manly age?
The first is prone to vice, the last to rage.
Where is it then, in wisdom, learning, arts?
Sure if on earth, it must be in those parts;
Yet these the wisest man of men did find
But vanity, vexation of the mind.
And he that know the most doth still bemoan
He knows not all that here is to be known.
What is it then? To do as stoics tell,
Nor laugh, nor weep, let things go ill or well?
Such stoics are but stocks, such teaching vain,
While man is man, he shall have ease or pain.
If not in honor, beauty, age, nor treasure,
Nor yet in learning, wisdom, youth, nor pleasure,
Where shall I climb, sound, seek, search, or find
That summum bonum which may stay my mind?
There is a path no vulture's eye hath seen,
Where lion fierce, nor lion's whelps have been,
Which leads unto that living crystal fount,
Who drinks thereof, the world doth naught account.
The depth and sea have said " 'tis not in me,"
With pearl and gold it shall not valued be.
For sapphire, onyx, topaz who would change;
It's hid from eyes of men, they count it strange.
Death and destruction the fame hath heard,
But where and what it is, from heaven's declared;
It brings to honor which shall ne'er decay,
It stores with wealth which time can't wear away.
It yieldeth pleasures far beyond conceit,
And truly beautifies without deceit.
Nor strength, nor wisdom, nor fresh youth shall fade,
Nor death shall see, but are immortal made.
This pearl of price, this tree of life, this spring,
Who is possessed of shall reign a king.
Nor change of state nor cares shall ever see,
But wear his crown unto eternity.
This satiates the soul, this stays the mind,
And all the rest, but vanity we find.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Vanity of All Worldly Things by Anne Bradstreet

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the fleeting nature of life? Have you ever questioned the value of material possessions and worldly success? If so, you are not alone. These are age-old philosophical questions that have perplexed thinkers throughout the centuries. And it is precisely these questions that Anne Bradstreet, a colonial American poet, grapples with in her poem "Vanity of All Worldly Things."

But who was Anne Bradstreet? Born in Northampton, England in 1612, Bradstreet was the daughter of Thomas Dudley, a Puritan leader who played a prominent role in the colonization of America. Bradstreet lived most of her life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where she raised eight children and wrote poetry in her spare time. Her works, which were not published until after her death, are considered some of the earliest examples of American literature.

Now, let's dive into Bradstreet's poem and explore its themes, structure, and literary devices.

Structure and Form

"Vanity of All Worldly Things" is a six-stanza poem with a regular rhyme scheme (ABABCC). Each stanza consists of four lines (quatrains) written in iambic tetrameter, which means that each line has four metrical feet, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This gives the poem a rhythmic and musical quality, which is typical of Bradstreet's poetry.


The poem's central theme is the transience of worldly things and the inevitability of death. Bradstreet argues that material possessions, wealth, and power are all fleeting and ultimately meaningless. She writes:

All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death's parting blow are sure to meet.

Here, Bradstreet is reminding us that everything in life is temporary and that even the strongest bonds will be broken by death. She goes on to argue that true value lies not in material possessions, but in one's relationship with God:

O foolish man, that wouldst true honor win,
Seek not abroad, for it is lodged within;
The world's uncertain favor, like a blast,
Passes away, and leaves thee at the last.

Bradstreet is urging her readers to seek spiritual fulfillment rather than worldly success. She believes that true honor and happiness can only be found in a meaningful relationship with God.

Literary Devices

Bradstreet employs several literary devices in her poem to convey her message. For example, she personifies death as a "sure archer" who will inevitably strike us all:

The arrow of death flies unseen at noonday;
The sharpest sight cannot discern its way.

Here, Bradstreet is using personification to give death a sense of agency and inevitability. She also uses imagery to convey the fleeting nature of life:

The bubbles on the water bear
Our fortunes, just so fleet and rare.

The image of bubbles on water suggests the fragility and ephemerality of life. Bradstreet is reminding us that our time on earth is short and that we should not become attached to material possessions or worldly success.


So, what can we take away from Bradstreet's poem? At its core, "Vanity of All Worldly Things" is a meditation on the ephemeral nature of life and the importance of spiritual fulfillment. Bradstreet is urging her readers to look beyond the material world and seek a deeper connection with God. She believes that true value and meaning lie not in material possessions or worldly success, but in our relationship with the divine.

But what makes Bradstreet's message so powerful is that it speaks to universal human concerns. We all struggle with the fleeting nature of life and the desire to find meaning and purpose. In this sense, Bradstreet's poem is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century.

Ultimately, "Vanity of All Worldly Things" is a reminder that we should focus on what truly matters in life: our relationships with others and with God. It asks us to consider the transience of worldly things and the inevitability of death, but also offers us hope that true fulfillment can be found in a meaningful spiritual life.

In conclusion, Anne Bradstreet's "Vanity of All Worldly Things" is a powerful and timeless poem that speaks to the universal human struggle for meaning and fulfillment. Its message is as relevant today as it was centuries ago, and its musical and rhythmic qualities make it a joy to read and contemplate. If you have not read this poem before, I encourage you to do so and reflect on its message.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Anne Bradstreet’s poem, “The Vanity of All Worldly Things,” is a classic piece of literature that explores the fleeting nature of material possessions and the importance of focusing on spiritual values. Written in the 17th century, Bradstreet’s poem is still relevant today, as it speaks to the human experience of seeking happiness and fulfillment through material possessions.

The poem is structured as a series of stanzas, each of which explores a different aspect of worldly vanity. Bradstreet begins by describing the beauty and grandeur of worldly possessions, such as gold, silver, and precious stones. She notes that these things are highly valued by humans, but ultimately they are just “dust and shadow” that will fade away over time.

Bradstreet then moves on to describe the fleeting nature of human life. She notes that even the most powerful and wealthy individuals will eventually die and be forgotten, and that their material possessions will be left behind to decay and rust. This is a powerful reminder that our time on earth is limited, and that we should focus on things that have lasting value.

The poem then takes a more spiritual turn, as Bradstreet encourages readers to focus on the eternal rather than the temporal. She notes that the true value of life lies in our relationship with God, and that we should strive to live in a way that is pleasing to Him. This is a powerful message that speaks to the importance of faith and spirituality in our lives.

Throughout the poem, Bradstreet uses vivid imagery and metaphor to convey her message. For example, she compares the fleeting nature of material possessions to a “bubble” that will eventually burst. This image is particularly effective, as it conveys the idea that worldly possessions are ultimately empty and meaningless.

Another powerful image in the poem is that of the “painted tomb.” Bradstreet notes that even the most beautiful and ornate tomb will eventually decay and crumble, just like the body that lies within it. This is a powerful reminder that our physical bodies are temporary vessels, and that our true value lies in our spiritual essence.

Overall, “The Vanity of All Worldly Things” is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that speaks to the human experience of seeking happiness and fulfillment through material possessions. Bradstreet’s message is clear: true happiness and fulfillment can only be found through a relationship with God, and that we should focus on the eternal rather than the temporal. This is a message that is just as relevant today as it was in the 17th century, and it is one that we would all do well to remember.

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