Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

London is an idealistic outsider’s view of England’s depraved capital city, summed up in the poem’s Juvenalian epigraph, “Quis ineptae/ Tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus ut teneat se” (“For who can be so tolerant of the city, who so iron-willed as to contain himself”). The theme of an idealistic or innocent youth’s exposure to a corrupt city, in a journey to or from the country, surfaces repeatedly in Johnson’s fiction—for example, in Rasselas (1759)—and in the works of fellow eighteenth century Englishmen: in William Hogarth’s engravings of the 1730’s of a rake’s or harlot’s progress to ruin, and in Henry Fielding’s great novel Tom Jones (1749). The theme has classical roots in Greco-Roman myths of poetic escape to bucolic simplicity but also registers the genuinely bittersweet reactions of contemporary authors, so often born in the provinces, to the stunning realities of a fast-growing and fast-paced London.

Although Johnson later became famous for his love of London, this early poem strikes a note of repulsion. A thirty-year-old newcomer to the city born and reared in the provincial town of Lichfield, he surely felt neglect and endured poverty as a journalist-editor for Edward Cave’s The Gentleman’s Magazine. Fame and fortune must have seemed elusive to him as he struggled in the callous and crowded center of British culture, crime, commerce, and councils of state. Even though he...

(The entire section is 589 words.)