The poetry of Samuel Johnson is closely related in both content and tone to the rest of his work. His pervasive moral vision of the transitory nature of all human existence and the consequent folly of man’s striving for worldly success provides the central themes for his two best known poems, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, as well as for his oriental fable, Rasselas, his Shakespearian criticism, many of his periodical essays, and several of the Lives of the Poets. In his verse, as in his prose works, Johnson moves from the treatment of specific incidents to general application of their meaning. His primary interest was always in presenting universal truths, and he chose detailed episodes that he felt would illustrate them.
Like most of the other writers of his day Johnson received his early training in the composition of poetry in school, making verse translations of Latin works; several of these early efforts survive, either in manuscript or in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and they show young Johnson as a skilled handler of language, capable of creating dignified, striking lines in his adaptations of Vergil and Horace. His mastery of language was no doubt increased by his lifelong practice of writing original Latin poetry and translating English works into Latin, a language that notoriously demands great precision and exactness.
Johnson’s English works include a number of occasional pieces, complimentary verses to ladies, prologues and epilogues to theatrical performances, and elegies for friends and acquaintances; but his reputation as a poet rests squarely on London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, the two long satires modeled on the works of the Roman moralist Juvenal.
The imitation of the classical satire was a popular eighteenth century verse form. The English poet’s method was to choose a classical poem whose general premises seemed to him especially applicable to the conditions of his own day, then to replace specific incidents relating to Roman life with those more relevant to his time. The felicity with which an author could apply his source to present-day conditions and his skill in adapting single lines and phrases marked his success with the genre. The most outstanding imitations are generally considered to be Alexander Pope’s Horatian epistles, but Johnson’s works rank high.
London, published in 1738, the year in which Pope’s brilliant Epilogue to the Satires also appeared, is based on the third satire of Juvenal, a condemnation of the evils of life in the city of Rome. Johnson uses Juvenal’s general plan to point out the perils and corruption of London, attacking in particular the government of Robert Walpole, the general submission of virtue and honor to greed and flattery, and the degrading effects of poverty. The speaker throughout most of the poem is Thales, identified by some scholars as Richard Savage, a minor writer who is remembered chiefly as the subject of Johnson’s first biography. Thales, accompanied to Greenwich by his friend, the author of the poem, is embarking for Wales; he can no longer bear to live amidst the corruptions of the city, and he attacks it as he explains his reasons for leaving. Johnson pictures himself as sympathetic with Thales’ views: “I praise the hermit, but regret the friend.”
Much of the power of the satire in the poem derives from Johnson’s use of the heroic couplet for sharp, abrupt, ironic effects in such lines as these:
By numbers here from shame or censurefree,All crimes are safe, but hated poverty.This, only this, the rigid law pursues,This, only this, provokes the snarlingmuse.
Sometimes contrast in the relative seriousness of the two lines of the couplet provides the effect:
Their ambush here relentless ruffianslay,And here the fell attorney prowls...
(The entire section is 1729 words.)