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...
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