(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, a poem in twenty-seven stanzas of varying lengths, is written in pointed heroic couplets. An imitation of Juvenal’s third satire, it revives Juvenal’s complaints against flattery, fraud, perjury, theft, and rejection of old Roman virtues and applies them to the British metropolis. Like Juvenal, Johnson is rhetorical and dramatic. He, too, presents readers with a scene: A man, injured by the viciousness and folly of the city, leaving for the peace and solitude of the country, is bidding farewell to his friend.

Johnson’s poem opens with a man named Thales waiting on the banks of the Thames for the boat to take him to Wales. Thales reviews his reasons for leaving town: selfishness, greed, the absence of public and private virtue, and the disappearance of true patriotism. The greatest effects of these calamities are felt by the young and the talented. Still other evils, such as arson, random violence, and even murders committed by pampered young delinquents and mischievous drunkards, are directed against the helpless poor or unsuspecting citizens. Thales can say no more because his boat has arrived. Yet he promises to come out of solitude to renew his attack on London vice when his friend is ready to leave the city.

London presents a problem to readers: To whom is Thales addressing his grandiose monologue, which is appropriate for a large audience? Merely to the single friend who accompanied him to the boat? It is ironic that the very people who need his message are not there to hear it. It is also possible that Johnson, to show how deeply his speaker is affected by his ordeal,...

(The entire section is 688 words.)