Last Updated on February 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
Samuel Johnson was a famous poet, playwright, and essayist during the neoclassical era of English literature, which comprised the first half of the eighteenth century under the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, and King George II. This era is also known as the Augustan Age, which name...
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Samuel Johnson was a famous poet, playwright, and essayist during the neoclassical era of English literature, which comprised the first half of the eighteenth century under the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, and King George II. This era is also known as the Augustan Age, which name refers to the Augustan period of the Roman Empire, when Latin literature and philosophy flourished. Johnson subtitled his poem “An Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal” in order to directly name the inspiration of the poem: the satirist Juvenal. Juvenal wrote a series of satires during the second century CE that critique the decline and degeneration of the Roman Empire, much as Johnson’s poem critiques the decline and degeneration of the city of London.
The speaker waits with his friend Thales by the River Thames. He feels sorrowful, because his friend has decided to leave London for the country, but he respects and supports Thales’s decision. The two men look over London, and for a moment, things seem calm. Then Thales frowns and begins to explain why he has chosen to leave the city.
Thales feels that London—and all of England, for that matter—has declined under the current government and its policies. The nation used to be nobler and more just. There were courageous kings such as Edward and Henry, who both won great military victories against England’s enemies. There were also kings such as Alfred the Great, who was righteous and inspiring. Such monarchs created a climate that curtailed criminality. Thales believes that during Alfred the Great’s reign, a single jail could have held half of England’s criminals. He invokes these old rulers to illustrate the heights of greatness from which London and England have fallen.
London is now full of criminals; those who aren’t breaking the law fall prey to those who are. People everywhere are going hungry. They are taken advantage of by the government, which supports “pirates” who prey on Englishmen. Meanwhile, the nation’s leaders are allowed to grow rich by running lotteries and collecting taxes from the poor. These leaders are now driven by the love of money rather than the pursuit of noble aims, leaving Londoners at the mercy of such plutocrats. The working classes are subject to the whims of those with less character but more money. Thales feels that the entire city is falling into ruin as “falling houses thunder on your head.” He attributes these maladies to the misguided culture but lays most of the blame on the greedy and indifferent government, lamenting how each official constantly tries to “raise his treasures higher than before.”
Thales asks to be given a place where honor, kindness, and wisdom aren’t looked down upon. He wants a better life than the one he has in London. At the end of the poem, he tells the speaker that he still has much to add—but they’ve run out of time, since his boat has arrived. He foresees a time when his friend will also flee London—when his “youth, and health, and fortune” are gone—and then feel enraged enough to pen a satire against the city, presumably in the form of the poem “London” itself.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
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, has him “forget” that only one person is listening to him. Of course, outside the fictional situation of the poem, Thales has as an audience all the readers of London.
London is, in part, a public poem, a satire attacking the corrupt, long-entrenched government of Sir Robert Walpole. A typical Tory complaint repeated several times in the poem—how much London had changed since its glorious days—parallels Juvenal’s lament for the death of old Roman virtue. The speaker expresses anger and disappointment for England’s losses: of the “fair Justice” of King Alfred, of the heroism and sanctity of King Edward, of the bravery of King Henry (Johnson does not specify which Henry), and of the honor and commercial ascendancy of Queen Elizabeth. Instead, under Walpole, “Worth” and “Science” are ignored, insulted, attacked, and forced by their enemies to leave the capital. These include abstract representations of evil such as “the supple Gaul,” “the silken Courtier,” the “fiery Fop,” the “frolick Drunkard,” the “midnight Murderer,” Orgolio, and Balbo, as well as real people, all Whigs, such as Lords Hervey, Marlborough, and Villiers. Such evil undermines the nation and even poisons the English soil.
London is also a private poem, which expresses Johnson’s personal sense of injury in the outrages committed by a vicious society on the virtuous individual. It also contains concrete details that tie it to Johnson’s own experience. Johnson had seen two of his friends, Henry Hervey and Richard Savage, victimized and forced, like Thales in the poem, to leave London for Wales.
The poem’s rhetorical structure allows the speaker to turn from observations to questions to exclamations, from panoramic descriptions of a society in moral chaos to mock exhortations to villains to do their worst, from condemnations of evil to prayers to be spared. The structure also permits the expression of a wide range of strong feelings—anger, loss, sorrow, rage, regret, indignation—and allows these feelings to build to an almost unbearable tension. Even so, the reader has an impression that great reserves of emotional power are being restrained by an immense effort. Thus, the famous lines in which Johnson describes his own unfortunate condition, “Slow rises worth, by Poverty deprest,” sound mild and innocuous out of context. Yet within the poem, they indicate wrath and despair about to explode. These emotions and the themes with which they are associated appear repeatedly in Johnson’s writings.