The poet, playwright, and essayist Samuel Johnson wrote in the beginning of the eighteenth century. The age in which Johnson wrote is termed the “Augustan Age” 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.
The name “Augustan” is a reference to the Augustan period of the Roman Empire. During the Augustan period of ancient Rome, Latin literature flourished. Johnson subtitled his poem, “London: An Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal,” in order to indicate the poet’s model: the satirist Juvenal. Juvenal wrote a series of satires during the second century CE that discussed the degeneration of the Roman Empire.
The speaker waits with his friend Thales by the river Thames. He is filled with sorrow because his friend has decided to leave London for the country; however, he also says that he respects and supports the choice. The two men look over London, and for a moment, things seem calmer. Then Thales frowns and begins to explain why he chooses to leave London.
Thales feels that English honor has become a joke under the current government and policies. Once upon a time, England was different. There were kings like Edward, who was noble and brave. There were kings like Henry, who won victory for his country. There were kings like Alfred, who was just, fair, and didn’t create a climate that inspired many people to be criminals. He says that under Albert, a single jail could hold half of the criminals. Now, however, things are different. Thales uses these old rulers to show what London is capable of being versus what it has become.
London is full of criminals; those who aren’t doing bad things fall prey to those who are. People go hungry. They’re taken advantage of by the government, who supports people like pirates who prey on Englishmen. They’re allowed to get rich running lotteries and collecting taxes from people who don’t have much to give. People are driven by the love of money rather than more noble aims.
Those in London are often at the mercy of the rich. Those who are poor, young, and even skilled are subject to the whims of those with less character but more money. Thales feels the entire place is falling to ruin. This is something that he attributes to culture to some extent but mostly to the government.
Thales asks to be given a place where honor, kindness, and education 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 could continue to go on—but they’ve run out of time. His boat has arrived. In the future, he says, he will continue his complaints when the narrator leaves London and the two men meet again.
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...
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