Thales is an Englishman who has made the decision to leave London to find a more peaceful and virtuous life in rural Wales. At the outset, the speaker supports the choice, even though he regrets that his friend is leaving him. “London” is a reimagining of Juvenal’s “Satire 3,” and thus Thales fulfills the same role that Umbricius does in the source poem.
Thales is moralistic, passionate, and nostalgic. In making his case for leaving London, he sketches a portrait of a more Edenic English past. He refers to historical figures like King Edward III, King Henry V, and King Alfred the Great, whose reigns were, in Thales’s mind, comparative golden ages. Thales displays a romanticized view of Great Britain’s past, perhaps without considering its grim realities.
Thales refers to his own “rustic tongue” that “Ne’er know to puzzle right, or varnish wrong.” On one level, the concept of a “rustic tongue” seems to fit his character, for it suggests both a sense of honest morality and a taste for rural life. On another level, the phrase suggests a simplistic mode of speech, but Thales’s rhetoric is erudite, carefully reasoned, and highly mannered—not at all “rustic.” It is not an accident that he shares a name with Thales of Miletus, the progenitor of the Greek philosophical tradition.
Thales is described as “injur’d,” and later in the poem he refers to his walking staff. Based on these clues, some scholars have connected Thales to Johnson’s real-life friend Richard Savage, a poet who left London for Wales. Johnson denied the connection.
The speaker, who remains unnamed, is Thales’s friend. He chiefly appears in the first thirty-four lines, in which he tells of Thales’s departure from London; the rest of the poem consists of Thales’s remarks before leaving.
The speaker feels both “grief and fondness” at the prospect of his friend’s departure. Though he will miss Thales, he understands Thales’s reasons for leaving London, and he compellingly articulates those reasons in the poem’s introductory passage.