The Poem

London the full title is London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal) is a long poem of 263 lines written in heroic couplets. Samuel Johnson’s first important writing and his second-greatest poem (after “The Vanity of Human Wishes”), this literary imitation of Juvenal’s Satire III (part of Juvenal’s Satires, from the second century c.e.) is neither a translation nor a paraphrase of the original. It is a genuinely new and vigorous composition about corrupt eighteenth century London, “part of the beauty of the performance,” Johnson himself wrote in 1738, “consisting in adapting Juvenals Sentiments to modern facts and Persons.” As such, the poem was a direct challenge to Alexander Pope, the supreme contemporary imitator of Horace, who supposedly welcomed the publication of London with the prophecy that its anonymous author “will soon be deterré.” Johnson’s satire against an urban wasteland did help to unearth him from literary obscurity and appropriately earned the praise of the great poet-critic T. S. Eliot two centuries later.

The poem opens with an unnamed narrator expressing mixed emotions about the pending departure of his friend, “Thales,” from Greenwich, England, by boat to some rural retreat of primitive innocence in Wales. The narrator may regret losing Thales to “Cambria’s solitary shore” but fully sympathizes with his friend’s...

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Forms and Devices

At the heart of Johnson’s moral artistry is a moral realism that has roots in Juvenal’s Satire III but that, influenced by a Christian-Renaissance vision of right and reasonable conduct, bears comparison with other eighteenth century works: Scribler satires, William Hogarth’s prints, and Henry Fielding’s novels. Claiming later to have had all sixteen of Juvenal’s satires stored and poetically transformed in his mind, Johnson may well have composed London rapidly, mostly in his head, before he committed the verses to paper.

The poem was his first major bid for literary fame. It is much more of a poetical transformation of the Juvenalian satire than some previous commentators have recognized. The changes are an early indication of Johnson’s distinctive moral vision and poetic voice. For example, in keeping with his Christian sense of moral decorum, he deleted Juvenalian references to sexual debauchery, homosexuality, slop basins, and wayward gods, and substituted sanitized generalizations and reverential references to a “kind heaven” protecting poor mortals.

Even more original was Johnson’s creation of a political poem, replete with stock opposition propaganda and allusions to a glorious libertarian past, from a Latin satire relatively silent about Roman politics. Despite considerable restrictions on the eighteenth century press, Johnson enjoyed more freedom of political expression than Juvenal could assume under an...

(The entire section is 592 words.)