Download London Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Analysis

"London" is a poem by English writer Samuel Johnson. The poem was written in 1738, contains 263 lines, and is based on and pays homage to Juvenal's Third Satire. The poem is considered a neoclassical work, which was a popular subgenre during Johnson's time. Above all things, it is about a departure from one's home. It can be considered an escapist story in which the main character leaves a large metropolis in order to escape the modern vices associated with cities. In this sense, the poem could also be considered a blatant social criticism of the modern urban lifestyle.

In Juvenal's work—which Johnson's poem is modeled after—the main character leaves Rome to distance himself from the vices and social traps of the city. He goes to live in Cumae, a Greek colony in Italy. In Johnson's poem, the main character leaves London for Wales. The latter is a place that is provincial compared to London, and it is where the character believes he can ground himself back to earth again and find peace. Johnson criticizes the social and economic ills of London. He observes the rising crime rate in the city and the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor.

The poem also talks about corruption, and this element of the poem is what provoked Alexander Pope, a leader of the Augustan school of poetry, to praise Johnson's poem. Pope particularly liked the political commentary inserted in "London." All of the "evils" plaguing London are personified into ghastly characters in the poem, and doing so allowed Johnson to vividly depict the social and political ills of the city. These social ills have a face in the poem, and they are depicted as literally destroying London and the overall social fabric, thus initiating the need to escape to Wales.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 abhorrence of a physically and morally dangerous London.

From line 35 to the end of the poem, Thales utters a powerful diatribe against the city and, as Donald Greene notes in The Politics of Samuel Johnson (2d ed., 1990), makes use of all the commonplaces of contemporary opposition propaganda against the administration of the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Bemoaning a city preoccupied with “vice and gain,” in which learning goes unrewarded, Thales prays for his escape to an Edenic “happier place” far from pensioned politicians in the pay of Walpole’s regime. Parliament itself is a major wellspring of national corruption, tainting the already “poison’d youth” of the land, spreading lies as truths, seeking a coward’s peace with Spanish marauders of English trade who dared to cut off an ear of Captain Robert Jenkins, and...

(The entire section is 1,454 words.)