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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

English writer Samuel Johnson’s poem “London” was published in 1738, contains 263 lines, and pays homage to Juvenal’s Third Satire . The poem is considered a neoclassical work. Neoclassicism was the dominant movement of Johnson’s time, and its writers—Johnson, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope—tried to revive classical Greco-Roman styles...

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English writer Samuel Johnson’s poem “London” was published in 1738, contains 263 lines, and pays homage to Juvenal’s Third Satire. The poem is considered a neoclassical work. Neoclassicism was the dominant movement of Johnson’s time, and its writers—Johnson, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope—tried to revive classical Greco-Roman styles of writing in the same vein as Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. The primary inspiration for Johnson’s work was Juvenal, an ancient Roman satirist who bemoaned the deterioration of Roman society and critiqued the failures of its leadership.

In Juvenal’s Third Satire, which Johnson’s poem is modeled after, the speaker’s friend Umbricius leaves Rome to distance himself from the vices and social ills of the city. He goes to live in Cumae, a Greek colony in Italy. In Johnson’s poem, the speaker’s friend Thales leaves London for Wales, then called Cambria. The latter is provincial compared to London, but it is where Thales believes he can ground himself and find peace. In this sense, “London” can be considered an escapist narrative, in which Thales decides to leave a large metropolis in order to escape the vices associated with modern cities. He believes that he may find relief in the countryside, near “[s]ome pleasing Bank where verdant Osiers play / Some peaceful Vale with Nature’s Paintings gay.” By contrasting imagery of a serene pastoral landscape with descriptions of a decaying city, the poem could also be considered a blatant social criticism of the modern urban lifestyle, particularly in British society.

Thales criticizes the social and economic ills of London, citing the rising crime rate in the city—including theft, rape, and murder—and the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. The poem also discusses corruption and greed, particularly how people living within London’s “curs’d walls, devote to vice and gain,” all while “unrewarded Science toils in vain.” Simply put, the avaricious upper class let the city fall apart for their own benefit, while those devoted to “Science” or academic pursuits conduct their work of advancing human knowledge or advocating for the poor in vain.

Alexander Pope, a leader among the neoclassical poets, praised Johnson’s poem, particularly for its political commentary. The evils plaguing London are personified as ghastly caricatures in the poem, a technique that allowed Johnson to vividly depict the social and political ills of the city. These ills are depicted as destroying London and its social fabric, thus prompting Thales’s need to escape to Wales.

The poem’s formal qualities are representative of the neoclassical school. “London” consists of rhymed heroic couplets, which give the poem a stately, didactic tone that fits Thales’s critical attitude towards his subject matter. Moreover, like many neoclassical works, the poem is long and unhurried, preferring verbosity to concision. At 263 lines, it amply covers its subject matter, in many cases conveying a point several times over.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

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 enriching itself by controlling the populace through the government newspaper The Daily Gazetteer and the recent Stage Licensing Act, which was causing liberty-loving English drama to be displaced by depraved Italian opera.

By contrast, Thales is the truth-telling good man (vir bonus) found in classical satire, a true-blue Protestant Englishman who despises the corrupting invasion of foreigners—especially slavish Frenchmen, who win preferment by flattery, deceit, and an unprincipled readiness to do anything for the ruling class. In a money-hungry metropolis of topsy-turvy values, poverty is the only crime that provokes universal ridicule and neglect, whereas wealth causes an admiring nation to help rebuild rich Orgilio’s mansion, gutted by fire. So widespread is urban violence from drunkards, street gangs, and murdering burglars that the amount of rope needed to hang this growing horde of criminals would use up all the reserves of hemp needed to rig the ships for King George II’s annual visits to his royal mistress in Hanover, Germany. Consequently, Thales must bid farewell to London, and he promises that if his narrator-friend should ever retire to rural innocence in Kent, then Thales will leave Wales and join him there to help inspire the creation of satires against the vices of the age.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

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 imperial dictatorship. Even though Johnson acknowledged the irrelevance of his adaptation (lines 182-209) of Juvenalian verses on rebuilding burnt mansions to English manners, the rest of London was of immediate topical relevance to the current political scene and to his own bitter sense of being an outcast in the city.

Finally, Johnson’s poem is far more compressed, more elegant, and more aphoristic than those of Juvenal, the angry but casual satirist of Rome. London is almost sixty lines shorter than Satire III, not only because of Johnson’s omission of Juvenalian digressions and an entire section on crowded Roman streets, but also because of his remarkable rhetorical conciseness, which engenders summary moral generalizations. Thus, a single pithy and beautifully alliterated line, “And ev’ry moment leaves my little less,” condenses almost two flaccid lines of Latin verse literally translated as “my means are less today than they were yesterday, and tomorrow will rub off something from what remains.” Again, the well-known Johnsonian maxim “Slow rises worth,/ by poverty depress’d” ennobles, with its antithetical verbs, this homely literal translation of the Latin equivalent: “It is no easy matter, anywhere, for a man to rise when poverty stands in the way of his merits.”

Young Samuel Johnson in London proved himself a master of the closed pentameter couplet—better known as the heroic couplet—that John Dryden had refined and Pope perfected. In Johnson’s hands, the closed couplet lines were at the magnificent service of his insistent search for moral order and rational control in a poem describing urban anarchy in vivid detail and striking generalizations that sometimes border on allegorical abstractions (“Behold rebellious virtue quite o’erthrown”). The intellectual density of some of his severely compressed lines can surpass the virtuoso poetic wit of even Pope. For example, Thales states a compulsion “To pluck a titled poet’s borrow’d wing”—more prosaically, to expose an aristocratic poetaster’s unoriginal literary productions under the metaphorically second-hand inspiration of a winged Pegasus, the mythological flying horse beloved of the Muses and all first-rate poets. Symmetry, balance, antithesis, and paradox provide a rhetorical harmony for the discordant subject matter: “Here malice, rapine, accident conspire,/ And now a rabble rages, now a fire.”

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