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...

(The entire section is 563 words.)