Last Updated on September 22, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507
Johnson’s poem “London” describes the myriad problems in the city of London through a character named Thales, a man who wants to leave the corrupt city to find peace and “purer air” in “Cambria,” or Wales. The speaker of the poem, who remains unnamed throughout the work, has come to the banks of the Thames to bid farewell to his friend Thales. The poem opens with the following lines:
Tho’ Grief and Fondness in my Breast rebel,
When injur’d Thales bids the Town farewell,
Yet still my calmer Thoughts his Choice commend,
I praise the Hermit, but regret the Friend,
Here, the speaker feels “Grief and Fondness” for his friend’s departure, but he also “commends” Thales’s decision “to breathe in distant Fields a purer Air.” The speaker admires this decision but knows he will miss his friend.
The speaker then commends Wales as a place far more favorable than London, where:
Malice, Rapine, Accident, conspire,
And now a Rabble Rages, now a Fire;
Their Ambush here relentless Ruffians lay,
And here the fell Attorney prowls for Prey;
Here falling Houses thunder on your Head,
And here a female Atheist talks you dead.
This description of London paints a bleak picture: malice (ill will), rapine (seizing someone else’s property), and accident abound. It has become an unsafe and unpleasant place to live. A mob surges, a fire sweeps through the streets, and criminals ambush naïve passersby. People are merciless in their pursuit of survival, doing whatever it takes to ease their own miseries and sufferings.
As the poem progresses, Thales tells the speaker of his decision to leave. Thales explains the suffering London has caused him and the reasons for his departure to Wales, which he imagines as an idyllic haven in contrast to London’s corruption and grime. He describes London as a place where:
In those curst Walls, devote to Vice and Gain,
[and] unrewarded Science toils in vain;
Wicked and immoral behavior for the purpose of personal gain prevail in London, while those who are advancing humanity’s knowledge—those “unrewarded” scholars and scientists—“toil in vain,” their work disregarded in favor of material goods and personal pleasures. Thales imagines Wales as a “happier place”:
Where Honesty and Sense are no Disgrace;
Some pleasing Bank where verdant Osiers play,
Some peaceful Vale with Nature’s Paintings gay;
The beautiful pastoral imagery conjured here—a riverbank lined with lush green willows, or a valley where the scenery is as perfect and serene as a painting—stands in stark contrast to the descriptions of London:
London! the needy Villain’s gen’ral Home,
The Common Shore of Paris and of Rome;
With eager Thirst, by Folly or by Fate,
Sucks in the Dregs of each corrupted State.
Perhaps the most famous line of the poem is the speaker’s description of his own condition as a resident of the city: “Slow rises worth, by poverty depress’d.” In other words, a person cannot rise in the world when oppressed by poverty.