Poverty and Violence
In Samuel Johnson’s poem “London,” the speaker claims that London is a dangerous place for the average citizen. His friend Thales agrees, believing that London has become so full of crime and violence that he no longer feels safe walking through its streets:
Prepare for Death, if here at Night you roam,
And sign your Will before you sup from Home.
As a result of economic inequality and a crumbling public infrastructure, crime rates have risen, including violent crimes such as rape and murder. Even most of the buildings are unsafe, for “falling houses thunder on your head”; it wasn’t uncommon during Johnson’s day for entire buildings to collapse due to poor construction.
Both Thales and the poem’s speaker agree that the violence plaguing the city of London is not limited to the denizens of the streets. Much of it comes from the city’s wealthy elite, such as “the fell attorney [who] prowls for prey” or politicians who “devote [themselves] to Vice and Gain.” By hoarding and lavishly spending so much wealth that could be used to help the poor, the elite classes create an atmosphere of desperation in which the poor must resort to lives of crime in order to survive.
The Corruption of Education
Thales argues that the status of education in London is deplorable. He claims that “unrewarded Science toils in vain,” indicating that the city no longer prioritizes education and higher learning. The intelligentsia (of which Johnson was a member) is unrecognized and undervalued. Moreover, the scholarly class are either unable or unwilling to use their knowledge to help the city’s poor or reform its broken social systems, rendering their work useless and unhelpful. In another instance, the speaker complains about how often in the city “a female atheist talks you dead,” as if philosophers have become as predatory and harmful as the “ruffians” or “fell attorneys” who prey on the weak and unsuspecting. As both Thales and the speaker see it, the corruption of the city has infected every level of society, including the well-educated.
The Lure of Pastoral Life
While giving his diatribe against London, Thales stands ready to disembark for Wales, which was then known as Cambria. He encourages his audience to do likewise:
Quick let us rise, the happy Seats explore,
And bear Oppression’s Insolence no more…
For Thales, London’s problems are unsolvable, meaning that the only real solution is to move away. Even though the speaker regrets his friend’s decision to leave, he can understand it as well. They share the romanticized vision of the countryside that characterizes pastoral literature, which looks to the country as a place “Where honesty and sense are no disgrace.” Thales imagines escaping to “[s]ome pleasing Bank where verdant Osiers play” or a “peaceful Vale with Nature’s Paintings gay.” He longs for a natural setting full of life and color as opposed to the decay and filth of the streets of London near the Thames.
Themes and Meanings
London is an idealistic outsider’s view of England’s depraved capital city, summed up in the poem’s Juvenalian epigraph, “Quis ineptae/ Tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus ut teneat se” (“For who can be so tolerant of the city, who so iron-willed as to contain himself”). The theme of an idealistic or innocent youth’s exposure to a corrupt city, in a journey to or from the country, surfaces repeatedly in Johnson’s fiction—for example, in Rasselas (1759)—and in the works of fellow eighteenth century Englishmen: in William Hogarth’s engravings of the 1730’s of a rake’s or harlot’s progress to ruin, and in Henry Fielding’s great novel Tom Jones (1749). The theme has classical roots in Greco-Roman myths of poetic escape to bucolic simplicity but also registers the genuinely bittersweet reactions of contemporary authors, so often born in the provinces, to the stunning realities of a fast-growing and fast-paced London.
Although Johnson later became famous...
(The entire section is 1,089 words.)