The Poetry of Johnson

by Samuel Johnson
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1729

The poetry of Samuel Johnson is closely related in both content and tone to the rest of his work. His pervasive moral vision of the transitory nature of all human existence and the consequent folly of man’s striving for worldly success provides the central themes for his two best known poems, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, as well as for his oriental fable, Rasselas, his Shakespearian criticism, many of his periodical essays, and several of the Lives of the Poets. In his verse, as in his prose works, Johnson moves from the treatment of specific incidents to general application of their meaning. His primary interest was always in presenting universal truths, and he chose detailed episodes that he felt would illustrate them.

Like most of the other writers of his day Johnson received his early training in the composition of poetry in school, making verse translations of Latin works; several of these early efforts survive, either in manuscript or in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and they show young Johnson as a skilled handler of language, capable of creating dignified, striking lines in his adaptations of Vergil and Horace. His mastery of language was no doubt increased by his lifelong practice of writing original Latin poetry and translating English works into Latin, a language that notoriously demands great precision and exactness.

Johnson’s English works include a number of occasional pieces, complimentary verses to ladies, prologues and epilogues to theatrical performances, and elegies for friends and acquaintances; but his reputation as a poet rests squarely on London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, the two long satires modeled on the works of the Roman moralist Juvenal.

The imitation of the classical satire was a popular eighteenth century verse form. The English poet’s method was to choose a classical poem whose general premises seemed to him especially applicable to the conditions of his own day, then to replace specific incidents relating to Roman life with those more relevant to his time. The felicity with which an author could apply his source to present-day conditions and his skill in adapting single lines and phrases marked his success with the genre. The most outstanding imitations are generally considered to be Alexander Pope’s Horatian epistles, but Johnson’s works rank high.

London, published in 1738, the year in which Pope’s brilliant Epilogue to the Satires also appeared, is based on the third satire of Juvenal, a condemnation of the evils of life in the city of Rome. Johnson uses Juvenal’s general plan to point out the perils and corruption of London, attacking in particular the government of Robert Walpole, the general submission of virtue and honor to greed and flattery, and the degrading effects of poverty. The speaker throughout most of the poem is Thales, identified by some scholars as Richard Savage, a minor writer who is remembered chiefly as the subject of Johnson’s first biography. Thales, accompanied to Greenwich by his friend, the author of the poem, is embarking for Wales; he can no longer bear to live amidst the corruptions of the city, and he attacks it as he explains his reasons for leaving. Johnson pictures himself as sympathetic with Thales’ views: “I praise the hermit, but regret the friend.”

Much of the power of the satire in the poem derives from Johnson’s use of the heroic couplet for sharp, abrupt, ironic effects in such lines as these:

By numbers here from shame or censurefree,All crimes are safe, but hated poverty.This, only this, the rigid law pursues,This, only this, provokes the snarlingmuse.

Sometimes contrast in the relative seriousness of the two lines of the couplet provides the effect:

Their ambush here relentless ruffianslay,And here the fell attorney prowls forprey;Here falling houses thunder on yourhead,And here a female atheist talks youdead.

While the greater part of the poem consists of direct attacks on contemporary vices, Johnson alludes to chapters in England’s past to underline the faults of the present age. There is a brief tribute to Elizabeth I as the poet sets the scene in Greenwich, her birthplace, which calls to mind the “blissful age” when England triumphed over Spain, “Ere masquerades debauch’d, excise oppress’d,/Or English honour grew a standing jest.” A reference to the spirit of Edward III, one of England’s great military heroes, evokes scorn for “the warrior dwindled to a beau . . . of France the mimick, and of Spain the prey,” and the mention of the victories of Henry V underlines the folly of imitating the vices of the French immigrants who have flocked to London.

While Johnson generally confines his attack on specific vices to a couplet or two, there are a few extended satirical portraits that provide an effective change of pace. In the latter part of the poem he describes the fortunes of the pompous and powerful Orgilio, a character taken directly from Juvenal. This unfortunate man’s home is destroyed by lightning, but before many days pass flatterers and hangers-on have provided for his new estate treasures far surpassing those he lost. This description is followed immediately by an idyllic account of a country estate, available “for less than rent the dungeons of the Strand,” where the landholder may enjoy nature, garden, and dwell in peace and security.

The satirical gifts shown by Johnson in London are developed to a far greater extent in The Vanity of Human Wishes, published eleven years later. In this work Johnson exercised more freedom in departing from his model, Juvenal’s tenth satire, and consequently he created a more coherent work than the earlier poem. The Vanity of Human Wishes is not directed so completely at specific abuses as London was; the theme, expressed in the title, lent itself to a more general treatment. In the introductory passage Johnson points out the futility of all human undertakings in every corner of the globe, emphasizing his assertion with imagery of mist, clouds, and mazes. After commenting on the universal evils of wealth, “the gen’ral massacre of gold,” the uselessness of the quest for military and political power, and the shaky foundations of fame and adulation from the multitude, he relates the histories of several famous men. Cardinal Wolsey’s fate is seen as a kind of parable. At the peak of his career this man held “law in his voice, and fortune in his hand,” but when the favor of his sovereign changed, “with age, with cares, with maladies oppress’d, he seeks the refuge of monastic rest.”

Another specific illustration is the career of the scholar, one which Johnson knew well. If a “young enthusiast” can escape the perils of doubt, praise, difficulty, novelty, sloth, tempting beauty, disease, and melancholy, there await for him “toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.” Archbishop Laud, executed by Cromwell’s forces, reached the pinnacle of scholarly achievement, the archbishopric of Canterbury, then “fatal learning leads him to the block.”

The last of Johnson’s examples of the fleeting nature of all human achievements is the account of Charles XII of Sweden, who won great military victories until his encounter with a superior Russian army. He died an ignominious death in a later conflict, and Johnson makes this comment on the significance of his life:

He left the name, at which the worldgrew pale,To point a moral, or adorn a tale.

Shunning material advantages, other men desire long life, but there is no happiness in that course, either:

Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,And shuts up all the passages of joy.

Even when a man has been blessed throughout the prime of his life, he must face the end. Again Johnson combines general judgments with specific examples for great effect:

In life’s last scene what prodigiessurprise,Fears of the brave, and follies of thewise!From Marlb’rough’s eyes the streamsof dotage flow,And Swift expires a driv’ller and ashow.

Even beauty can be a bane rather than a blessing: “Sedley [mistress of James II] curs’d the form that pleas’d a king.”

Johnson concludes his poem by asking, then answering the question that inevitably arises from so pessimistic a view as his:

Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,Roll darkling down the torrent of hisfate?

The only possible solution, in his view, is to trust in God:

Implore his aid, in his decisions rest,Secure, what’er he gives, he gives thebest.

The gifts that make life tolerable, those for which men must pray, are love, patience, and faith.

The variety of both tone and subject matter in Johnson’s numerous shorter poems is vast. His “Prologue spoken by David Garrick at the Opening of the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane” is a judicious, stately survey of the decline of the English stage from the time of “Immortal Shakespeare” to the mid-eighteenth century. A collection of brief verses shows a number of complimentary lyrics addressed, apparently extemporaneously, to various ladies on their playing a spinet, plucking a laurel, or celebrating a birthday. One of the wittiest of these pieces is a clever tribute to the poet’s friend, “To Mrs. Thrale on her Completing her Thirty-fifth Year,” a tour de force of brief lines and amusing rhymes:

Oft in Danger yet aliveWe are come to Thirty-five;Long may better Years arrive,Better Years than Thirty-five;Could Philosophers contriveLife to stop at Thirty-five,Time his Hours should never driveO’er the Bounds of Thirty-five.

One of the most moving of Johnson’s minor works is the poem “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet,” a mild, kindly, undistinguished man whom the poet had loved and respected. The simplicity of the stanza and the language mirrors the character of the man:

Yet still he fills affection’s eye,Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;Nor, letter’d arrogance, denyThy praise to merit unrefin’d.

Johnson’s poetic gifts are not sparkling, immediately striking ones, but the dignity, the appropriateness, and the wisdom of his works are lastingly satisfying. Johnson had an almost infallible sense of decorum; his lines are not often beautiful or remarkably original, but they are almost never, if ever, unsuitable. He successfully avoids the lapses in taste that plagued many of his contemporaries and conveys those truths he discovered about life in language that rewards continued rereading.

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