Samuel Johnson Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Samuel Johnson wrote two major poetic works: London and The Vanity of Human Wishes. The remaining verse divides into the play Irene, poems in Latin, miscellaneous verse in English, and translations from Greek and Latin. London was the most popular of Johnson’s poems during his life, and it remains the most accessible to modern audiences. Its language is clear and its images straightforward. Like London, The Vanity of Human Wishes is an imitation of the satires of Juvenal, a Latin poet of the first and second centuries. It is widely regarded as Johnson’s poetic masterpiece and is Johnson’s effort to convey the essence of the Christian ethos through verse and imagery. The density of its images and ideas makes The Vanity of Human Wishes difficult to interpret even for experienced critics. Irene, on the other hand, yields readily to interpretation through its strong plot, although its verse, while competent, is unremarkable.


Johnson customarily composed his poems mentally before committing them to paper. London was composed in this manner; it was written on large sheets of paper in two columns—the left being for the first draft and the right for revisions. Johnson’s poetry is firmly in the Augustan tradition, typified in the eighteenth century by the works of Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Joseph Addison; London is characteristically Augustan in its dependence on a Latin model, in this case Juvenal’s third satire. When the poem was published, the passages that were derived from Juvenal were accompanied by Juvenal’s original lines, which were included at Johnson’s request—a common practice at the time. A good edition of London will include the relevant Juvenalian passages.

Juvenal’s third satire, Johnson’s model for London, focuses on Rome. In general, Juvenal’s satires attack what he perceived to be the immorality of Roman society. In his third satire, he cites particulars in the city of Rome itself. Johnson focuses his poem on the city of London and, like Juvenal, cites particulars. He also includes translations from Juvenal’s poem and updated versions of some of Juvenal’s sentiments. As the accompanying Latin verse shows, Johnson’s borrowings are only part of the whole and tend to illustrate the universality of some of the poem’s ideas. Too much of London is original for it to be simply a translation. For example, Juvenal writes from the point of view of a conservative Roman who believed that his countrymen had grown soft from lack of war and sacrifice, while Johnson writes from the point of view of an eighteenth century Christian who believed that the vices of his age stemmed from his countrymen’s failure to recognize the importance of the soul. Johnson was a man of ideas, and his ideas make London his own work—a statement of his views of the city when he was a young man of twenty-eight.

London is written in rhyming iambic pentameter couplets. Johnson believed that blank verse could be sustained only by strong images; otherwise, verse needed clear structure and rhyme. His best poetry exemplifies his ideas about prosody; London’s heroic couplets follow the model established by Pope. The poem’s language is lively and its ideas flow rapidly. Johnson’s condemnations are sharply expressed:

By numbers here from shame or censure free,All crimes are safe, but hated poverty.This, only this, the rigid law pursues,This, only this, provokes the snarling muse.

The city is portrayed as rife with crime, folly, and injustice. King George II is said to be more interested in Hanover than England and London; learning is said to be unrewarded (a favorite theme of Juvenal); government is said to be grasping while the nation sinks; and the city is characterized as architecturally in bad taste. The satire makes London seem bleak and ugly, but the language is exuberant and makes London’s faults seem exciting.

The poem’s persona (the speaker) is named Thales, who intends to leave London for Cambria (Wales); he craves solitude and peace. Some scholars have identified Thales as the personification of Richard Savage, who had suffered poverty and indignities in London; he left London in 1739 for Wales. Other scholars maintain that Johnson had not yet met Savage, and that London was, after all, published in 1738, a year before Savage’s migration. This dispute over seeming minutiae represents a major problem that infects much criticism of Johnson’s works. Those who support the notion that Savage is the original for Thales sometimes cite Johnson’s assertion that anyone who is tired of London is tired of life. They maintain that the poem’s point of view is not representative of Johnson but of Savage. Even some critics who do not assert that Savage was the model for Thales dismiss London as insincere—as an exercise that does not reflect Johnson’s true love for the city.

Students new to the study of Johnson should be wary of reasoning based on Johnson’s views in Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Boswell’s work is monumental; it has helped to shape the modern view of eighteenth century England. Johnson’s opinions as reported by Boswell are forcefully expressed and seemingly permanently set, and even knowledgeable scholars have sometimes read into Johnson’s early works the views he held when he was a conservative old man. In fact, like most writers who have been fortunate enough to have long careers, Johnson changed his views as he matured, read new works, and gained new experiences. As a young man, Johnson was rebellious and angry. He was learned and poor, and he disliked the Hanoverian monarchy. The architecture of London in 1738 could be not only ugly but also downright dangerous—poorly built walls sometimes collapsed into the streets. The crowding, poverty, and crime of London would probably have shocked any young person from the country who was experiencing it for the first time; Johnson arrived in London in 1737, and the poem appeared in 1738.

The Vanity of Human Wishes

The Vanity of Human Wishes, on the other hand, was written when...

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