London: A Poem, in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal
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CitationJohnson, Samuel. London: A Poem, in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, , 1738 . Literature in Context: An Open Anthology. http://anthologydev.lib.virginia.edu/work/Johnson/johnson-london. Accessed: 2023-02-04T22:43:49.946Z
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London, published in 1738, represents Johnson's attempt to satirize the grubby world of London and also to rise above it. The poem is an "imitation" of the third Satire of the Roman poet Juvenal, which probably dates to the first century. In this poem, Juvenal imagines a friend of the poet, named Umbricius, who is sick and tired of the city of Rome and is leaving for the countryside for good. In doing what was called an "imitation" of his classical source, Johnson is not simply translating Juvenal's poem, but updating it, finding modern correlations to the Latin original. Here, London stands in for Rome, "Thales" stands in for Juvenal's friend Umbricius, and the Tuscan countryside to which Umbricius was headed becomes Wales. Exhausted by the filth, crowds, noise of London, and the difficulty of making a living as a writer, Thales (believed by some scholars to refer to Richard Savage, another hack writer who had become a friend of Johnson's) in some ways expresses Johnson's own frustrations. But London itself, published in a handsome folio edition, written in the heroic couplet form that to readers of the 1730s identified the high style of serious poetry, using the form of the imitation to signify its neoclassical aspirations, and hyped in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine (which published ads for the poem, and also excerpted it), is clearly an attempt to Johnson to get out of hackdom as soon as possible, to become a poet like Alexander Pope, making a good living independent of the whims and tight fists of the booksellers and magazine editors.
The poem also positioned itself as part of the growing opposition to the government of Sir Robert Walpole, who had dominated British politics since taking over as the de facto Prime Minister (there was no such official position yet) in 1721.
Walpole successfully suppressed dissent through a mixture of brutality, bribery, and control of the print media. By the late 1730s, however, attacks on his regime were becoming more open and frequent, prompting new attempts on the part of his government to suppress dissenting voices. In particular, the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 called for theater managers to submit all plays for government approval in advance of performance. Prompted in part by satires against the regime like John Gay's The Beggars Opera (1728) and the satirical afterpieces by Henry Fielding that had been very popular in the mid-1730s, the Stage Licensing Act had a chilling effect on the theater. In particular, the passage of the Act thwarted Johnson's attempt to become a playwright himself. Johnson had arrived in London just that year with a half-finished tragedy in his luggage, a play called Irene that he probably imagined as a vehicle by which he could make a lot of money and gain status as an author. But in the aftermath of the Stage Licensing Act, theater managers became extremely cautious about new plays in general, and Irene was not staged until 1749. By using Juvenal's Third Satire as a point of departure, London manages to critique the Walpole regime indirectly and through coded references, but contemporary readers, particularly those in sympathy with the opposition, were readily able to see how the poem mocked Walpole's reign as corrupt.
Probably because of its political stance, London seems to have sold reasonably well, and Alexander Pope, the most famous poet of the period (and a sympathizer with opposition politics), praised it. But as a vehicle for establishing Johnson's reputation as a significant poet who could make a living off his art it was a dead end. Johnson had to continue to grind out work for hire for another decade and a half. It was not until he achieved fame in the 1750s, first as the author of a Spectator-like series of journalistic essays called The Rambler and then as the editor of the Dictionary of the English Language, which made him a kind of national treasure, since he had single-handedly accomplished for English what it had taken large teams of scholars to do for other European languages. Here, let's read Johnson as eighteenth-century Grub Street's finest product--and its most perceptive critic.LONDON:
In IMITATION of the
THIRD SATIRE of JUVENAL
———Quis ineptæ Tam patiens Urbis, tam ferreus ut teneat se? Juv.n001n001"Who can endure this terrible city? Who is so iron-willed that he can bear it?" Juvenal - [UVAstudstaff]
THO' Grief and Fondness in my Breast rebel, When injur'd Thalesn002n002The character of Thales has often been seen to have been inspired by the author Richard Savage, a friend of Samuel Johnson. Richard Savage, like Thales here, left London in an attempt to live in Wales. In 1744, after the death of Savage, Johnson published his Life of Richard Savage, a full-scale biography. - [UVAstudstaff] bids the Town farewll, Yet still my calmer Thoughts his Choice commend, I praise the Hermit, but regret the Friend, Who now resolves, from Vice and LONDON far,  To breathe in distant Fields a purer Air, And, fix'd on Cambria'sn003n003Wales: Savage did go to Wales. - [UVAstudstaff] solitary Shore, Give to St. Davidn004n004The Patron saint of Wales. - [UVAstudstaff] one true Briton more. For who would leave, unbrib'd Hibernia'sn005n005The classical name for Ireland. - [UVAstudstaff] Land, Or change the Rocks of Scotland for the Strandn006n006The main thoroughfare of London, connecting the City of London with Westminster. - [UVAstudstaff]?  There none are swept by sudden Fate away, But all whom Hunger spares, with Age decay: Here Malice, Rapinen045n045(DRAFT-DC)Plunder or pillage. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff], Accident, conspire, And now a Rabblen046n046(DRAFT)An unruly, disorganized crowd or mob. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] 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. While THALES waits the wherryn007n007A light rowing boat used mainly on rivers. - [UVAstudstaff] that contains Of dissipated Wealth the small Remains,  On Thames'n008n008The second longest river in Britain, which goes through central London. - [UVAstudstaff] Banks, in silent Thought we stood, Where GREENWICH smiles upon the silver Flood: Struck with the Seat that gave Elizan009n009Queen Elizabeth I was born at Greenwich Palace. - [UVAstudstaff] Birth, We kneel, and kiss the consecratedn047n047Sacred, hallowed, or sanctified. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] Earth; In pleasing Dreams the blissful Age renew,  And call BRITANNIA'S Glories back to view; Behold her Cross triumphant on the Main, The Guard of Commerce, and the Dread of Spain, Ere Masqueradesn010n010Masquerade balls were enormously popular in London in this period. People dressed up in costume in order to conceal their identities; critics denounced masquerades as hot-beds of sexual intrigue and immoral behavior. - [UVAstudstaff] debauch'd, Excisen011 oppress'd, Or English Honour grew a standing Jest.  A transient Calm the happy Scenes bestow, And for a Moment lull the Sense of Woe. At length awaking, with contemptuous Frown, Indignant THALES eyes the neighb'ring Town. Since Worth, he cries, in these degen'rate Days,  Wants ev'n the cheap Reward of empty Praise; In those curst Walls, devote to Vice and Gain, Since unrewarded Sciencen012n012Unacknowledged intellectual pursuits. - [UVAstudstaff] toils in vain; Since Hope but sooths to double my Distress, And ev'ry Moment leaves my Little less;  While yet my steady Steps no Staff sustains, And Life still vig'rous revels in my Veins; Grant me, kind Heaven, to find some happier Place, Where Honesty and Sense are no Disgrace; Some pleasing Bank where verdant osiersn013n013Any of several willows with tough pliant branches used in basketwork. It can also be a flexible branch of any of these willows. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] play,  Some peaceful valen014n014A more or less extensive tract of land lying between two ranges of hills, or stretches of high ground, and usually traversed by a river or stream; a dale or valley, esp. one which is comparatively wide and flat. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] with Nature's Paintings gay; Where once the harrass'd BRITONn048n048A member of one of the Brittonic-speaking peoples; an inhabitant of Britain. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] found repose, And safe in Poverty defy'd his Foes; Some secret Cell, ye Pow'rs, indulgent give. Let ---- live here, for --- has learned to Liven015n015(DRAFT-Should there be five dashes?)Readers were invited to fill in the blanks here with people who it might be dangerous to name directly; perhaps even the name 'George,' that of the king. - [UVAstudstaff].  Here let those reign, whom Pensions can incite To vote a Patriot black, a courtier whiten016n016'Patriots' were those who opposed the Walpole government and 'Courtiers' were those who supported his policies. - [UVAstudstaff]; Explain their Country's dear-bought Rights away, And plead for Pirates in the Face of Day; With slavish Tenets taint our poison'd Youth,  And lend a Lye the Confidence of Truth. Let such raise Palaces, and Manors buy, Collect a Tax, or farm a Lottery, With warbling eunuchsn017n017Castrati singers; male singers who had been castrated as children to preserve the high register of their voices, these singers had become extremely popular to opera goers. - [UVAstudstaff] fill our Licensed Stagen018n018The Stage Licensing Act had been passed in 1737; it required theatres to submit plays to the government for approval in advance of their performance, and effectively censored the London stage. - [UVAstudstaff], And lull to Servitude a thoughtless Age.  Heroes, proceed! What Bounds your Pride shall hold? What Check restrain your Thirst of Pow'r and Gold? Behold rebellious Virtue quite o'erthrown, Behold our Fame, our Wealth, our Lives your own. To such, a groaning Nation's Spoils are giv'n,  When publick Crimes inflame the Wrath of Heav'n: But what, my Friend, what Hope remains for me, Who start at Theft, and blush at Perjury? Who scarce forbear, tho' BRITAIN'S Court he sing, To pluck a tilted Poet'sn019n019Johnson is implicitly attacking Poet Laureate Colley cibber. Cibber was a mediocre poet and playwright but he was primarily given the title because he supported Walpole and the Whig Party. The borrowed wing part may be an accusation of plagiarism. - [UVAstudstaff] borrow'd Wing;  A Statesman's Logic unconvinc'd can hear, And dare to slumber o'er the Gazetteern020n020The Gazette was the official newspaper used by the Walpole government to influence public opinion, and, therefore, here labeled a total bore. - [UVAstudstaff]; Despise a Fool in half his Pension drest And strive in vain to laugh at H---y'sn021n021Probably referring to John Henly, known as Orator Henly, a well-known London preacher who had become famous more for his showmanship than his religious doctrine; he drew big crowds but was also considered to be something of a buffoon, and was also known to be a Walpole supporter. - [UVAstudstaff] Jest. Others with softer Smiles, and subtler Art,  Can sap the Principles, or taint the Heart; With more Address a Lover's Note convey, Or bribe a Virgin's Innocence away. Well may they rise, while I, whose Rustic Tongue Ne'er knew to puzzle Right, or varnishn049n049To cover, gloss over, or disguise. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] Wrong,  Spurn'd as a Begger, dreaded as a Spy, Live unregarded, unlamented die. For what but social Guilt the Friend endears? Who shares Orgilio'sn022n022The poet may not be referring to a particular person, but since orgueil means pride in French, imagining a prideful person in general. - [UVAstudstaff] Crimes, his Fortune shares. But thou, should tempting Villainy present  All Marlboroughn023n023John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), was a war hero for his successes in the War of the Spanish Succession at the turn of the eighteenth century; he was also widely believed to have been an enormous war profiteer, making a fortune from contracts to supply the troops. - [UVAstudstaff] hoarded, or all Villiersn024n024George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham, (1628-87) was a notorious rake and spendthrift. - [UVAstudstaff] spent, Turn from the glitt'ring Bribe thy scornful Eye, Nor fell for Gold, what Gold could never buy, The peaceful Slumber, self-approving Day, Unsullied Fame, and Conscience ever gay.  The cheated Nation's happy Fav'rites see! Mark whom the Great caress, who frown on me! LONDON! the needy Villain's gen'ral Home, The Common Shoren025n025Sewer. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] of Paris and of Rome; With eager Thirst, by Folly or by Fate,  Sucks in the Dregs of each corrupted State. Forgive my transportsn026n026Here referring to the sense of transport as a state of excitation, excess. - [UVAstudstaff] on a Theme like this, I cannot bear a French Metropolis. Illustrious Edwardn027n027(DRAFT) - [UVAstudstaff]! from the Realms of Day, The Land of Heroes and of Saints survey;  Nor hope the British Lineamentsn050n050(Draft)Line or outline. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] to trace, The rustic Grandeur; or the surly Grace, But lost in thoughtless Ease, and empty Show, Behold the Warriour dwindled to a Beau; Sense, Freedom, Piety, refin'd away,  Of FRANCE the Mimic, and of SPAIN the Prey; All that at home no more can beg or steal, Or like a Gibbetn028n028Orignially synonymous with gallows, but has later been used to mean an upright post with projecting arm from which the bodies of criminals were hung in chains or irons after execution. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] better than a Wheeln029n029An instrument of torture and punishment. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff]; Hiss'd from the Stage, or hooted from the Court, Their Air, their Dress, their Politicks import;  Obsequiousn029n029Compliant with the will or wishes of another. - [UVAstudstaff], artful, Volublen030n030Liable to change; inconstant, variable, mutable. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] and gay, On Britain's fond Credulityn051n051Readiness to believe. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] they prey. No gainful Trade their Industry can 'scape, They sing, they dance, clean Shoes, or cure a Clap; All Sciences a fasting Monsieur knows,  And bid him go to Hell, to Hell he goes, Ah! what avails it, that, from Slav'ry far,n052 I drew the Breath of Life in English Air; n052(DRAFT-Should it be pointed out that this is such a terrible rhyme for a reason.) - [UVAstudstaff] Was early taught a Briton's Right to prize, And lisp the Tale of Henry'sn031n031Probably a reference to Henry V, who was famous for his military success in the Hundred Years War with France. - [UVAstudstaff] Victories;  If the gulledn032n032Duped, deceived, befooled. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] conqueror receives the Chainn053n053(DRAFT-DC-Does this mean to be hung?) - [UVAstudstaff], And what their Armies lost, their Cringes gain? Studious to please, and ready to submit, The supple Gauln033n033Frenchman. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] was born a Parasite: Still to his Int'rest true, where'er he goes,  Wit, Brav'ry, Worth, his lavish Tongue bestows; In ev'ry Face a Thousand Graces shine, From ev'ry Tongue flows Harmony divine. These arts in vain our rugged Natives try, Strain out with fault'ring Diffidence a Lye,  And gain a Kick for awkward Flattery. Besides, with Justice, this discerning Age Admires their wond'rous Talents for the Stage: Well may they venture on the Mimic's Art, Who play from Morn to Night a borrow'd Part;  Practis'd their Master's Notions to embrace, Repeat his Maxims, and reflect his Face; With ev'ry wild Absurdity comply, And view each Object with another's Eye; To shake with Laughter ere the Jest they hear,  To pour at Will the counterfeited Tear; And as their Patron hints the Cold or Heat, To shake in Dog-days, in December sweat. How, when Competitors like these contend, Can surly Virtue hope to fix a Friend?  Slaves that with serious Impudencen054n054Shameless, immodest. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] beguilen055n055To deceive or cheat. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff], And lye without a Blush, without a Smile; Exalt each Trifle, ev'ry Vice adore, Your Taste in Snuff, your Judgment in a Whore; Can Balbo'sn034n034Balbo is Latin for one who stammers, so, such a person's eloquence here is an oxymoron. - [UVAstudstaff] Eloquence applaud, and swear  He gropes his Breeches with a Monarch's Air. For Arts like these preferr’d, admir’d, carest, They first invade your Table, then your Breast; Explore your Secrets with insidious Art, Watch the weak Hour, and ransack all the Heart;  Then soon your ill-plac'd Confidence repay, Commence your Lords, and govern or betray. By Numbers here from Shame or Censure free, All Crimes are safe, but hated Poverty. This, only this, the rigid Law persues,  This, only this, provokes the snarling Muse; The sober Trader at a tatter'd Cloak, Wakes from his Dream, and labours for a Joke; With brisker Air the silken Courtiers gaze, And turn the varied Taunt a thousand Ways.  Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest, Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest; Fate never wounds more deep the gen'rous Heart, Than when a Blockhead's Insult points the Dart. Has Heaven reserv'd, in Pity to the Poor,  No pathless Waste, or undiscover'd Shore? No secret Island in the boundless Main? No peaceful Desart yet unclaim'd by SPAIN? Quick let us rise, the happy Seats explore, And bear Oppression's Insolence no more.  This mournful Truth is ev'ry where confest, SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPREST: But here more slow, where all are Slaves to Gold, Where Looks are Merchandise, and Smiles are sold, Where won by Bribes, by Flatteries implor'd,  The Groom retails the Favours of his Lord. But hark! th' affrighted Crowd's tumultuous Cries Roll thro' the Streets, and thunder to the Skies; Rais'd from some pleasing Dream of Wealth and Pow'r, Some pompous Palace, or some blissful Bow'rn056n056A cottage, often used as a romanticized abode in poetry. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff],  Aghast you start, and scarce with akingn057n057(DRAFT-Is this supposed to be aching) - [UVAstudstaff] Sight, Sustain th' approaching Fire's tremendous Light; Swift from pursuing Horrors take your Way, And Leave your little ALL to Flames a Prey; Then thro' the World a wretched Vagrant roam,  For where can starving Merit find a Home? In vain your mournful Narrative disclose, While all neglect, and most insult your Woes. Should Heaven's just Bolts Orgilio's Wealth con-found, And spread his flaming Palace on the Ground,  Swift o'er the Land the dismal Rumour flies, And publick Mournings pacify the Skies; The Laureatn035n035The poets laureate; since this was an official position, such poets, like Cibber, did not deviate far from the government's official line. - [UVAstudstaff] Tribe in servile Verse relate, How Virtue wars with persecuting Fate; With well-feign'd Gratitude the pension'd Band  Refund the Plunder of the begger'd Land. See! while he builds, the gaudy Vassalsn058n058Part of the feudal system, vassals are the ones who own land, and thus control the workers of the land. Normally they're portrayed in a negative, arrogant manner. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] come, And crowd with sudden Wealth the rising Dome; The Price of Boroughs and of Souls restore, And raise his Treasures higher than before.  Now bless'd with all the Baubles of the Great, The polish'd Marble, and the shining Plate, Orgilio sees the golden Pile aspire, And hopes from angry Heav'n another Fire. Could'st thou resign the Park and Play content,  For the fair Banks Severn of or Trentn036n036The River Severn is in Wales; the Trent river is a major river in England. Both are far from London. - [UVAstudstaff]; There might'st thou find some elegant Retreat, Some hireling Senator'sn037n037Members of Parliament who had been paid off to vote the government line. - [UVAstudstaff] deserted Seat; And stretch thy Prospects o'er the smiling Land, For less than rent the Dungeons of the Strand;  There prune thy Walks, support thy drooping Flow'rs, Direct thy Rivulets, and twine thy bowers; And, while thy Beds a cheap Repastn059n059Refreshments and/or rest. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] afford, Despite the Dainties of a venaln038n038Corrupt. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] Lord: There ev'ry Bush with Nature's Music rings,  There ev'ry Breeze bears Health upon its Wings; On all thy Hours Security shall smile, And bless thine Evening Walk and Morning Toil. Prepare for Death, if here at Night you roam, And sign your Will before you sup from Home.  Some fiery Fopn060n060(DRAFT-DC)One who is overtly concerned about their appearance and other people's perceptions of them. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff], with new Commission vain, Who sleeps on Bramblesn039n039Pickly Shrubs. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] till he kills his Man; Some frolick Drunkard, reeling from a Feast, Provokes a Broil, and stabs you for a Jest. Yet ev'n these Heroes, mischievously gay,  Lords of the Street, and Terrors of the Way; Flush'd as they are with Folly, Youth and Wine, Their prudent Insults to the Poor confine; Afar they mark the Flambeausn040n040Torches. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] bright Approach, And shun the shining Train, and golden Coach.  In vain, these Dangers past, your Doors you close, And hope the Balmy Blessings of Reposen061n061A break or rest. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff]: Cruel with Guilt, and daring with Despair, The midnight Murd'rer bursts the faithless Bar; Invades the sacred Hour of silent Rest,  And plants, unseen, a Dagger in your Breast. Scarce can our Fields, such Crowds at Tyburnn041n041Tyburn, roughly at the site of Marble Arch today was the location of the gallows at which criminals were hanged. Often such executions drew large crowds. - [UVAstudstaff] die, With Hemp the Gallows and the Fleet supply. Propose your Schemes, ye Senatorian Band, Whose Ways and Means support the sinking Land;  Lest Ropes be wanting in the tempting Spring, To rig another Convoy for the K--g. A single Jail, in ALFRED'Sn042n042Alfred was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. He successfully defended his kingdom against the Viking attempt at conquest, and by the time of his death had become the dominant ruler in England. He is the only English monarch to be accorded the epithet the Great. His reputation has been that of a learned and merciful man who encouraged education and improved his the legal system and military structure of his kingdom. - [UVAstudstaff] golden Reign, Could half the Nation's Criminals contain; Fair Justice then, without Constraint ador'd,  Sustain'd the Ballance, but resign'd the Sword; No Spies were paid, no Special Juries known, Blest Age ! But ah ! how diff'rent from our own ! Much could I add, ---- but see the Boat at hand, The Tide retiring, calls me from the Land:  Farewel ! --- When Youth, and Health, and Fortune spent, Thou fly'st for Refuge to the Wilds of Kentn043n043(DRAFT-Add more about perhaps what he meant by this)A country in southeastern England; not particularly wild. - [UVAstudstaff]; And tir'd like me with Follies and with Crimes, In angry Numbers warn'st succeeding Times; Then shall thy Friend, nor thou refuse his Aid,  Still Foe to Vice forsake his Cambriann044n044Welsh. Source: Oxford English Dictionary - [UVAstudstaff] Shade; In Virtue's Cause once more exert his Rage, Thy Satire point, and animate thy Page. F I N I S.