Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Theme of the country and city in London.
Samuel Johnson’s London is a satire which addresses the condition of Eighteenth century England, marked by various changes in the personal and public front. The satire heavily accommodates political, socio-economic and cultural data which further explains the current situation confronting the poet at that time. Johnson’s usage of satire echoes the popular literary tradition of the period, which serves as a tool of social critique. Though it is an imitation of the classics like Virgil, Juvenal and Horace, the eighteenth century satirists like Pope, Dryden and especially Johnson tend to use it more as a political satire rather than a social one. In London, Johnson emulates Juvenal’s Third Satire which satirizes the corrupt condition of the city of Rome as opposed to the innocence of the country. Johnson similarly satirizes the urban space of London, characterized by political turmoil, economic disorder and environmental degradation as against the peace and purity of the country. This theme of the city and the country was inspired by earlier literary modes like the eclogues and the georgic tradition which praise the natural space and are endemic to the pastoral. However, it had already been a popular theme even before the eighteenth century poets like Johnson, Gray and Goldsmith and was used by writers like Shakespeare and even Virgil.
In London, Johnson utilizes the figure of Thales to develop his socio-political critique of the metropolitan space, represented by London. Right from the beginning of the poem, Johnson brings forth the necessity of Thales to leave the city because of the injustices that he faces there. Thales is projected as the epitome of ‘virtue’, who, as an honest poet, fails to get recognized in London. This reveals the corruption that exists, where only the sycophants of politicians and ministers gain favour in the professional front. The effectiveness of a “cheap Reward of empty praise” adversely affects the position of scientists as well, who are again under-recognized in the city. This further highlights the fraudulent political system which preaches democracy but still actively practices favoritism. Johnson’s political critique is primarily directed at Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister of England at that time. When Walpole was in power, he attracted criticism from various groups but also managed to consolidate his influence to a large extent using bribery and force. Pensions and allowances were given to the people promoting his popularity and his ideas. Conscious about his opposition, Walpole also ensured control over certain agencies like the Press and the law. He controlled newspapers like the Gazetteer and the Hyp-Doctor and it was during his rule that laws like the Special Juries Act of 1729 and the Licensing Act of 1738 were passed. These laws curtailed the freedom of the Press, printing houses and theatres which offered the space for people to express their disdain for the government. This directly affected Johnson’s own position, who apart from being a poet, was writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine. Therefore the fact that Thales is a stifled poet is relatively significant. Critics like T. F. Wharton say that Thales is a representation of Richard Savage, a friend of Johnson’s, who was also suffering from the evils of the Walpolean government. Like Thales, Savage failed to get attention in London and planned to move out to the country, where he thought he would find fairness and sincerity. Hence, Thales is a mouthpiece in which Johnson uses to iterate Savage’s and his own anxiety.
London continuously talks about Thales’ plan to leave London and go to the country which is believed to be a “happier place”. Like other poets of the eighteenth century, Johnson’s conservatism makes him look back to the ‘glorious past’ which to him is the storehouse of English...