The poem describes the various problems of London, including an emphasis on crime, corruption, and the squalor of the poor. In order to emphasize his message, these various abstract problems are personified as beings that seek to destroy London. Thus, the characters of Malice, Rapine, and Accident "conspire" (line 13) to attack those who live in London.
The poem begins:
Though grief and fondness in my breast rebel, When injured Thales bids the town farewell, Yet still my calmer thoughts his choice commend, I praise the hermit, but regret the friend, Resolved at length, from vice and London far, To breathe in distant fields a purer air, And, fixed on Cambria's solitary shore, Give to St David one true Briton more. (lines 1–8) Who Thales represents is unknown, but it is possible that he represents Richard Savage, Johnson's friend who left London to travel to Wales.
The main emphasis of the poem comes to light on line 177: "Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed".
The poem is forced to cut short, and the narrator concludes: Much could I add, — but see the boat at hand, The tide retiring, calls me from the land: Farewell! — When youth, and health, and fortune spent, Thou fly'st for refuge to the wilds of Kent; And tired 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 Cambrian shade; In virtue's cause once more exert his rage, Thy satire point, and animate thy page. (lines 254–263)...