London Poem as an Imitation of Juvenal's Third Satire

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‘London’ was anonymously published in 1748. This poem, written in 263 lines, was Johnson’s first major published work. It follows the eighteenth century Neo – classical tradition and is an imitation of Juvenal’s Third Satire. Juvenal’s Third Satire uses a narrator’s voice to describe Umbricius’s – narrator’s friend – disillusionment with the vices of the capital city. The poem revolves around the narrator who bids farewell to his friend Umbricius who has decided to leave Rome and settle for a quiet life in Cumae because immorality and foreign influence made it impossible for a true Roman to live and prosper in Rome. Following the same structure, Johnson’s ‘London’ describes Thales’ disillusionment with the corruption and decay in the capital city, London and his decision to abandon the city for a better place. The poem begins with an epigraph which is a phrase quoted directly from Juvenal’s text. The line which translates as, “Who can endure this monstrous city? Who is so iron-willed he can bear it?” (Johnson 31) right in the beginning introduces the central theme of the poem which concerns the capital city and those several aspects that make it ‘monstrous’ and unfit to ‘bear’ by anyone who is any less than iron-willed. As the poem begins we find the poet in a situation where he has come to bid a final farewell to his friend Thales. Disillusioned with the degrading condition of the capital city London, Thales decides to leave in search of a cleaner and calmer life in Cambria. Although the poet regrets the decision as it would mean losing a friend, the dismay caused by the degradation compelled him to leave the boundaries of the city and move away to the countryside in search of peace and tranquility. After the poet introduces his friend Thales his own voice is silenced and we hear Thales’ views on life in London and his hope of finding a ‘peaceful place’ outside the city. The poem describes London as a place where, “malice, rapine, accident, conspire, And now a rabble rages, now a fire” (Johnson 31). It is viewed as a place where social and moral troubles like corruption, bribery and flattery are in abundance.

There is no place for either worth or caliber. What is appreciated and rewarded is sycophancy and adulation. London, in Johnson’s view, has become a city that is thriving with “Masquerade’ which has made the English honor nothing but a “standing Jest”. This is where the voice of the poet introduces us to Thales who wakes up from a “contemptuous frown”. The rest of the poem is a kind of dramatic monologue by Thales who, critiques life in the capital city and enumerates the several evils and tribulations that compelled him to leave the city. He views the present scenario as nothing but, “degen’rate days,” where even true worth, “Wants ev’n the cheap reward of empty praise”. Thus he decides to leave the city in search of a “happier place, where honesty and sense are no disgrace” (Johnson 33).

Political Context

London in eighteenth century was subjected to several social evils like to fires, crimes, poverty and dishonesty thus the poem, through its critical tone seem to “exploit a familiar theme” (Hardy 181). However socio-cultural matrix is not the target for Johnson’s criticism, when the poem is read and analyzed vis-à-vis the – political context of the contemporary time, one realizes that the poem is also “a topical poem” (ibid) that intends to critique the contemporary political atmosphere that consciously critiques and satirizes “the measures of government” (ibid) and the widespread corruption that the government encouraged and promoted. The poem primarily highlights and eventually satirizes the several policies of the Whig government which was headed by Robert Walpole as the prime administrator with George II as the monarch. Robert Walpole adopted a benign attitude towards the two arch rivals of Britain – France and Spain. His decision to keep the country away from a general war with Spain and France earned him the credit of being the “minister of peace” (Coxe 161). However, this peace came with dear cost – “dereliction of national honour” (ibid).) It is because of this policy of passivity adopted by Walpole that George II was not assisted against the united arms of Spain, France and Sardinia and, France gained access into Lorraine and Bar. Thus, as William Coxe rightly states, “if it be allowed that any merit is due for preserving this country and Europe from a general war, that merit is due to Walpole; so on the other hand it cannot be denied that if any blame can be imputed to the cabinet for tameness and pusillanimity, that blame must also attach solely to him” (ibid 162). Johnson consciously moves towards identifying his ideological and political sympathies with the likes of Alexander Pope – a strong voice opposing the administrator and his government- and Bolingbroke, a friend of Pope who like him resisted the present government. The incident of destruction and eventual reconstruction of Orgilio’s palace in a more extravagant fashion is a direct reference to the magnificent palace of Walpole – Houghton hall – in Norfolk that inevitably pointed towards not just an uninhibited access to the national wealth but also towards its unjust use for personal luxury and comfort (Hardy 194-209) In order to highlight the deplorable condition of the present socio-political scenario Johnson often reverts back to the past.

Thales is seen as nostalgic about the times of great rulers like Elizabeth – under whose rule, the Spanish Armada was defeated, Edward III – who is referred to as “Illustrious Edward” probably because of his victory over France in the battle of Crecy in 1346, and Alfred – whose rule was so peaceful and prosperous that a single jail could contain nearly half of the nation’s criminals. These successful rulers are invoked to highlight not just the inability of the government to rule peacefully and successfully but also the fact that unlike them who were ‘True Britons’, in the present, the nation was ruled by George II who was Hanoverian – belonging to the royal house of Hanover in Germany -and was often seen as a foreigner. Through the poem Johnson also critiques the king – George II. In the lines, “Lest Ropes be wanting in the tempting Spring, To rig another Convoy for the K—-g” (Johnson 48). Johnson refers to the huge convoy that was used to be arranged for George II to go to Hanover to meet his mistress, Madam Wallmoden. This probably is another example where the ruler of the nation drains out national wealth for private luxuries. It is significant at this point to move away from the content of the poem and study its very form and by extension the purpose that Johnson expected this work to serve.

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The form of the poem clearly states that it is an imitation of Juvenal’s Third satire. Thus, Johnson clearly follows the eighteenth century tradition of imitating the classics. There is hardly any doubt about the fact that through “London” Johnson creates a body of work that clearly manifests his disillusionment with the present socio-political condition of the capital. However, several critics including Eliot have pointed out that there exists a huge disparity between Johnson’s view of the city in the poem – “LONDON” the needy Villain’s gen’ral Home” and his view of the city otherwise “When a Man is tired of London, he is tired of life” (Johnson qtd in Wharton 189). Thus, it can be said that disillusionment was not the only reason for the political commentary. Rather, a political commentary against the Whig government was a solid ground on which a new and unknown poet like Johnson – who was literally living in penury while London was being written and whose earlier works though praised earned him neither money nor fame – could make a mark. By imitating Juvenal’s satire in the manner it was done by Pope and also manifesting anti-Whig sentiments he, clearly and consciously, associated himself with opposing radical voices like Alexander Pope. He neither probably expected nor eventually received acceptance from the government. However, he manifested his political sympathies and his poem received success not just for its form and structure but primarily for its harsh and uninhibited critique of the contemporary politics. Like Pope, the poem established him as a strong voice against the faulty administration of Robert Walpole and King George II.

Political Commentary

Though hugely significant – is not the only aspect that makes “London” an important text for scholarly intervention. Through the poem Johnson presents eighteenth century English concerns over disruption and decay that persisted in the society through the juxtaposition of the city and the country. This contrast not only manifests his disillusionment with the contemporary socio-political condition of contemporary London but also offers a possible solution – that is to find peace and solace in the country – thereby highlighting the thick air of ‘melancholia’ that hovers around the text. The disillusionment with the urban conditions has made the poet melancholic and thus we witness Thales who is saddened and grieved with the life in the city and prepares to leave for Cambria – Wales a “happier place” with “purer Air” and “solitary shore”. In other words, Johnson tells his readers that Thales is leaving the city for calmer and quieter countryside. However, if one studies the description of the countryside that Thales recounts, one realizes that more than being a realistic portrayal of the rural world of eighteenth century, it is an imagined space which is created as a contrast to the city which is scarred with political and social ills. Johnson’s view of London in the poem is that of a city that is in a state of absolute anarchy. Everywhere, “……. Malice, Rapine, Accident conspire, And now a rabble Rages, now a Fire” (Johnson 31). The overt political references and the clear sentiment of nostalgia for a bright and better past often overshadow a very important aspect of the poem that is the personal commentary. The poem that presents a harsh and bitter picture of those who are poor can also be read as a personal angst of the poet against poverty and deprivation. As mentioned earlier, while “London” was being written, Johnson was living a life of absolute penury. He and his dear friend, Richard Savage, were “living in cheap rooms, eating penny breakfast and eight-penny dinners in coffeehouses and taverns” (Introduction 14).

This compelled both of them to nurture a strong prejudice against those who were privileged. Thus, the poem with its strong reference to the misery caused to those who are poor is also possibly a personal statement made to vent the suppressed anger and frustration. One of the most popular lines of the poem, “Slow rises worth, by poverty deprest” (Johnson 43) appears to be nothing but a manifestation of a personal angst against the unjust society that refuses to recognize the worth of those who are not privileged in terms of power and resources. Lines like “All Crimes are safe, but hated poverty./ This, only this, the rigid Law pursues./This only this provokes the snarling Muse” (Johnson 42) further validates the fact that the poem along with being a strong political satire is also an expression of personal feelings and emotions. It is quite possible that Johnson’s purpose of choosing Juvenile’s satire was more personal than political as it gave him the exact format to voice his protest against a system that was so corrupt that his genuineness had no place to flourish. Strong personal overtones can also be noted in the fashion in which the character of Thales is scripted as it is believed to be based on the character of his friend Savage who, like Johnson himself was against the Walpole government.

Johnson’s Imitation of Juvenal’s Satire

Neo-classical age was an age when imitation of classics had emerged as a popular form. Leading poetic voices like Alexander Pope wrote poetry imitating classical texts and readers were quite habituated to read between the lines and understand and appreciate the purpose behind a satire. Johnson too followed the tradition and published the poem “London” as an imitation of Juvenal’s Third Satire. Johnson’s manner of imitation had clear resemblances with that of Pope’s. Interestingly Pope’s Imitation of Horace appeared in 1730s. This resemblance did more than just manifesting his political ideals. It also probably associated him with the leading poets of the time – like Pope himself – and thereby ensured success at a time when monetary and professional success was absolutely necessary for Johnson’s survival as a poet. However, it is pertinent at this point to mention that even though it is often believed that Johnson imitates Juvenal’s Third Satire in form as well as content, scholars who have carried out comparative analysis of the two texts state that Johnson only followed the format. He overlooked the fact that Juvenal’s satire uses irony to state that although Rome is subjected to despair and degradation, outside Rome, “there is nothing to be called life, at all” (Lascelles qtd in Weinbrot 56). And “Johnson really did find irony in the poem but chose to ignore it, since it did not suit his purposes” (Weinbrot 64).

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