Johnson wrote a considerable body of verse, from the beginning of
his career to the end. Nearly all the attention, however, has
been focused on a few major (and often-anthologized) poems: London (1738)
and The Vanity of Human
above all. Some of the others that receive at least some
attention include his early Latin translation of Pope's
Messiah, Gnothi Seauton (Greek for "Know Thyself"),
"The Drury Lane Prologue," "A Short Song of Congratulation," and
"On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet."
Johnson's two most famous poems are imitations of the Latin
satirist Juvenal: London, his first major literary
success, is an imitation of Juvenal's third satire, and
Vanity follows the tenth.
The standard edition is Poems, ed. E. L. McAdam, Jr.,
with George Milne, vol. VI of the Yale Edition of the Works of
Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1964), but people
still often refer to The Poems of Samuel Johnson, ed. D.
Nichol Smith and E. L. McAdam, Jr., 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1974) in many ways a better edition than Yale's. Not
quite so scholarly, but very handy, is Samuel Johnson: The
Complete English Poems, ed. J. D. Fleeman (New Haven: Yale
Univ. Press, 1971). And Barry Baldwin has recently edited a
separate edition of The Latin and Greek Poems of Samuel
Johnson (London: Duckworth, 1995), which gives much greater
attention to the poems in the classical languages than the Yale
or Clarendon editions do.
The volume of commentary on the poetry, particularly the three
or four major poems, is staggering. Much of the criticism on
London focuses on whether Richard Savage was the model
for Johnson's Thales a tempting identification, but a
problematic one. There's even more attention to the political significance of the major
- T. S. Eliot, "Introduction" to London and The
Vanity of Human Wishes, in English Critical Essays,
ed. Phyllis M. Jones (Oxford: World's Classics, 1933); reprinted
in The New Penguin Companion to English Literature, vol.
IV, From Dryden to Johnson, ed. Boris Ford
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), pp. 228-34.
- Niall Rudd, Johnson's Juvenal (Bristol: Bristol
Classical Press, 1981).
- Frederick W. Hilles, "Johnson's Poetic Fire," in From
Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A.
Pottle, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (London:
Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 67-77.
- David Nichol Smith, "Johnson's Poems," in New Light on
Dr. Johnson: Essays on the Occasion of His 250th Birthday,
ed. Frederick W. Hilles (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959),
- David Nichol Smith, "The Heroic Couplet Johnson," in Some
Observations on Eighteenth Century Poetry (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto
Press, 1937), pp. 31-55.
- H. H. Naugle, A Concordance to the Poems of Samuel
Johnson (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1973).
- David F. Venturo, Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of
Samuel Johnson (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1999). The
first book-length treatment of Johnson's poetry. Covers his
entire career, from major works like London and
Vanity through the juvenilia and Latin poems, providing
insightful close readings and careful contextualizations.
This is part of a Guide to Samuel
Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.