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 Wishes (1749) 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 poetry.

This is part of a Guide to Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.