LONDON: A POEM

In IMITATION of the THIRD SATIRE of JUVENAL

By Samuel Johnson

Edited and annotated by Jack Lynch

Johnson's first major poem, an imitation of Juvenal's third Satire, appeared in 1738, shortly after his arrival in the city. (His most famous poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is an imitation of Juvenal's tenth Satire, and he claimed to have composed imitations of all of Juvenal's works, though only these two were written down.) Although London comes off badly in the poem, Johnson loved the city, and famously said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford."

———Quis ineptæ
Tam patiens Urbis, tam ferreus ut teneat se?
Juv. 1 

Tho' Grief and Fondness in my Breast rebel,
When injur'd Thales 2  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, [5]
To breathe in distant Fields a purer Air,
And, fix'd on Cambria's solitary shore,
Give to St. David one true Briton more. 3 

    For who would leave, unbrib'd, Hibernia's Land,
Or change the Rocks of Scotland for the Strand? 4  [10]
There none are swept by sudden Fate away,
But all whom Hunger spares, with Age decay:
Here Malice, Rapine, Accident, conspire,
And now a Rabble Rages, now a Fire;
Their Ambush here relentless Ruffians lay, [15]
And here the fell Attorney prowls for Prey; 5 
Here falling Houses thunder on your Head,
And here a female Atheist talks you dead.

    While Thales waits the Wherry 6  that contains
Of dissipated Wealth the small Remains, [20]
On Thames's Banks, in silent Thought we stood,
Where Greenwich 7  smiles upon the silver Flood:
Struck with the Seat that gave Eliza Birth, 8 
We kneel, and kiss the consecrated Earth;
In pleasing Dreams the blissful Age renew, [25]
And call Britannia's Glories back to view;
Behold her Cross triumphant on the Main,
The Guard of Commerce, and the Dread of Spain, 9 
Ere Masquerades debauch'd, Excise oppress'd, 10 
Or English Honour grew a standing Jest. [30]

    A transient Calm the happy Scenes bestow,
And for a Moment lull the Sense of Woe.
At length awaking, with contemptuous Frown,
Indignant Thales eyes the neighb'ring Town.

    Since Worth, he cries, 11  in these degen'rate Days, [35]
Wants 12  ev'n the cheap Reward of empty Praise;
In those curst Walls, devote to Vice and Gain,
Since unrewarded Science 13  toils in vain;
Since Hope but sooths to double my Distress,
And ev'ry Moment leaves my Little less; [40]
While yet my steady Steps no Staff sustains,
And Life still vig'rous revels in my Veins;
Grant me, kind Heaven, to find some happier Place,
Where Honesty and Sense are no Disgrace;
Some pleasing Bank where verdant Osiers play, 14  [45]
Some peaceful Vale with Nature's Paintings gay;
Where once the harass'd Briton found Repose, 15 
And safe in Poverty defy'd his Foes;
Some secret Cell, ye Pow'rs, indulgent give.
Let —— live here, for —— has learn'd to live. 16  [50]
Here let those reign, whom Pensions 17  can incite
To vote a Patriot black, a Courtier white;
Explain their Country's dear-bought Rights away,
And plead for Pirates 18  in the Face of Day;
With slavish Tenets taint our poison'd Youth, [55]
And lend a Lye the confidence of Truth. 19 

    Let such raise Palaces, and Manors buy,
Collect a Tax, or farm a Lottery,
With warbling Eunuchs fill a licens'd 20  Stage,
And lull to Servitude a thoughtless Age. [60]

    Heroes, proceed! What Bounds your Pride shall hold?
What Check restrain your Thirst of Pow'r and Gold?
Behold rebellious Virtue quite o'erthrown,
Behold our Fame, our Wealth, our Lives your own.

    To such, a groaning Nation's Spoils are giv'n, [65]
When publick Crimes inflame the Wrath of Heav'n:
But what, my Friend, what Hope remains for me,
Who start at Theft, and blush at Perjury?
Who scarce forbear, tho' Britain's Court he sing,
To pluck a titled Poet's borrow'd Wing; [70]
A Statesman's Logic, unconvinc'd can hear,
And dare to slumber o'er the Gazetteer; 21 
Despise a Fool in half his Pension drest,
And strive in vain to laugh at H——y's jest. 22 

    Others with softer Smiles, and subtler Art, [75]
Can sap the Principles, or taint the Heart;
With more Address a Lover's Note convey,
Or bribe a Virgin's Innocence away.
Well may they rise, while I, whose Rustic Tongue
Ne'er knew to puzzle Right, or varnish Wrong, [80]
Spurn'd as a Beggar, dreaded as a Spy,
Live unregarded, unlamented die.

    For what but social Guilt the Friend endears?
Who shares Orgilio's Crimes, his Fortune shares.
But thou, should tempting Villainy present [85]
All Marlb'rough hoarded, or all Villiers spent; 23 
Turn from the glitt'ring Bribe thy scornful Eye,
Nor sell for Gold, what Gold could never buy,
The peaceful Slumber, self-approving Day,
Unsullied Fame, and Conscience ever gay. [90]

    The cheated Nation's happy Fav'rites, see!
Mark whom the Great caress, who frown on me!
London! the needy Villain's gen'ral Home,
The Common Shore 24  of Paris and of Rome;
With eager Thirst, by Folly or by Fate, [95]
Sucks in the Dregs of each corrupted State.
Forgive my Transports on a Theme like this,
I cannot bear a French metropolis.

    Illustrious Edward! 25  from the Realms of Day,
The Land of Heroes and of Saints survey; [100]
Nor hope the British Lineaments to trace,
The rustic Grandeur, or the surly Grace;
But lost in thoughtless Ease, and empty Show,
Behold the Warriour dwindled to a Beau; 26 
Sense, Freedom, Piety, refin'd away, [105]
Of France the Mimic, and of Spain the Prey.

    All that at home no more can beg or steal,
Or like a Gibbet better than a Wheel; 27 
Hiss'd from the Stage, or hooted from the Court,
Their Air, their Dress, their Politicks import; [110]
Obsequious, 28  artful, voluble and gay,
On Britain's fond Credulity they prey.
No gainful Trade their Industry can 'scape,
They sing, they dance, clean Shoes, or cure a Clap;
All Sciences a fasting Monsieur knows, [115]
And bid him go to Hell, to Hell he goes.

    Ah! what avails it, that, from Slav'ry far,
I drew the Breath of Life in English Air;
Was early taught a Briton's Right to prize,
And lisp the Tale of Henry's Victories; 29  [120]
If the gull'd Conqueror receives the Chain,
And what their Armies lost, their Cringes gain?

    Studious to please, and ready to submit,
The supple Gaul was born a Parasite: 30 
Still to his Int'rest true, where'er he goes, [125]
Wit, Brav'ry, Worth, his lavish Tongue bestows;
In ev'ry Face a Thousand Graces shine,
From ev'ry Tongue flows Harmony divine.
These Arts in vain our rugged Natives try,
Strain out with fault'ring Diffidence a Lye, [130]
And get a Kick for awkward Flattery.

    Besides, with Justice, this discerning Age
Admires their wond'rous Talents for the Stage:
Well may they venture on the Mimic's art,
Who play from Morn to Night a borrow'd Part; [135]
Practis'd their Master's Notions to embrace,
Repeat his Maxims, and reflect his Face;
With ev'ry wild Absurdity comply,
And view each Object with another's Eye;
To shake with Laughter ere the Jest they hear, [140]
To pour at Will the counterfeited Tear;
And as their Patron hints the Cold or Heat,
To shake in Dog-days, 31  in December sweat.

    How, when Competitors like these contend,
Can surly Virtue hope to fix a Friend? [145]
Slaves that with serious Impudence beguile,
And lye without a Blush, without a Smile;
Exalt each Trifle, ev'ry Vice adore,
Your Taste in Snuff, your Judgment in a Whore;
Can Balbo's 32  Eloquence applaud, and swear [150]
He gropes his Breeches with a Monarch's Air.

    For Arts like these preferr'd, admir'd, carest,
They first invade your Table, then your Breast;
Explore your Secrets with insidious Art,
Watch the weak Hour, and ransack all the Heart; [155]
Then soon your ill-plac'd Confidence repay,
Commence your Lords, and govern or betray.
By Numbers here from Shame or Censure free,
All Crimes are safe, but hated Poverty.
This, only this, the rigid Law persues, [160]
This, only this, provokes the snarling Muse;
The sober Trader at a tatter'd Cloak,
Wakes from his Dream, and labours for a Joke;
With brisker Air the silken Courtiers gaze,
And turn the varied Taunt a thousand Ways. [165]
Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest,
Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest;
Fate never wounds more deep the gen'rous Heart,
Than when a Blockhead's Insult points the Dart.

    Has Heaven reserv'd, in Pity to the Poor, [170]
No pathless Waste, or undiscover'd Shore?
No secret Island in the boundless Main?
No peaceful Desart yet unclaim'd by Spain? 33 
Quick let us rise, the happy Seats explore,
And bear Oppression's Insolence no more. [175]
This mournful Truth is ev'ry where confest,
Slow rises worth, by poverty deprest:
But here more slow, where all are Slaves to Gold,
Where Looks are Merchandise, and Smiles are sold,
Where won by Bribes, by Flatteries implor'd, [180]
The Groom retails the Favours of his Lord.

    But hark! th' affrighted Crowd's tumultuous Cries
Roll thro' the Streets, and thunder to the Skies;
Rais'd from some pleasing Dream of Wealth and Pow'r,
Some pompous Palace, or some blissful Bow'r, [185]
Aghast you start, and scarce with aking Sight,
Sustain th' approaching Fire's tremendous Light;
Swift from pursuing Horrors take your Way,
And Leave your little All to Flames a Prey;
Then thro' the World a wretched Vagrant roam, [190]
For where can starving Merit find a Home?
In vain your mournful Narrative disclose,
While all neglect, and most insult your Woes.

    Should Heaven's just Bolts Orgilio's Wealth confound, 34 
And spread his flaming Palace on the Ground, [195]
Swift o'er the Land the dismal Rumour flies,
And publick Mournings pacify the Skies;
The Laureat Tribe in servile Verse relate,
How Virtue wars with persecuting Fate;
With well-feign'd Gratitude the pension's Band [200]
Refund the Plunder of the begger'd Land.
See! while he builds, the gaudy Vassals come,
And crowd with sudden Wealth the rising Dome; 35 
The Price of Boroughs and of Souls restore,
And raise his Treasures higher than before. [205]
Now bless'd with all the Baubles of the Great,
The polish'd Marble, and the shining Plate,
Orgilio sees the golden Pile aspire, 36 
And hopes from angry Heav'n another Fire.

    Could'st thou resign the Park and Play content, [210]
For the fair Banks of Severn or of Trent; 37 
There might'st thou find some elegant Retreat,
Some hireling Senator's deserted Seat;
And stretch thy Prospects o'er the smiling Land,
For less than rent the Dungeons of the Strand; [215]
There prune thy Walks, support thy drooping Flow'rs,
Direct thy Rivulets, and twine thy Bow'rs;
And, while thy Beds a cheap Repast afford,
Despise the Dainties of a venal Lord:
There ev'ry Bush with Nature's Music rings, [220]
There ev'ry Breeze bears Health upon its Wings;
On all thy Hours Security shall smile,
And bless thine Evening Walk and Morning Toil. 38 

    Prepare for Death, if here at Night you roam,
And sign your Will before you sup from Home. [225]
Some fiery Fop, with new Commission vain,
Who sleeps on Brambles till he kills his Man;
Some frolick Drunkard, reeling from a Feast,
Provokes a Broil, 39  and stabs you for a Jest.
Yet ev'n these Heroes, mischievously gay, [230]
Lords of the Street, and Terrors of the Way; 40 
Flush'd as they are with Folly, Youth and Wine,
Their prudent Insults to the Poor confine;
Afar they mark the Flambeau's bright Approach, 41 
And shun the shining Train, and golden Coach. [235]

    In vain, these Dangers past, your Doors you close,
And hope the balmy Blessings of Repose:
Cruel with Guilt, and daring with Despair,
The midnight Murd'rer bursts the faithless Bar;
Invades the sacred Hour of silent Rest, [240]
And plants, unseen, a Dagger in your Breast.

    Scarce can our Fields, such Crowds at Tyburn die,
With Hemp the Gallows and the Fleet supply. 42 
Propose your Schemes, ye Senatorian Band,
Whose Ways and Means 43  support the sinking Land; [245]
Lest Ropes be wanting in the tempting Spring,
To rig another Convoy for the K—g. 44 

    A single Jail, in Alfred's golden Reign, 45 
Could half the Nation's Criminals contain;
Fair Justice then, without Constraint ador'd, [250]
Sustain'd the Ballance, but resign'd the Sword;
No Spies were paid, no Special Juries known,
Blest Age! But ah! how diff'rent from our own!

    Much could I add,—but see the Boat at hand,
The Tide retiring, calls me from the Land: [255]
Farewel!—When Youth, and Health, and Fortune spent,
Thou fly'st for Refuge to the Wilds of Kent; 46 
And tir'd like me with Follies and with Crimes,
In angry Numbers 47  warn'st succeeding Times;
Then shall thy Friend, nor thou refuse his Aid, [260]
Still Foe to Vice forsake his Cambrian Shade;
In Virtue's Cause once more exert his Rage,
Thy Satire point, and animate thy Page.


Notes

1. From Juvenal's first Satire: "Who can be so tolerant of this awful city, who has such a soul of iron?"

2. Thales is pronounced as two syllables, Tháy-leez. There has been much dispute over whether Thales represents Johnson's friend, Richard Savage, who left London for Wales. Despite the close match with the character in the poem, all the evidence suggests that Johnson did not meet Savage until after the poem was written.

3. Cambria is Wales, and St. David is the country's patron saint.

4. Hibernia is Ireland; the Strand is a street in London.

5. Fell, "ravenous." Johnson quotes this line in his Dictionary, and attributes it to "Anon."

6. Wherry, "A light boat used on rivers" (Johnson).

7. Greenwich is a town a few miles to the east of London, and the site of the Royal Observatory. Johnson was living in Greenwich when he wrote the poem.

8. Queen Elizabeth was born in Greenwich.

9. Queen Elizabeth ruled England when the English forces defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1738, when London was written, many people (including Johnson) were agitating for war with Spain, and often invoked Elizabeth's precedent.

10. Johnson's definition of excise almost got him into serious legal trouble: "A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."

11. The rest of the poem is spoken by Thales.

12. Wants, "lacks."

13. Science was any variety of learning, not just what we think of as the sciences today.

14. Verdant means green; an osier is a willow tree or a reed.

15. A reference to the Anglo-Saxon and Danish invasions.

16. Probably a reference to King George II.

17. Johnson's definition of pension was notorious: "An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country." It came back to haunt him when he was awarded a government pension in 1762.

18. Johnson's note: "The invasions of the Spaniards were defended in the houses of Parliament." The British government was allowing the Spanish to search British ships in America.

19. Johnson quotes this line in his Dictionary under truth, and attributes it to "Anonymous."

20. Johnson's note: "The licensing act was then lately made." The "warbling Eunuchs" are the castrati, castated men, who sang the highest parts in opera. The "licens'd Stage" refers to the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, which required that all stage plays be subjected to government censorship before they could be presented.

21. Johnson's note: "The paper which at that time contained apologies [defenses] for the Court." The Daily Gazetteer was a government newspaper.

22. Probably John "Orator" Henley, a member of parliament and a supporter of the government, notorious for his crude jokes. Others have suggested Lord Hervey.

23. The Duke of Marlborough was a military hero who grew extremely wealthy from the war on France: as Johnson wrote later, "The war was unnecessarily protracted to fill the pockets of Marlborough, and . . . it would have been continued without end if he could have continued his annual plunder." George Villiers, 2d Duke of Buckingham, squandered a huge fortune and died poor.

24. A common shore is a sewer.

25. Edward III, who defeated the French at Crécy in 1346.

26. Beau, "A man of dress; a man whose great care is to deck his person" (Johnson).

27. Gibbet, "A gallows; the post on which malefactors are hanged, or on which their carcases are exposed" (Johnson). The gibbet was the usual English means of execution; the wheel was used for executions in France.

28. Obsequious means "servile" or "fawning."

29. Lisp means to speak like a child. Henry is Henry V, whose victories over the French at Agincourt in 1415 are celebrated in Shakespeare's play.

30. A Gaul is a Frenchman; Johnson defines parasite as "One that frequents rich tables, and earns his welcome by flattery."

31. The dog-days are in late August, when Sirius, the dog-star, is visible.

32. Balbo is Latin for "stammerer." It may not refer to any particular person.

33. Johnson's note: "The Spaniards at this time were said to make claim to some of our American proviences." The English often criticized the Spanish for their colonization of the New World. Desart means any unoccupied ("deserted") area, not just arid, sandy wastelands.

34. Johnson's note: "This was by Hitch a Bookseller justly remarked to be no picture of modern manners, though it might be true at Rome." Charles Hitch was one of the publishers of Johnson's Dictionary in 1755.

35. A vassal is a subordinate or dependent, a term from feudalism. A dome is a building, from Latin domus.

36. Pile, "An edifice; a building" (Johnson).

37. The Severn is a river that runs through Wales and the southwest of England; the Trent is in the north of England near Scotland.

38. In the eighteenth century, smile and toil rhymed.

39. A broil is a fight or confrontation.

40. Johnson quotes this line in his Dictionary under terrour, attributing it to "Anonym."

41. Flambeau, "A lighted torch" (Johnson).

42. Tyburn was the site of public hangings in the eighteenth century. Hemp was used for making ropes, both for hangings and for the rigging of ships.

43. Johnson's note: "A cant term in the House of Commons for methods of raising money."

44. Johnson's friend and biographer, Sir John Hawkins, explains that "The nation was discontented at the visits made by the king [George II] to Hanover," where he was born. A writer who criticized the king outright could be arrested for treason, a capital offense, so many resorted to transparent tricks like this.

45. King Alfred the Great ruled England in the ninth century.

46. Kent is a county to the southeast of London.

47. Number, "Verses; poetry" (Johnson).