Last updated: June 25, 2019
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Samuel Johnson’s London is a satire which addresses the condition of Eighteenth century England, marked by various changes in the personal and public front. The satire heavily accommodates political, socio-economic and cultural data which further explains the current situation confronting the poet at that time. Johnson’s usage of satire echoes the popular literary tradition of the period, which serves as a tool of social critique.

Though it is an imitation of the classics like Virgil, Juvenal and Horace, the eighteenth century satirists like Pope, Dryden and especially Johnson tend to use it more as a political satire rather than a social one. In London, Johnson emulates Juvenal’s Third Satire which satirizes the corrupt condition of the city of Rome as opposed to the innocence of the country. Johnson similarly satirizes the urban space of London, characterized by political turmoil, economic disorder and environmental degradation as against the peace and purity of the country.

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This theme of the city and the country was inspired by earlier literary modes like the eclogues and the georgic tradition which praise the natural space and are endemic to the pastoral. However, it had already been a popular theme even before the eighteenth century poets like Johnson, Gray and Goldsmith and was used by writers like Shakespeare and even Virgil. In London, Johnson utilizes the figure of Thales to develop his socio-political critique of the metropolitan space, represented by London.

Right from the beginning of the poem, Johnson brings forth the necessity of Thales to leave the city because of the injustices that he faces there. Thales is projected as the epitome of ‘virtue’, who, as an honest poet, fails to get recognized in London. This reveals the corruption that exists, where only the sycophants of politicians and ministers gain favour in the professional front. The effectiveness of a “cheap Reward of empty praise” adversely affects the position of scientists as well, who are again under-recognized in the city.

This further highlights the fraudulent political system which preaches democracy but still actively practices favoritism. Johnson’s political critique is primarily directed at Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister of England at that time. When Walpole was in power, he attracted criticism from various groups but also managed to consolidate his influence to a large extent using bribery and force. Pensions and allowances were given to the people promoting his popularity and his ideas. Conscious about his opposition, Walpole also ensured control over certain agencies like the Press and the law.

He controlled newspapers like the Gazetteer and the Hyp-Doctor and it was during his rule that laws like the Special Juries Act of 1729 and the Licensing Act of 1738 were passed. These laws curtailed the freedom of the Press, printing houses and theatres which offered the space for people to express their disdain for the government. This directly affected Johnson’s own position, who apart from being a poet, was writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine. Therefore the fact that Thales is a stifled poet is relatively significant.

Critics like T. F. Wharton say that Thales is a representation of Richard Savage, a friend of Johnson’s, who was also suffering from the evils of the Walpolean government. Like Thales, Savage failed to get attention in London and planned to move out to the country, where he thought he would find fairness and sincerity. Hence, Thales is a mouthpiece in which Johnson uses to iterate Savage’s and his own anxiety. London continuously talks about Thales’ plan to leave London and go to the country which is believed to be a “happier place”.

Like other poets of the eighteenth century, Johnson’s conservatism makes him look back to the ‘glorious past’ which to him is the storehouse of English dignity. He is very emphatic about admiring the ancient past of England, referring to “Alfred’s golden Reign”, because according to him, it represents the ‘true’ noble image of the nation. This simultaneously echoes Johnson’s political stand as a Tory, who favours a monarchical system over the current parliamentary one. However, the recurring references to the Golden Age are equated with the simplicity of the country.

The rural space is vested with greatness and eminence and the rural folk are said to possess a “rustic grandeur” and are endowed with the title of “true Britons”. This glorification of England’s past serves to counter the current state of the country which is marked by economic exploits, social inequality and political corruption. The poem further incorporates Johnson’s criticism of the growing imperialist pursuits and materialistic attitude of the English people, signaled by blooming industrialization and extensive colonialism.

London portrays England’s position as a superpower with a burgeoning imperialist ambition and confronted with Spain as a rival. The satire consistently speaks about the ‘degenerate’ condition of England which is infected with French influence. He speaks against London’s growing diluted image and ironically calls it a “French metropolis”. Johnson is very much concerned about sheltering England’s identity from the invasion of other cultures. He extols the old England which, according to him, stood for originality and virtue.

Johnson uses the image of the country, with its features of tranquility, untainted nature and simplicity, to be symbolic of the true English culture. Interestingly the rusticity and poverty of the country people are being exalted. Johnson believes them to be endowed with majestic qualities even in poverty and says that they have a “rustic grandeur”, which perhaps is due to their supposed intrinsic innocence. England’s true glory thus resides in the rural folk and the country for Johnson. Johnson represents London as a growing metropolis, which is heavily driven by an avaricious spirit where people are guided by a greed for money and power.

By referring to the city as devotee of “Vice and Gain”, Johnson exposes the increasing materialistic culture of England. This is further linked to the growing industrialization and the rapacious colonial appetite that captures Britain at that time. The two phenomena are interactive because the colonies supply the raw material which fuels the factories in England. Moreover, it is through colonialism that trade is maximized and hence exotic merchandise from around the world is made available to the indulgent English upper class.

The affluent London, where “all are Slaves to Gold” seems to have reduced even people to commodities; there are “silken courtiers” and people’s looks are referred to as “merchandise”. Most of the social characters appearing in London are representative of the economic mobility of the eighteenth century; the trader and the “gaudy Vassal” are products of the rising capitalistic economy. The poem diagrammatically locates the upper class and the bourgeoisie in the city, which is symbolic of acquisitiveness, affluence and power and the poor in the country, symbolic of innocence, harmony and equality.

In Johnson as well as Goldsmith, the standard theme of the city-country dichotomy is used to identify political and socio-economic changes that England experiences in the eighteenth century. Even the legal system is manipulated by the “fell Attorney” who serves the wealthy and crushes the poor. London is thus a place where “All crimes are safe, but hated Poverty”. Thales’ figure in the poem helps to underline the fact that though London is known for its extravagant culture, it also has a huge population of poor people. This section of society mainly consists of struggling writers, academicians and a huge fraction of factory workers.

The repeated reference to poverty in London can be explained by Johnson’s first-hand experience of the difficulty of surviving in a city without much money. Apart from heavy industrialization, the alarming poor population in London can also be explained as a repercussion of the Agricultural Revolution that is located in the eighteenth century. Firstly, there was an increase in the purchase of land in the country by the rising class, the bourgeoisie and this disturbed the traditional common ownership of agricultural land of the peasants.

Hence a large number of individual farmers were losing their previous land holdings and became unemployed. Moreover, the people in the country were not only losing their occupation but they also had to leave their ancestral homes. It is important to note that this is a phenomenon that is reflective of the current times, where as capitalism acquires land to expand its kingdom everywhere, the natives are simultaneously expelled and become stranded, without a job or a home. Secondly, Agricultural Revolution introduced a new mode of agricultural production which pioneered machines over manual labour.

This again led to the redundancy of individual farmers and consequently, the decline of agriculture as the main occupation of the common people. Consequently, this newly unemployed population then saw professional opportunity in the city which was the centre of trade and also the hub of many factories which required a huge labour force. Apart from the cities, people from villages also migrated to other places, particularly America. This socio-economic crisis that haunted England was a popular subject of criticism in the eighteenth century.

For example, Goldsmith strongly speaks against it in The Deserted Village. John Brown is also another figure who criticized the luxury that industrialization brings in at the expense of the poor. Johnson’s objection against the sorry state of London is expressed with reference to its physicality as well. Thales desires to leave London also because he wants “purer Air”. From the population shift mentioned above, we can understand that the city was continuously driven to its saturation point. The living condition of the poor people was unimaginably bad that shacks and hovels were used as permanent homes.

The factories were largely responsible for the dirt, soot and filth that made London a horrible place to live in. Another interesting fact was that London’s chaotic state was also a repercussion of the careless rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire of 1660 (also mentioned in London in line 14). After being subjected to this kind of an environment, Johnson’s Thales desires to go back to the country, where he can find a “peaceful Vale” and where the colourful nature is “gay”. London is also depicted as the breeding place of crime and danger.

The “curst Walls” house “midnight Murd’rers” and drunkards and therefore people are warned to “prepare for Death” when they go there. The city is particularly antagonistic towards the poor where they are either “spurn’d as a Beggar” or “dreaded as a Spy”. This further brings out the disparities between the country and the city as the former offers an environment which nurtures while the latter offers one which corrodes. As stated before, Johnson’s critique of the city almost entirely targets Robert Walpole and his policies. Walpole was actually a corrupt administrator, who was a propagator of capitalism and a ambitious colonist.

Walpole represents the mercantile world whose sustenance depends on its exploitation of the poor, within the country and even in the colonies. He is known to have had a lot of property and also owned a “pompous Palace”. The granting of pensions to his allies was greatly criticized by writers and this was one of the factors which led to the emergence of a large number of hack-writers in London. The Septennial Act of 1716 (which extended the term of parliament) was condemned by many since it was seen as Walpole’s attempt to consolidate power and further his capitalistic interests.

In 1738, when a number of British ships had been attacked by the Spanish, Walpole still refused to go to war against Spain. This was because he did not want to destroy trade relations with Spain. However, majority of the English public saw this as an insult to the British pride and heavily launched objections against it. Johnson also mentions it in London calling it “the Dread of Spain”. The Excise Tax of 1733 (which levied tax on gin, tea, tobacco etc) was another economic strategy which received a lot of criticism and it consequently came harsher on the poor. Johnson terms it as the “Excise oppress’d”.

The Craftsman was the main paper which attacked Walpole’s policies and it also collaborated with several anti-Walpoleans to publicly speak against him. Walpole’s opposition also included artists like William Hogarth and actors like James Lacy. In fact, Hogarth had also written a political satire against Walpole called The Punishments of Lemuel Gulliver in 1726. Eighteenth century England was a time which witnessed major changes in the English political and socio-economic scene, especially the rise of Britain as a colonial and capitalist nation. Pitted at the cusp of these transformations, Johnson is led to question their fruitfulness.

His anti-imperialist and anti-industrialization politics, as Mascimillian Novak argues, can also be rooted in his Christian beliefs, which prompts him to be against the avaricious and mercantile world. The usage of the theme ‘country and the city’, in London helps to the underscore the momentum at which the new industrialized world eradicates the natural and uncorrupted country. The deliberate selection of the name of the poem is attributed to Johnson’s view of London as a paradigm, which is centrally affected by all the factors that contribute to his vision of England as a “groaning Nation” in the eighteenth century.