Tuesday, 1 March 2016

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (21)

‘London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

I am spending a few family days in Lichfield this week. Today [1 March 2016] is Saint David’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of Wales. In 1738, Johnson wrote a poem in which he writes about leaving London for Cambria or Wales. In this poem, ‘London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal,’ he also refers to his friend ‘Thales’ or Richard Savage, who had left London to travel to Wales.

This poem was Johnson’s first major published work and runs to 238 lines. Here he describes the many problems of a decadent London, emphasising its corruption, crime and the squalor suffered by the poor. To highlight this message, Johnson created beings that were to seek out and destroy London; so he personified these very abstract problems. Johnson named these beings as Malice, Rapine, and Accident, these names tie in with their mission, to conspire and attack those who live in London.

In this poem, Johnson then resolves to leave London, and

To breathe in distant fields a purer air,
And, fixed on Cambria’s solitary shore,
Give to St David one true Briton more.


Ellie Gray, who is on work experience at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and Bookshop in Lichfield, has been researching this poem in her quest to know more about this great literary figure. She points out that in his youth Johnson was influenced by the Roman poet Juvenal, and had a personal fondness for him. But he was following a popular trend in the 18th century, with the arrival of ‘Augustan literates,’ headed by Alexander Pope.

Augustan literature is associated with the first half of the 18th century, from the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) to the reign of King George II (1727-1760). The term ‘Augustan’ refers to King George I’s desire to be compared to the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, when poetry and the arts flourished. These Augustan writers, essayists and poets in the 18th century favoured imitations of classical poets.

In Ellie Gray’s chosen poem, Johnson begins:

Though grief and fondness in my breast rebel,
When injured Thales 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,
To breathe in distant fields a purer air,
And, fixed on Cambria’s solitary shore,
Give to St David one true Briton more.


To read the rest of this poem and to discover its captivating past, visit the Johnson Museum in Lichfield and find out more.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.


No comments: