The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 13. London and The Vanity of Human Wishes
London: a poem, in imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal was published in May, 1738, on the same day as Pope’s One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty-Eight, a Dialogue something like Horace, and thus, accidentally, invited a comparison which appears to have gone in Johnson’s favour. Here was a new author who concealed his name, rivalling Pope in the very kind of verse which, after an indisputed career, he had found best suited to his genius. The poem went into a second edition within a week; and Pope himself, who was always generous in his recognition of excellence, and had said of Johnson’s youthful translation of his Messiah that posterity would have to decide which form of the poem was the original, declared that the unknown author of London could not be long concealed. The method of “imitation” adopted in this poem was described by Johnson in his Life of Pope as “a kind of middle composition between translation and original design, which pleases when the thoughts are unexpectedly applicable and the parallels lucky.” Brought into vogue by Boileau, it had been practised in English by Rochester, Oldham and Dryden (in his revision of Soames’s translation of Boileau’s Art Poétique), and many others; and it had recently been perfected by Pope, who had so written that a knowledge of the original might enhance the appreciation, but should not be indispensable to it. Juvenal’s Third Satire lent itself to imitation and had already been copied by Boileau and Oldham. The chief criticism to be urged against Johnson’s poem is that it does not show Pope’s art in escaping from its model. He was still timid enough to wish to show himself scholar as well as poet. When he wrote that “falling houses thunder on your head,” or that the midnight murderer “leaves unseen a dagger in your breast,” he thought more of Juvenal than of modern fact. The need of a parallel forces him to say, “I cannot bear a French metropolis”; but this was not the London described in Voltaire’s Lettres Anglaises. He himself admitted (in a manuscript note) that the description of Orgilio was “no picture of modern manners, though it might be true at Rome.” His own opinion on the advantages of country life we shall find, not here, but in the passage on scenes of flowery felicity and the melody of the nightingale in The Life of Savage. His political views are more truly represented: the references to excise and pensions, as well as to patrons, anticipate the definitions in the Dictionary. But it is when Juvenal leads him to speak of poverty that he expresses his own feelings in his own person.
None of these objections can be urged against The Vanity of Human Wishes, written in imitation of Juvenal’s Tenth Satire and published, with Johnson’s name, in January, 1749. There is nothing in this poem to suggest to those unacquainted with the model that it is an imitation; it is, indeed, not so much an imitation as a companion study by one who, amid different circumstances, took a very similar view of life. Instead of the Roman illustrations, we have modern instances of hopes that lay in power, and learning, and war, and long life and beauty. The pictures of Wolsey and Charles of Sweden, and the description of the lot of the scholar, are distinct studies of human ambition, each complete in itself and easily taken from its setting, but all viewed in the same light, and united by the one lesson of inevitable disappointment. The poem is completely satisfying as a statement of its theme. It is not less valuable as a personal document. There is nothing in it but what Johnson consistently thought and felt. He was wont to say that there is more to be endured than enjoyed in the general condition of human life; and he had found that human happiness, if it ever comes, must come by our own effort. The concluding lines which he supplied many years later to Goldsmith’s Traveller state his invariable experience. In The Life of Savage he had said that happiness is to be placed only in virtue, which is always to be obtained; and he had said much the same in Irene. But there were times when he doubted even this. “Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?” In his simple piety, he gave himself to the earnest exercise of religion. His Prayers, which were made public after his death, will win the admiration alike of idle curiosity and of doubting reason. And so, with his habitual sincerity, he gave to The Vanity of Human Wishes a religious conclusion which reflected his own practice. He was no pessimist. The sense of vanity may keep us from thinking that things are better than they are, but it need not make us think that they are worse. He would maintain in talk that the world was not half so wicked as it was represented to be, that there was very little gross wickedness in it, and very little extraordinary virtue. This we are told explicitly by Mrs. Piozzi, and we may learn it for ourselves from his writings.
Shortly before he wrote The Vanity of Human Wishes, he had aided Dodsley in planning The Preceptor (April, 1748), a substantial work containing “a general course of education,” and had contributed to it the preface and The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe. He told Percy that he thought this fable the best thing he ever wrote. It states the part which he assigned to religion in the conduct of life, and should be read as a supplement to The Vanity of Human Wishes. It may, also, be regarded as a prelude to The Rambler.
This paper began on Tuesday, 20 March, 1750, and ended, with its 208th number, on Saturday, 14 March, 1752, three days before the death of Johnson’s wife.
But the paper appeared regularly every Tuesday and Saturday, though the printer might complain of the late hour of receiving the copy. The very title was chosen in haste. Johnson meant it to announce that he would pass in each essay from subject to subject. But it was not suited to his majestic deliberations. There is nothing of the rambler in any single essay. Each pursues its way in a steady, unswerving march.