London was published anonymously and in multiple editions during 1738. It quickly received critical praise, notably from Pope. This would be the second time that Pope praised one of Johnson's poems; the first being for Messiah, Johnson's Latin translation of Pope's poem. Part of that praise comes from the political basis of the poem. From a modern view, the poem was outshone by Johnson's later poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, and works like his A Dictionary of the English Language or Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.
According to Walter Jackson Bate, his work for the magazine and other publishers "is almost unparalleled in range and variety", and "so numerous, so varied and scattered" that "Johnson himself could not make a complete list". During this time, Johnson was exposed to the "imitations" of Horace composed by Pope and saw how they were used to attack contemporary political corruption. Both the form and subject were popular, and Johnson decided to follow Pope's lead by creating his own imitation.
In May 1738, London was published anonymously, and it went into a second edition that year. This was his first major work to be published to a wide audience and one of his longest "non-dramatic public poems". It was not written to be a general satire; instead, it was written to demonstrate Johnson's skill as a writer and to become popular in order to further his literary career.
London is part of the eighteenth-century genre of imitation. The work was based on Juvenal's Third Satire which describes Umbricus leaving Rome to live in Cumae in order to escape from the vices and dangers of the capital city. In Johnson's version, it is Thales who travels to Cambria (Wales) in order to escape from the problems of London. Johnson chose Juvenal as a model based on his own appreciation for Juvenal's works.
The poem describes the various problems of London, including an emphasis on crime, corruption, and the squalor of the poor. In order to emphasize his message, these various abstract problems are personified as beings that seek to destroy London. Thus, the characters of Malice, Rapine, and Accident "conspire" (line 13) to attack those who live in London.
The poem begins:
Who Thales represents is unknown, but it is possible that he represents Richard Savage, Johnson's friend who left London to travel to Wales.
The main emphasis of the poem comes to light on line 177: "Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed".
The poem is forced to cut short, and the narrator concludes:
The city of London was seen as a means to attack the Whig political party which was run by Robert Walpole. In particular, Johnson compares the actions of George II and Walpole to those of the Roman emperors during the decline of the Roman Empire. Part of the attack included, as Brean Hammond puts it, "a nostalgic glorification of English history that went hand-in-hand with the representation of the present as in the grip of forms of corruption never previously encountered". This "nostalgic glorification" includes multiple references to Queen Elizabeth and her defeat of the Spanish invaders while simultaneously claiming that Walpole is seeking to allow Spain to conquer England's trade investments.
The printer and bookseller Robert Dodsley bought the copyright from Johnson for £10. Later, London would be rated as his second greatest poem, as The Vanity of Human Wishes would replace it in the eyes of Walter Scott and T. S. Eliot. The later critic, Howard Weinbrot, agreed with Scott's and Eliot's assessment and says "London is well worth reading, but The Vanity of Human Wishes is one of the great poems in the English language." Likewise, Robert Folkeflik says, "It is not Johnson's greatest poem, only because The Vanity of Human Wishes is better". Some critics, like Brean Hammond, only see the poem as "no better than a somewhat mechanical updating of Juvenal's third Satire." Others, like Walter Jackson Bate consider the poem as "masterly in its versification".