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In William Wordsworth’s poem “London, 1802,” the speaker famously begins by proclaiming,
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour;
England hath need of thee . . . .
Why does the speaker begin with this wish? Various reasons suggest themselves, including the following:
- The speaker believes that England in 1802 is a corrupt and corrupting place; in contrast, he associates Milton with virtue and “godliness” and hopes that Milton, through his written work and through his personal example, can help inspire the speaker’s contemporaries to reform their country and themselves.
- He believes that the rhetorical power of Milton’s writings – both his poetry and his numerous works in prose – has the capacity to move people and help transform them (10).
- He believes that Milton led an exemplary life, particularly in the way he prized and demonstrated independence (11-12).
- He believes that Milton’s own personal spiritual example might prove particularly inspiring (13).
- He thinks that Milton also is a splendid example of humility, selflessness, and dedication to the nation (14), and thus that Milton’s example is an antidote to the kind of selfishness the speaker laments in line 6.
- In 1802, Milton was regarded as perhaps the greatest nondramatic poet England had ever produced. He was widely admired both by the Romantics and by people who valued non-Romantic poetry. Milton, then, was a great unifying figure, at least in literature.
- Milton was not only a great poet but also a great political figure, having served in important capacities during the interregnum (the period when England was not a monarchy but was a republic).
- Milton, as a republican, was associated with the kind of political freedom valued by many Romantics. Yet by 1802 Milton had also become valued as part of the national heritage, and so he would no longer have been quite the politically controversial figure that he was in his own time.
- Milton was also regarded as one of the great voices of intellectual Christianity. He was not associated with the abuses and limitations of the Anglican Church but was instead associated with attempts to combat those abuses and overcome those limitations.
- The fact that Milton had accomplished so much while blind made him an especially inspiring example – an example of how much people could achieve if they had the proper dedication and enthusiasm.
For all these reasons, then, Milton was a superb choice to be invoked by Wordsworth’s speaker. He was a figure capable of helping to inspire reformation not only in one sphere of life but in many, including in “altar, sword, and pen” (in the church, in the military, and in literature and culture).
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